Malcolm Turnbull must occasionally wonder what he did to earn such appalling bad luck as Prime Minister. He became PM at the point when the neoliberal economic orthodoxy of the last 30 years is collapsing, when Australian workers are enduring the lowest period of wages growth since records were kept, when the American electoral system threw up (so to speak) Donald Trump, and when the budget has proved stubbornly resistant to moving into the surplus that the Coalition has been promising since 2013.

And then, there’s the rotten luck of having to govern with Barnaby Joyce, who has been inflicting massive damage on the government for many months now, lurching from one piece of colossal ill-judgement to another while presiding over such minor stuff-ups as the collapse of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan.

There’s a political inversion with Joyce: the more he has stuffed up, the bigger his ego appears to have gotten. Friday’s media conference — held with a hat on, not because of any sun overhead, but merely to project the necessary hayseed imagery — was the ultimate example of this. However hurt Joyce might have felt about the Prime Minister’s bucketing of him the day before, however ill-advised he thought it was, there was no possible political upside to attacking his own Prime Minister in terms that were an absolute gift for Labor. But such is Joyce’s ego, he just had to publicly lash out at Turnbull.

Observing that a politician has a large ego, of course, is a statement of the commonplace: Turnbull himself is possessed of an ego of Beeblebroxian scale. But good politicians are able to keep it in check when it threatens to interfere in their judgement. There hasn’t been much of that on display in recent days.

Whatever his bad luck, Turnbull also has an impressive capacity for self-injury, which has been exacerbated by Joyce. It’s now becoming hard to keep track of exactly what Turnbull’s position is on particular issues; it seems to depend on what day it is. Two Fridays ago, a ban on ministerial-staff liaisons was dismissed out of hand by Turnbull; six days later, he’s instituting such a ban with all the moral authority he can summon. One minute he has confidence in Joyce and Joyce will act as PM; next, Joyce is taking leave and Turnbull is urging him to “consider his position”.

Now, after Joyce’s heated rebuke of Turnbull’s rebuke, Turnbull is back to saying he’s looking forward to working with Joyce. Perhaps Turnbull was the first politician to use the phrase “consider his position” literally, rather than as the code it has always been for “quit right now”. In any event, Joyce doesn’t appear to have done much consideration. 

As long as Joyce remains in the government, his  ego and lack of judgement will continue to cause it damage. Labor must be unable to believe their luck that their opponents would conspire to keep one of Labor’s most useful political weapons in the deputy prime ministership. So, too, the far-right regional parties like One Nation that aim to feed off the votes of disaffected Nationals supporters. 

Peter Fray

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