Here’s how Malcolm Turnbull and his brains trust thought the last three weeks would go, roughly: two parliamentary weeks to solidify what the press gallery had decided was the government’s good start to the year, laud the government’s success in presiding over strong job creation and shift the focus to Bill Shorten, whose home state is plagued by factional thuggery and in-fighting.

Then he’d fly to the US with the elite of Australia’s business community to be photographed in statesmanlike poses with Donald Trump, talking about how company tax cuts are fantastic, putting pressure on Senate crossbenchers to wave through the government’s $64 billion corporate tax cuts and putting Labor’s anti-business attitude in the spotlight. The gallery’s senior journalists, who’ve travelled to the US to cover the trip, will write plenty of copy about the importance of Turnbull’s meeting with Trump, if only to justify the cost of flying them there in an ever-more straitened media industry.

Three people had different ideas about that plan: Barnaby Joyce, Tony Abbott and Donald Trump. Joyce, whose rampant ego is now prompting even his own MPs to declare his time is over, you know about. 

Tony Abbott, clearly feeling eclipsed by Joyce in his usual role of Turnbull tormentor, lifted his game overnight, punching on with his former ministerial colleagues about immigration, revealing internal discussions when he was Prime Minister, attacking Scott Morrison as a kind of mindless automaton for Treasury and lecturing the government because he “knows more about winning elections than anyone in the parliament.” He threw in a jab about losing 27 Newspolls, just in case anyone had stopped counting.

It’s OK, Tony, we haven’t.

Abbott got an unusual level of return fire from the likes of Morrison, Dutton, Ciobo and Cormann (who with two days and counting is so far our best immigrant Prime Minister) because he is needling the government in a serious sore spot — weak wages growth, which many voters link to high immigration. This prompted Scott Morrison to utter perhaps the smartest thing he has said as Treasurer: “the real issue here is that when wages are flat and when people are feeling the pinch, people will line others up for being the reason for this.”

It’s not an issue the government can simply ignore Abbott on and hope will go away, no matter Abbott’s hypocrisy — the migrant who doesn’t like migration — and malicious motives. Wednesday’s WPI figures, showing private sector workers are still being mugged by employers, won’t help. There is fertile political ground to be tilled here.

Both Joyce and Abbott are toxic for Turnbull, and he knows it. Oddly, the Prime Minister seems to regard Donald Trump as some sort of positive, someone with whom voters would be pleased to see him associated, when nearly 80% of Australians regard Trump as either an important or critical threat to Australia. There is no particular point or benefit to this trip to Washington for Australia beyond Turnbull exercising this doe-eyed fascination with the Liar-In-Chief. But apart from being politically toxic, Trump is also volatile and entirely unreliable. And so it has proved for Turnbull: he has arrived in Washington to meet with a leader who has just reacted to yet another of dozens of school gun massacres by proposing teachers be armed.

Turnbull, as Australian Prime Minister and leader of the party John Howard led, has some moral authority on this issue, but that’s not one he can deploy without embarrassing his host, who is strongly supported by the National Rifle Association — to such an extent that the Russians may have funnelled money to the NRA to help Trump’s campaign. 

There’s no evidence that appearing on the international stage has ever helped an Australian Prime Minister. Most voters couldn’t care less about foreign policy issues. But at the moment each image with Trump is likely to go down about as badly as the incessant infighting back home.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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