When Scott Morrison first became Prime Minister — 12 long weeks ago, when Wentworth was still the jewel in the crown of the Liberal Party, Julia Banks was still a Liberal MP and Andrew Broad still lounged jauntily athwart the marital moral high-ground — he asked his colleagues to think twice before airing their views.
Before stepping in front of a camera they should, he suggested, ask themselves: “Does this make the boat go faster?”
It should be noted that the PM is a man who can incorporate a nautical reference into just about any discussion. A man to whom the phrase “back when I was stopping the boats” is as appropriate for inclusion in a casual exchange with a beleaguered strawberry picker as it is in a Force 10 gesticulatory cyclone of agreement with Ray Hadley.
Not that Mr Morrison was the first prime minister to adopt the language of the sea when thinking out loud about how to manage his own government’s seemingly inexhaustible gift for tripping over its own tackle.
It was only four years ago (that’s about 36 in Australian prime minister years) that a penitent Tony Abbott, heading for the summer break, vowed to his punch-drunk colleagues that he would spend it “knocking one or two barnacles off the ship”.
Mr Abbott’s subsequent decision to strip down to his budgie-smugglers and slip below the waterline to affix a Prince Philip-shaped limpet mine to the hull of the HMAS Coalition — with pyrotechnically memorable results — is a matter of historical record.
So nautically flavoured strategic advice four years later from Mr Morrison, a leadership figure who is literally only there because Peter Dutton cannot count, was always going to be ingested with a grain of salt.
(We shouldn’t judge, really. Political leaders propelled to temporary greatness by the innumeracy of their peers are as common as cats, and as unreliable of temperament. Some of them, like Mr Morrison, are eager to please but prone to coughing up unexpected hairballs. Some, like Mr Abbott, are better sent to a nice farm. And some, like Mark Latham, could probably have been judiciously euthanased before escaping to interbreed with Pauline Hanson.)
The ignominious end of Andrew Broad
But enough of history. The present is alarming enough; something else we’ve soundly established in this crappy, crappy year.
Did you know, by the way, that “Canberra Bubble” has been named the Australian National Dictionary Centre’s 2018 Word of the Year?
The term was popularised by the Prime Minister, who is always looking for punchy ways to let broader Australia know that he’s just as wrenchingly disappointed with everything as we are.
When Mr Morrison started out in late August, he was full of ambition and high expectations of his colleagues, who he hoped would go quietly and virtuously about the task of assisting their communities, pausing only to ask themselves, with monastic fervour: “Does this make the boat go faster?”
Four months later, of course, the PM’s trimmed his sails and would settle for one single day on which he can announce a budget surplus without some dunderplunken on his frontbench uploading his business card to “Too Cheap For Actual Hookers Dot Com”. A low bar, you’d think, and you’d be right, but one which nonetheless managed to collect the Minister Assisting the Deputy Prime Minister this week, in a development that called into serious question the dictionary definition of the word “assisting”.
I know, I know. In the pantheon of poor behaviour this year, the ignominious end of Andrew Broad — a mid-range National Party chipmunk best known previously for his staunch defence of the family from the various depredations of betrothed homosexuals and Barnaby Joyce — barely makes the top 10.
Before he sinks entirely beneath the primordial ooze of 2018, though, it’s worth asking, tiredly: What the hell is a minister of the Crown doing on “private business” in Hong Kong?
Also: Why would said minister, signing up for a “Sugar Daddy” dating service, not only use his real name but regularly advise the intended recipient of his distinctly Australian amatory style (“I’m an Aussie lad, I know how to ride a horse, fly a plane and f**k my woman”) just how senior and important he was?
I mean, not that we necessarily look for World’s Best Practice Philandering in the ranks of executive government, but it stands to reason that a gent who is incapable of discreetly getting his rocket polished in an Asian financial centre might not be your best bet for, I don’t know, building a very fast train or regulating the dairy industry.
The state of Mr Broad’s marriage is no-one else’s business. But the self-aggrandising, petty venality and braggadocio on display here is horribly familiar.
Is it or is it not of similar vein to the minister who went on a private business trip and accidentally attended some meetings where attendees might have thought he was there in an official role, and later claimed $37,000 for his home internet connection?
Is it entirely different from the deputy PM who left his wife for his staffer, complained long and bitterly about the breach of his privacy, and then sold the story to a commercial TV network?
From the MPs and senators who lined up to vote for their own party’s energy policy then decided — in a week of the most bone-headed and directionless political violence — to ice their leader over it?
All Aussies talk about is Israel, after all
All of this, of course, is “Canberra bubble” stuff, and Mr Morrison would much prefer that journalists apply their attention to the real issues concerning fair dinkum, footy-supporting, sausage-munching, hard-working Aussie mums and dads.
Like, for example, whether Australia should shift its embassy in Israel.
I don’t know about you, but I’ve heard about little else at the school gate this year.
Forget house prices, cricket scandals or the Stefanovic nuptials; it’s all been about the embassy. At our school, the kids even form themselves into “Tel Aviv” and “Jerusalem” teams to play chasey at recess.
This national barbecue-stopper, pitched up by Mr Morrison during the by-election campaign in Wentworth, has now been clunkily resolved; the Australian Government will keep the embassy in Tel Aviv for now, but join Russia, the Czech Republic and Panama in acknowledging “West Jerusalem” as the Israeli capital, and open a trade office there.
Not since Fraser Anning’s maiden speech has there been a diplomatic offering similarly capable of annoying Jew and Muslim alike. Some Jewish groups applauded the move, others were horrified by the implicit ceding of East Jerusalem to the Palestinians. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu himself has been circumspect.
The Jewry might be out on the embassy move, but there’s dwindling doubt about the likely fortunes of the Morrison Government.
If this Government were a Bond movie (and that’s not a stretch, is it, given that at least one of its frontbenchers, we learned this week, calls himself “James Bond” when trawling for booty in Hong Kong), it would presently be Goldfinger, in the scene where the protagonist is trussed up to a bench with a deadly laser beam tracking towards his crown jewels.
It’s very hard to see a Bond-style escape from here, though.
Kevin has a new F word for Julia
It’s been a good week for the Australian Labor Party, gathering in Adelaide for a party conference so moist with love that the vocal cords of Kevin Rudd were actually able to articulate a kind word about Julia Gillard when accepting his life membership of the party. (The word was “formidable”, which is not one of the F words he has used about her in the past.)
Any Labor person questioned is very careful not to presume victory next year. But one is put in mind of the former Louisiana governor Edwin Edwards, who boasted in 1983 that “the only way I’d lose from here is if they catch me in bed with a live boy or a dead girl.”
(Historical note: Edwards did win that election, but was subsequently jailed for racketeering and wire fraud.)
Mr Rudd’s parting gift to the Labor Party five years ago was to change the rules to make it much harder to remove a serving leader. Bill Shorten was a crucial aggressor in the removals of both Mr Rudd and Ms Gillard, but now finds himself — in a dark little piece of celestial humour — the happy beneficiary of Mr Rudd’s bequest.
Whatever the merits of Mr Shorten as leader, or of the policies his party has developed over the past five years, there is no doubt at all that the longevity of the first-mentioned and the quantity of the second are directly connected to this structural change.
Canberra is indeed a bubble, and in the hermetically sealed airspace of Parliament House it is easy for intrigue, conspiracy and treason to absorb all the oxygen.
The harder it is to remove a leader out of cycle, the less energy otherwise-intelligent people will waste on trying to bring it about, and the more they will spend on doing more useful things.
And while the recent decision of the Liberal party room to adopt similar rule changes was Peak Canberra Bubble news, it provides a flicker of hope that 2019 may be less stupid than the year we’ve just endured.