In  2018, Australian federal politics went through some headline grabbing times – but what to make of the froth and bubble in much of the turmoil? Is social media out of control? Has tabloid media reporting side tracked serious debate? Or have our leaders become too distanced from ordinary lives to realise what is most important? As Newspoll numbers dominated discussion rather than tax reform or infrastructure development or energy prices, etc, the question was how could political leaders get back on top of the burning issues in voters’ lives? With a federal election just over a year away, Caroline Overington, Associate Editor, The Australian and Aaron Patrick, Senior writer, The Australian Financial Review on Wednesday 21 March 20 addressed The Sydney Institute to discuss some of the issues.

TURNBULL, SHORTEN, JOYCE AND ALL THAT – WHAT’S HAPPENING?

CAROLINE OVERINGTON

Well, good evening. I’m excited to hear what Aaron has to say. He’s been rather busy today and he’s forgotten the topic. He can’t be serious, but in case he’s serious: Aaron, the topic is “Malcolm Turnbull, Bill Shorten, Barnaby Joyce, and all that.” I think I’ll avoid he all that ….

I think about Malcolm Turnbull rather a lot. He’s my local member. I think about Bill Shorten, and how he’s not my prime minister. Yet. Do you know what I never think about? I never think about South Australia. No, I really don’t.

Yet. Do you know what I never think about? I never think about South Australia. No, I really don’t.

When I do think about South Australia like everyone, it’s the bad stuff that comes to mind: Snowtown. Animal Kingdom. Sarah Hanson Young. No, South Australia, I only think about it when I’m asked to think about it, which I’ve been asked to do this week, for this talk.

You’ll be aware South Australia just had a state election. Everyone’s looking at the result – and they’re looking at the result in the by-election in Batman, in Victoria – and they’re trying to figure out what it means for Malcolm. What it means for Bill Shorten. Because their fates are entwined.

They’re trying to figure out what it means for Malcolm. What it means for Bill Shorten. Because their fates are entwined.

From now until 2019, they’re in a death roll, and one of them must lose, and who will it be? Well, I have a gut feeling … but let’s look at South Australia, and not just at South Australia. Let’s also look at the result in Batman, in Victoria, also over the weekend. What can we make of these results?

You’ve got the chirpy guys, like the irrepressible Christopher Pyne, making the case, perhaps optimistically, that the results we’ve seen over the weekend – in South Australia, and in Batman – are not such a bad result for the Coalition. They may even be good for the Coalition.

Because, you’ll know that the Liberal Party got up in South Australia … for first time in sixteen years. And you’ll know that the Greens got defeated in Batman.

you’ll know that the Liberal Party got up in South Australia … for first time in sixteen years. And you’ll know that the Greens got defeated in Batman.

Is that a good sign for Malcolm?

Is that a good sign for Malcolm?

I was reading through some of the comment on our website. Made by you lot, probably. For some people, waking up on Sunday was like waking up to the best morning ever. The Greens and Labor defeated? That’s the best news imaginable. But is it?

Let’s take South Australia first: Look, the Labor government was asking for a fifth straight term. They’ve got a problem with power prices. My colleague, David Penberthy, writing in The Australian ahead of the election revealed that his power bill, for the first 12 weeks of the year, was $2500. That’s coasting up to $10K for the year. That’s an eye-watering amount of money for people who suffer through 40 degree temperatures in the summer.

One other thing the Liberals had going for them: they had the wacky celebrity candidate, in the form of Nick Xenophon. Like I said, I never think about South Australia – like, never – but we’ve got a tonne of South Australians in my circle.

Penbo, obviously, Chris Kenny, obviously, Janet Albrechtsen, Annabel Crabb, Helen McCabe, Natasha Stott Despoja … they’re all from the free state. They know more about South Australian politics than I will ever do, and that’s by choice. My choice.

They tell me it was the ads. I was like, what ads? They were like: Nick Xenophon, he made these really bad ads, where he dressed up as hospital patient, and his candidates dress up like Bollywood stars, and they were rapping .. I was like: he did not. He did. In case you missed it, those lyrics were:

Nick Xenophon, he made these really bad ads, where he dressed up as hospital patient, and his candidates dress up like Bollywood stars, and they were rapping .. I was like: he did not. He did.

We’re the best, we’re SA Best,

Come and put us to the test

Forget the rest  …

SA Best, and good better best … I mean, that’s actually quite shit … That is actually why people leave South Australia. One other thing … you remember how Xenophon had to leave the Senate because he might be British. He might be Greek? He might be Cypriot. I’ll tell you what he’s not, and that’s a natural brunette.

Ahead of election day, everyone was saying, he’s so popular, he could end up Premier …. You know, he could end up holding the balance of power – but actually? He’s not going to win a seat in the lower house. He’s apparently okay about that. He’s trousered a million bucks in election funding. And I loved his quote. At the post-poll press conference, he said, in 15 seats, we’ve come second.

And I loved his quote. At the post-poll press conference, he said, in 15 seats, we’ve come second.

It’s an election. You can’t come second. That’s like Safe Schools for politicians. Everyone gets a prize. You get to be premier. You get … I don’t know … actually nothing. You get nothing.

There’s a reason I never think about South Australia.

So the Liberal Party had a few things running in their favour: the Labor government was old and tired; power prices are out of control; Xenophon was making a goose of himself. If all that weren’t enough, they also had a redistribution of the boundaries that worked in their favour. So, that’s all good for them, but maybe not such a good news story for Malcolm.

So, that’s all good for them, but maybe not such a good news story for Malcolm.

What about Batman?

The Liberal Party didn’t run a candidate in Batman. You can’t blame them. Labor has held Batman continuously since 1934  … so that’s since and King George was the on the throne. Joseph Lyons was prime minister. People are hard on Lyons, but was he really so bad? Would he have lost 30 Newspolls in a row?

Are we allowed to talk about Newspoll? Malcolm doesn’t want to talk about Newspoll. He was all about the Newspoll; now he’s like: what’s Newspoll? In an interview with the AFR  last week, he was all arch, saying:  “It’s of interest only to the press gallery.” The press gallery?

In an interview with the AFR  last week, he was all arch, saying:  “It’s of interest only to the press gallery.” The press gallery?

Malcolm  thinks it’s only the press gallery. Let me tell you, I can think of at least one other person whose interest in the 30 Newspolls is pretty intense … Our prime minister’s special friend: Tony Abbott. If no-one else, then Tony can be 100 per cent counted on to keep 30 Newspolls front and centre of the upcoming news cycle.

But back to Batman …

The Greens did poorly in Batman, and that’s become something of a trend. They also, if my memory serves me correctly, did poorly in their home state, Tasmania, a few weeks back; and they did poorly in the Adani state, Queensland, which was perhaps not unexpected.

Our readers are quite excited, and they’ve been filling up our letters page, saying: is this the end of the Greens? It’s slightly off topic – our readers, when I get to their letters, I notice have a habit of referring to the Greens as Garden Gnomes. I can be a bit vague, so I was like, why Garden Gnomes?

I was thinking along the lines of fairies in the bottom of the garden, that kind of thing. Apparently not … because one reader came on and said: Because they’re as dumb as concrete.

I was thinking along the lines of fairies in the bottom of the garden, that kind of thing. Apparently not … because one reader came on and said: Because they’re as dumb as concrete.

The narrative out of Batman is that the Greens are losing their grip, and this can only be a good thing for Malcolm. And we can build on that narrative. It’s not just the Greens, it’s all the minor parties that are on the nose.

Pauline Hanson was going to storm her way into the balance of power in Queensland. They won one seat in Queensland. The Greens a few years back were saying, we could win 25 Victorian seats in a decade, and obviously that’s a certain kind of pipe dream.

And when you hear Greens leader Richard di Natale going on about how the bushfires that have torn through Tathra, and the cyclone in Darwin, is somehow Canberra’s fault …  the idea that if Australia were doing more about climate change, bushfires and cyclones would be curbed  … that is ludicrous. It’s offensive to the survivors, and to the memory of the lost, of Black Saturday, and Ash Wednesday before them.

It’s offensive to the survivors, and to the memory of the lost, of Black Saturday, and Ash Wednesday before them.

The best political commentator in the country – our own Paul Kelly – certainly believes that the Greens might be on the nose. In The Australian this morning Kelly writes:

The Greens are an ugly sight under pressure. This is a party deluded by hubris, confused about its strategy, consumed by a moral vanity that wearies most people, being taught a crucial lesson about the power of the Labor Party as a progressive force.

The Greens lecture people about how they must live and they are intolerant of others who don’t embrace their ideology. These are not traits that appeal to the Australian character.

Batman is a disaster for the Greens. That said, the result is good for Labor progressives: Anthony Albanese and Tanya Plibersek … But is it good for Malcolm? Is he finally going to see some blue sky polling; does it mean he is going to get his energy policy through and so on?

Are there good times ahead? Let’s be honest, Malcom seems genetically, or at least politically incapable of generating any good times. He’s forever having difficulties. Because he’s Malcolm, they are mostly difficulties of his own making.

Are there good times ahead? Let’s be honest, Malcom seems genetically, or at least politically incapable of generating any good times.

I accept that he did not personally create each of the many crises that have engulfed the Coalition over the past twelve months. He did not create the citizenship crisis.  He just let it bleed like a stuck pig. He did not personally impregnate Vikki Campion. And you can’t scold me for saying that. Her own partner is the one casting doubts about the child’s paternity, and if that’s not enough to make you feel revulsion for Canberra, I don’t know what is.

Let’s hope for the best. Barnaby created the baby, and Malcolm, with his stupid bonk ban, threw it out with the bath water. He didn’t need to give that mesmerising speech about morals and fidelity and sin. That’s not his role.

Malcolm’s role is to lead. Given all his success in business, it is also the one thing that seems not to come naturally to him. It’s a different set of skills. No question. The skills you need to make money are not the same as the skills you need to energise the electorate.

The skills you need to make money are not the same as the skills you need to energise the electorate.

I was going to say that I don’t quite get why a guy like Malcolm would even want to be Prime Minister. But, like Trump, he wanted the job quite desperately, in a way that suggests maybe he needed it.

It’s too easy to play amateur psychologist but pretty much everyone who knows Malcolm as a brilliant little boy say the neediness was there, even way back when.

He needed to succeed for reasons that go way beyond power and money. That’s interesting to me, because for most of us, the thing about your own childhood, however difficult … it’s over.

It’s over. For better or worse, we have reached the midlife. Maybe you didn’t think you were going to there … and here we are.

And so here is he. Malcolm Turnbull, the 29th and serving Prime Minister of Australia. They can’t take that Wikipedia entry away from him.  And in truth, he’s not doing such a bad job. The economy is ticking along nicely.

Malcolm Turnbull, the 29th and serving Prime Minister of Australia. They can’t take that Wikipedia entry away from him.  And in truth, he’s not doing such a bad job. The economy is ticking along nicely.

He’s managed the situation in the United States quite well. Any time we’ve got a problem, we can get Ambassador Greg Norman on the phone. Not everyone can do that.

Some people can’t handle Trump at all. You’ll have heard that Trump fired Tillerson by Twitter, while Tillerson was on the toilet? I actually don’t know if that’s true. I saw it somewhere – probably on the President’s Twitter feed – and I said to myself: remember to check that.

And then I thought, how can we be living in a world where I have to check that? One other thing Malcolm has in his favour: he’s blessed by his opponent. Bill Shorten. Prime Minister Bill Shorten. Say that a few times and see how you feel

.Prime Minister Bill Shorten. Say that a few times and see how you feel.

So, yes, of course people are looking around optimistically, wondering if it means that Malcolm’s going to be okay. What do I think? I think he’s not going to be okay. Malcolm’s going to get smashed at the next election. Not only in Adelaide. In Melbourne and Maroochydore and Mackay … it’s going to be a massacre. It has to be.

In Melbourne and Maroochydore and Mackay … it’s going to be a massacre. It has to be.

He’s only got one seat … and it’s Barnaby’s. Tyrannosaurus Sex. Maybe you’re thinking: well, let’s be optimistic. Anything can happen. The election is some time away. And anyway, what do I know about what’s going to happen?

The answer is, I don’t know for certain. I’m just making a prediction. It’s what journos do these days, in case you haven’t noticed. That’s another trend: almost everyone’s given up reporting.  Everyone’s making predictions … and it’s like sex, isn’t it … you don’t even have to be all that good at it to find it enjoyable.

I hope you enjoyed mine.