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Not so super Saturday for Turnbull but silencing of dissent a winner.

Love is in the air is on endless loop at PM’s eleven-week, five by-election, 500,000 voter dance marathon. It’s a bizarre, grotesque, contest as bone-weary MPs fight to stay upright to the end this week.

Turnbull, meanwhile, flits among the “crucial” by-electorates of Braddon, Longman and Mayo, boosting morale. Spinning. Sloganeering. Grandstanding. It’s Mal’s take on campaigning. Australians hate it.

All they see is another rich, Sydney blow-in with tickets on himself.

Similarly, Alexander John Gosse Downer does his daughter, Georgina, – (“out of towner, Downer”) – locals dub her, no favours in Mayo. Or is she too good for them? Maserati-driving, Alexander the great, modestly muses on his family’s legacy in Facebook:

“I would say our family have been nation builders. We’ve helped make this nation great. And you can abuse us and you can criticise us and we’ll take it. We’ll take it, we don’t mind, because nation building is in our blood.”

Downer’s nation-building includes his backing of Australia’s illegal invasion of Iraq in 2003. Iraq, he said, had weapons of mass destruction. Australia, therefore, had legal authority to invade. Both assertions later proved false.

In 2004, as Foreign Minister, Downer ordered ASIS to bug East Timor’s cabinet in order to cheat the impoverished, developing or in Downer’s diplomatic terms “busted arse” nation out of its fair share of recompense for its oil and gas reserves.

A former Portuguese colony, East Timor suffered some of the worst atrocities of modern times, losing 200,000 lives, a quarter of its population, in its fight for self-determination against Indonesian occupation in 1975.

This Wednesday, in the ACT Magistrates’ Court, proceedings begin against two whistle-blowers, one known only as Witness K – and his lawyer, Bernard Collaery, a former deputy chief minister and attorney-general of the ACT.

The case is brought by the government’s hand-picked Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions — former Trade Union Royal Commission counsel, Sarah McNaughton, a decision which raises questions about the motives for the prosecution in a week which sees Turnbull attack the ABC for daring to suggest that Australia would be part of any future “air-strikes”, as they are cutely termed, on Trump’s new nemesis, Iran.

Firstly, the DPP requires Attorney-General, Christian Porter’s, assent. Porter says his hands are tied: he has been briefed by predecessor George Brandis, yet Greg Barns, barrister and president of the Australian Lawyers’ Association, says this is to reduce the AG to a rubber stamp. He argues that the AG can and should exercise his discretion.

Witness K and Collaery face charges of conspiring to commit offences against section 39 of the Intelligence Services Act 2001, which prohibits the unauthorised disclosure of information about ASIS activities.

The pair are being prosecuted by the government for “revealing information about its own crimes”, says Clinton Fernandes, Professor of International and Political Studies at The University of NSW.

And as if whistle-blowing isn’t bad enough, they’ve gone and told The ABC.

One problem, as Crikey’s Bernard Keane and The Saturday Paper’s Mike Seccombe point out, is that the government is charging Collaery with talking to the ABC 13 December 2013 when The Australian published an interview with him on the same matter in May 29 2013.

Why? As the government wishes to keep proceedings secret, we may never know.

Tasmanian independent Andrew Wilkie suggests, in parliament, that the government has held off until it has reached its new agreement with Timor-Leste and that “with the diplomacy out of the way, it’s time to bury the bodies”.

Downer whose subsequent position with Woodside petroleum, the major firm involved in East Timor gas and oil has nothing to do with his work as Foreign Minister, was also implicated in the 1999-2004, AWB $300 million Iraqi wheat for oil scandal while in 1994, as Liberal leader, he parodied his party’s slogan, The Things That Matter and its domestic violence policy with a witty word play, which he clearly thought would bring the house down, “the things that batter”.

His boat stopping was no joke either. In 2001, as Howard’s Foreign Minister, Downer was instrumental, with Mandy Vanstone, in turning back to Indonesia, 14 Kurdish asylum seekers whose boat had reached Melville Island, by falsely alleging that not one had asked for asylum. Abuzer Goles, one of the Turkish Kurds, testified otherwise.

“Thousands of times, thousands,” said Abuzer Goles. “I begged them, I pleaded down on my knees. They sent a Turkish interpreter and I pleaded with him saying I’ll do anything not to be sent back. We spent four days on the water, 10 days without sleep, it nearly killed us. I’m human, I’m a human being. I’m a refugee.”

He then broke down, crying.

There’s been the odd bit of anti-immigrant and African gang hysteria from Tony Abbott, Peter Dutton and his enabler,Turnbull. At a time when One Nation candidates in QLD threaten to take by-election votes away from the Liberals, a bit of strong-on-borders rhetoric doesn’t hurt. Yet it’s only recently that Turnbull has joined the racist choir.

Hitting the selfie trail and the nation’s airwaves, copping the wrath of the odd age-pensioner in Longman, the PM effortlessly blends a boyish, artless, narcissism with an heroic narrative that is all about him. Only when it all ends badly does our anti-hero duck for cover. Up until then he’s got more front than Myers. And Mark Foy. Combined

“The … contest is between me and Bill Shorten as the prime minister and the opposition leader,” he huffs in Brisbane. He offers the same reductive puffery in The Australian later. Again, it’s uncanny. It could be testosteronic Tony Abbott, himself, speaking.

It’s fashionable to decry personality politics as a modern curse, but it’s been with us forever. So has the golden rule that you should only pick a fight you can win. And pride, if not macho chutzpah, goeth before destruction, and an haughty spirit before a fall.

Is it hubris? Or vainglorious vacuity? Are his long-suffering staff to blame if Truffles loses the plot? Goes off script. Since 2017, Turnbull has a meagre 58 staff; each averaging $233,000 PA. Turnover is high.

February, Penny Wong queried stability in the Prime Minister’s department, noting 28 staffers hold mere acting positions in the senior executive service.

Just don’t hold Turnbull personally responsible. Friday night, as all five by elections go against him. Mal duck dives. The (self-styled) party Fixer, Christopher “Periscope” Pyne surfaces on ABC Insiders Sunday. Turnbull never called it a leadership contest, he lies. When even Barrie Cassidy tries to remonstrate, Pyne trots out the party line.

“It was just a typical by-election swing of 4%”, he squibs – except that in Longman it was at least 10%. Things look bad now for Dutton’s adjacent seat and in three other Queensland seats the government holds by narrow margins. If the Coalition continues to alienate voters in these seats, it is on track to lose the March 2019 general election.

Expect further turnover in Prime Minister and Cabinet. Turnbull finally comes up for air around Sunday brunch. You can’t keep a straight face on an empty stomach.

“We will look very seriously and thoughtfully and humbly at the way in which voters have responded,” he tells Sydney media. “We will be carefully considering the analysis of the byelections, particularly in Braddon and in Longman.”

We will? Turnbull is the compleat political chameleon: Woody Allen’s Australian Zelig. All voters care about, he declares in a Devonport pub, earlier this week, is “jobs-and-growth”. Voters hear a less nasal, more fluent Tony Abbott with plummier vowels.

Coalition spin-doctors make “Super Saturday”, a referendum on Bill Shorten. It’s a cunning plan. Enduring, too. ABC RN even leads its byelection reporting, Sunday, pondering “what this means for Bill Shorten” – when the real question is how can Malcolm Turnbull survive?

Even after Labor wins all four seats, mainstream media groupthink is still obsessing over the fate of the Opposition. Yet privately government MPs are worrying.

The curse of Malcolm’s dud judgement rears its ugly head again. Why did his government does not contest Perth or Fremantle? OK. Fremantle you can understand – but Perth? Perth casts more votes for Liberal than Labor.

Then there’s the issue of whether it’s wise to chum up to One Nation and lose votes to it, or to “take it on” as Cassidy says. First you’d have to take her off Sunrise.

And Hanson’s everywhere. A man in love with himself will have no rival, but Mal must contend with fifty life-size cardboard cut-outs of Pauline Hanson. Scandalous allegations emerge that One Nation’s Longman candidate, Matthew Stephens, has failed to pay workers and subcontractors he promised to recompense out of a $66,000 settlement in a long-running legal dispute.

Adding piquant mystery to the romance, One Nation needs to please explain. Just what did happen to the $66,000? Pauline certainly knows how to pick her candidates.

No use asking Queen of vanity politics, Pauline. The government’s loyal cross-bench little mate, is currently enjoying a luxury cruise around Ireland. Unaccountably, she’s missing in action. Perhaps it’s the only moment she can get to reward herself for her long service to Turnbull. Did he or Cormann pay her fare?

Happily, Hanson’s absence leaves Mal free to bang on about his government’s media “reforms” without needing to fuss over how much One Nation’s dogged support has made them possible.

Credit is of course also due to others. There’s the talking toilet brush, as he is known at home in NZ, Derryn Hinch, senate slut-shamer and gun-slinger, Tea Party potty mouth David Leyonhjelm and the stunt-loving but ephemeral NXT.

Mal’s blowing his bags about his government’s fabulous record-breaking job-creating success and the buckets of money it’s throwing at essential services, hospitals, schools, infrastructure; even the odd little charity such as The Great Barrier Reef Foundation which is just the ticket to fix the largest coral reef ecosystem on earth from its inevitable destruction under Coalition tolerance of massive land clearing, acceleration of global warming and other anti-environment policies.

The Foundation, is a charity whose board is headed by the Business Council of Australia’s Grant King. It includes other merchant princes, princesses, bankers, corporate tycoons; all Liberal Party-loving gals and pals in line to get a $433 million dollar government handout; without a tender process or any other skerrick of public accountability.

The United States Studies Centre can also thank its lucky stars. Set up by Howard, it’s the foreign policy think tank the ABC dips into it whenever it needs the ubiquitous John Barron to comment on what Donald Trump is up to now. It has close links to the Turnbull and Murdoch families and it gets a generous $12 million from the federal government, Monday.

James Brown, Malcolm Turnbull’s son-in-law was the Centre’s research director from 2015 until recently when he took up an unpaid position as head of the NSW RSL to help it sort out its current financial scandal. Lucy Turnbull is the Centre’s patron.

Similar largesse, was shown by the Coalition to Foxtel. “News Corp is refusing to explain exactly how it will spend taxpayers’ money more than six months after the Turnbull government granted Foxtel $30 million,” reported Fairfax in February.

Secrecy is a Turnbull government byword. Accordingly, the reef biz-boondoggle will not have to divulge how it spends our money to “lever” more funds from the private sector. Its three directors, moreover, are all too busy to comply with requests to appear before a senate committee hearing into the body, which holds its first meeting in Brisbane Monday.

“How much of it is going to be used to promote the companies and essentially greenwash some of these businesses that are key polluters?” asks Greens’ Oceans spokesman, cheeky Peter Whish-Wilson, who is not a big fan of secrecy. Imagine wanting to know what influence businesses would exert over how the grant was spent.

The government’s own expert agencies were invited not to apply, reports investigative reporter, Nicole Hasham of what, until this week, was known as Fairfax, but which will now be known as Nine, in a “merger” the PM heartily approves of.

Why, he takes full credit for Nine’s takeover of Fairfax. Fewer voices mean It’s a huge step forward for our nation’s democracy which for, too long, has been frustrated by independent nay-sayers in the jihad against the Turnbull government conducted by the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age

“It’s been made possible by the changes in media ownership laws we made,” Mal swanks to Brian, “Spoonman”, Carlton in their bromantic duet on Tassie talkback, Thursday morning.

“To be frank, I welcome the announcement.”

You bet he is; he does, to paraphrase Tony Abbott. The loss of Fairfax in a takeover by Nine will remove one of the few remaining papers, available to the nation, which would protect our democracy by speaking truth to power. And in many other ways.

Andrew Jaspan, a former editor-in-Chief of The Age notes “A well-informed democracy needs to be underpinned by the pluralism of ideas and outlooks that comes from strong, independent news outlets. The well-respected, grown-up and independent journalistic voice of Fairfax journalism will be the casualty of this deal.”

Instead, expect infotainment.

“From now on those remaining Fairfax journalists will answer to the whims of Nine Entertainment. That means news values framed by those of A Current Affair and 60 Minutes, tightly laced with the blokey culture of the Footy Show, with cultural cues set by the programming giants behind Love Island, Married at First Sight and Ninja Warriors.”

Best of all the deal’s a steal. It will cost Nine nothing, reports Jaspan. Nine’s $4 billion Fairfax takeover is just a scrip deal which values Nine at $1.96 billion and Fairfax $1.92 billion. With a bid premium to get to $4 billion. Nine gets 51 per cent and all the power.

Fairfax loses it all despite gaining fabulous former Liberal Treasurer Peter Costello as chairman. Smirking Pete will bring just the right skill-set and networks to help the paper navigate the turbulent seas of competitive neutrality and impartiality.

The merger is unlikely to be a commercial success, however, if the history of media mergers is any guide. Glen Dyer writes in Crikey that “the highest value is always on the day of the merger and then slides from then on.”

He argues that media merger deals fail to create value because they are set up to protect the interests of the moguls or investors and not the position of employees or consumers. Kerry Stokes’ Seven West Media, for example, was worth $4.1 billion at its inception in 2011 but it was worth only $1.3 billion Thursday.

Most observers are too polite to mention the servility the newly merged Nine will be keen to show as it grovels to its latest benefactor.

You can glimpse the future in the crawl and response enacted back on Tasmania Talks, where Carlton is spoon-feeding his PM the best lines. It’s like having a human tele-prompter. “I just wonder”, says Brian, “to what extent we need to more greatly connect the economic success of Tasmania at the moment and the flow-on benefits to people in the state.”

The battlers doing the hard yards in Braddon can’t get enough of this. Beats having enough money to feed your kids or have your teeth fixed.

Bugger the electricity bill, we’ll bask in the warmth of trickle-down and the flow-on benefits of Mal’s miraculous reforms which amount to cutting taxes for the rich while keeping workers’ wages frozen and helping the workforce to become increasingly casualised, part-time, underpaid, unprotected by unions and under-employed.

Two cheers, then, for the Turnbull government’s media reforms. Our media landscape is diminished as is our chance of reading the truth, thanks to the help of a few confused cross-benchers, led by the wily servants of the oligarchy that runs the joint to whom no news is good news unless it’s a feelgood story or an advertorial or an infomercial.

Or a piece which puffs the government’s latest, greatest victory in slashing corporate taxes or invading Iran with Donald J Trump.

Turnbull’s cunning plan of a Super Saturday of five byelections to help destabilise Bill Shorten’s leadership hits a bit of a snag this week, when voters refuse to co-operate. But with the help of a more compliant less diverse press, who knows what amazing achievements await us? And we haven’t even got on to Media Reform 2.0; the privatising of the ABC. Yet.


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  1. John L

    After 50 yrs of following politics, in 2 countries, I always thought the NZ National party were the experts in personal corruption, screwing over the less financially endowed, and sheer bastardry, but, Abbott, and even more so Turnbull and his band of hypocritical, lying dullard sycophants, take the prize!
    I don’t know if Australia can pull back from the abyss in time – people are starting to fight back, but it may be too little, too late.
    The signs are encouraging for an ALP victory next elections, but there is a while to go yet, and will there be enough strength in the ALP to fight off the torrent of lies and accusations that will spew forth from the MSM and LNP from now.

  2. Glenn K

    we will see how far down the fascist path Australia really is during or just prior to the next election. Will there be AFP raids on Get-Up offices? ALP offices? Union offices? the ABC? Exactly how will Dutton use the AFP or ASIO to ensure he is not voted out? This is all too real and something to be fearful of…

  3. New England Cocky

    Wonderful informative, objective evaluation of the sad state of Australian politics and society David. Did you deliberately overlook Fishnets Downer’s thankfully short term as Leader of the NLP Opposition?

    Sadly, the only policy to save the Fourth Estate will be to follow the Fijian example and ban any and all foreign ownership of media outlets by persons or entities other than natural Australia citizens with a single Australian nationality.

    Certainly the “group think” of the inexperienced kiddie scribblers masquerading as MSM newspersons exposes their inexperience, naivety, lack of historical knowledge and credibility.

    Thank goodness for the quality journalism of independents.

  4. David Tyler

    Yes, New England Cocky, I did skip Downer’s accidental leadership of the Libs but it is worth a note.

    When I mentioned (running) to my family,” he told the ABC, “I have to be honest with you, they were filled with horror.”

    So were many Libs; Alexander Downer was the worst leader the Liberal Party ever had. Many said so.

    When elected leader in May 1994, he was a compromise candidate stranded somewhere between the warring John Howard and Andrew Peacock factions that had divided the Liberal Party for a decade.

    He quickly displayed a rare talent for the colossal blunder. Turnbullian. One of his brain farts was to propose repealing Mabo.

    Endeared himself to Mayo by deriding Georgie girl’s opponents. Sharkey’s mob.

    “Horrible hate they brought ato OUR district”. “They must all be new arrivals.”

  5. Kaye Lee

    Alexander Downer’s father was a prisoner in Changi. He helped pass the time by giving the other prisoners elocution lessons.

    It seems Malcolm thinks his dulcet tones should be enough to beat that other chap – that social climbing sycophantic ex-union boss (spit). The only poll they are winning is preferred PM – the one that doesn’t mean a damn thing. As they “humbly reflect”, they may want to dump the Kill Bill strategy and start learning how to talk about policy with more than slogans. Saying “Jobs and Growth” is not a policy.

  6. Arthur Baker

    “Alexander John Gosse Downer”? Couldn’t his parents even spell goose correctly?

  7. Ricardo29

    Another excellent summation David, filled with nuggets of info I have missed. However ( as a retired journalist) I am always aware that there is more to the “No News is good news” quote, it goes on “ No journalists is even better” and that seems to be the aim of the Libs and their blustering promoters. Anyway we will get the opportunity soon to put the LNP bastards last.

  8. Wun Farlung

    I expect that the lnp are dusting off abbott’s flags and tuning up the dog whistles in preparation for some televised AFP anti-terrorism raids, some refugee/immigrant bashing and good ol’ racism. That’s all they have left.
    We saw the opening moves with the (hey presto) ‘drop’ (rise of bridging visa) in immigration numbers and scary African gangs in Melbourne.
    The lnp have a problem, the no-notions appear to be tone deaf and can only hear the cardboard cut out’s whistle.

  9. Jaquix

    Another enjoyable wrap of the events of the last week, thanks David. Looking forward to the ABC one.

  10. David Tyler

    Thank you for that nugget, Kaye. Have to share Downer’s magisterial response to the Cole Inquiry into the Iraqi oil for wheat scandal but now you mention elocution, I recall that he also called out “Shut up you foul-mouthed bitch” to Environment Minister Penny Wong in 2007.

    Here’s his nation-building testimony to assist the Cole Inquiry:

    “I don’t recall.”

    “I don’t recall.”

    “I don’t recall.”

    “I just don’t recall.”

    “No, not that I can recall at all.”

    “I can’t recall my state of mind when I read the document…”

    “I don’t recall being given that information.”

    “Well, I simply do not recall.”

    “Well, I can only tell you what I can recall…”

    “If he had told me that, I would have thought I’d have remembered it, but I don’t recall.”

    “Yes, it could be.”

    “It may have been.”

    “It could have been.”

    “It might have been..”

    “I don’t recall.”

    “No, I don’t recall that.”

    “I don’t recall them saying that.”

    “I don’t recall them saying that to me.”

    “I could have done, but I don’t recall it.”

    “No, not that I can recall at all.”

    “I can’t, of course, recall.”

  11. Shogan

    As for Alexander the great modestly musing on his family’s legacy in Facebook: “I would say our family have been nation builders. We’ve helped make this nation great.”

    Well, this is a long & alarming read that lays out the early Downer’s building blocks that, according to Alexander, “helped make this nation great” but I doubt you’ll ever hear him talking about them.

  12. diannaart

    @ Shogan

    I believe the reasoning by the likes of Downer et al, goes something like this:

    “I am rich, therefore, I am nation builder, therefore, I am owed anything I want …”

  13. Adrianne Haddow

    Thank you for the above link Shogan.

    A truly appalling history that demonstrates Downer’s idea of nation building. All out war on anybody( in this case, indigenous folk) who gets in that family’s way.

    The people of the electorate of Mayo had better be very careful, if they get in the way of the Downer’s born to rule mythology.

  14. DrakeN

    I shall read that in total later, Shogan.
    Thank you for the ‘heads up’.

  15. helvityni

    Nicely said:

    “Hubris doesn’t win elections. What will win them are things like good public policy, party unity, and integrity in our politicians. Voters will reward politicians who live for politics. They will reject politicians living off politics. The “super Saturday” be-election results suggest that the Coalition has been seriously challenged on these fronts.”

    Allan Patience on John Menadue’s blog.

  16. Old Bloke

    @David Tyler
    Reminds me of an interview with Downer concerning a document he was sent about WMD. Journalist asks ‘did you read the document?’ ‘No’. ‘Why not?’ The crux of it all was Downer’s answer….’because he was only a major (army rank)!’ Says it all really.

  17. paul walter

    People caught that wonderful piece of thuggery on QA, with a grim-faced Fifield virtually camped on Lenore Taylor’s lap?

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