Wednesday, June 10, 2009

The Problem with Malcolm

In her Quarterly Essay on Malcolm Turnbull, Annabel Crabb hits the nail on the head:

“How would Australia be different if he were prime minister? What are his most closely held policy convictions? I asked dozens of Malcolm Turnbull’s political colleagues this question, asking them to name three. Many of them had to pause before responding. ‘You’ll have to excuse me. I’m eating some chocolate,’ was the best initial response, from a Liberal on the other end of a phone line.”

It is a crucial aspect missing from Turnbull's makeup. Everyone - including members of his own parliamentary party - think he wants to be PM only because he believes it will look good on his CV. He wants to be PM because he wants to remembered as a somebody, because he thinks he should be PM.

Does he want to improve anything? Does he want to change anything? Does he want to do anything? Beats me. In fact if you can name me one thing he wants to do other than some generalistic drivel such as "help small business" or "get Australia out of debt" then you're way ahead of me (and the 99% of the voters in this country).

The fact is Turnbull is not a politician. And I don't mean that in a positive or negative sense. People get into politics for a reason - some have more altruistic motives than others, but they have a reason. Now some of those people who go into politics want to be PM. Mostly they want to do it because they have a massive ego that makes them think they are the best person for the job. But also they want to do something when they get to be PM.

Whitlam wanted to change the country in just about every way. Fraser wanted to undo a lot of those changes (but not really); Hawke wanted to modernise the country and bring about the Accord with the unions; Keating wanted to modernise the country even more, move it away from the cultural cringe and bring it into Asia; Howard wanted to kill the unions, and then spend the rest of the time making sure they were dead; and Rudd wanted to alter the way the Federation worked (if you look at a lot of his big speeches before the last election he talked a lot about changing the way the states and Commonwealth governments worked together), he also wanted to put more emphasis on education spending and infrastructure.

Now whether Rudd has been successful is not the point - at least you know he wanted to do something. There was a reason why he wanted to be PM (and I'm not denying he too has that massive ego which all PM's must have).

But Turnbull? I don't even know why he entered politics other than he needed to so that he could become PM. The fact is he is more suited to being a lawyer than a politician, and last Thursday's Question Time is a case in point. The previous day, the GDP growth figures had come out; that morning Joel Fitzgibbon had resigned. So what was Malcolm's line of questioning? Anything about the economy? Anything about Fitzgibbon? Here they all are (take a deep breath):

Mr TURNBULL (2.10 pm)—My question is to the Prime Minister. I refer the Prime Minister to the standards of ministerial ethics and I note that the Prime Minister’s register of interests states that he has been given a free car complete with registration, insurance and RACQ membership by a Mr John Grant of John Grant Motors. Has the Prime Minister, his office or anyone on his behalf made representations on behalf of Ipswich Central Motors, John Grant Motors or any other car dealership owned by or associated with John Grant to OzCar, the taxpayer funded special purpose vehicle managed by the Treasury and set up to provide finance to car dealers?

Mr TURNBULL (2.24 pm)—My question is addressed to the Prime Minister. I refer the Prime Minister to the statement made in estimates several hours ago that the Prime Minister’s office had made one representation on behalf of a car dealer to the Treasury official managing OzCar, the special purpose vehicle funded by the taxpayer to provide finance to car dealers. I refer the Prime Minister to the fact that in that Senate estimates hearing it was put to the Treasury official that the company in respect of which the Prime Minister’s office made the representation was a company associated with Mr John Grant, the gentleman who provides the Prime Minister with a free car. I refer the Prime Minister to the fact that 45 minutes ago he was expressly asked in a news conference whether his office had made a representation on behalf of a company controlled by Mr John Grant. Prime Minister, what do you have to hide? Why don’t you just tell us what representation you have made?

Mr TURNBULL (2.33 pm)—My question is addressed to the Treasurer. I refer the Treasurer to the evidence given by one of his officials in estimates today that the Treasurer’s office had made two representations on behalf of car dealers to OzCar, the taxpayer funded special purpose vehicle, which provides finance to car dealers and which is administered by the Treasury. Has the Treasurer or his office, or anyone on his behalf, made representations to OzCar on behalf of Ipswich Central Motors, John Grant Motors or any other car dealership owned or associated with John Grant?

Mr TURNBULL (2.41 pm)—My question is addressed to the Treasurer. I refer to his previous answer in which he confirmed that he had made representations to OzCar on behalf of Mr John Grant, a car dealer seeking finance from that taxpayer special purpose vehicle. I ask the Treasurer: were there any discussions or communications between the office of the Treasurer and the office of the Prime Minister?

Mr TURNBULL (2.53 pm)—My question is again to the Treasurer. I refer the Treasurer to his answer to my previous question concerning representations made to OzCar by his office. In his answer he stated that his office had received hundreds of representations which had been forwarded to OzCar. The evidence before estimates today by one of his own officials is that Oz-Car has received one representation for one dealership from the Prime Minister’s office and for only two dealerships from the Treasurer’s office, one of which we know was on behalf of Mr Grant. Which account is true? Was it hundreds or was it two?

Finally at 3pm he finally asks about Fitzgibbon:

Mr TURNBULL (3.02 pm)—My question is to the Prime Minister. I refer the Prime Minister to his announcement of the Minister for Defence’s resignation today and the letter of resignation from the Minister for Defence, and in particular to his reference in that letter to meetings between his brother Mark, Humana, the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs, the Minister for Defence Science and Personnel and members of the Minister for Defence’s staff. Can the Prime Minister confirm whether any members of his—the Prime Minister’s— staff were present at any of these meetings referred to in the letter of resignation from the Minister for Defence?

But that doesn't last long:

Mr TURNBULL (3.30 pm)—My question is to the Prime Minister. I refer the Prime Minister to his standards of ministerial ethics. I ask the Prime Minister: does he really expect the Australian public to believe it is appropriate for a Prime Minister, who receives from the taxpayer free of charge two houses, several cars, chauffeur driven Comcars and travel on Air Force jets, to also receive another free car from a car dealer who is seeking finance from a taxpayer funded finance company with the help of his own Treasurer?

That's an entire Question Time wasted on a matter of absolutely no importance to anyone. As Turnbull notes in his first question, Rudd has listed this secondhand ute on his register of interests. You can read it here. So there is no suggestion Rudd is hiding the donation. It's been there for 2 years!

But look at the questions Turnbull asks. Every single one (as is the case with every single question he has asked in parliament) begins with "I refer the Prime Minister to...". You see it is a lawyer trick- he refers to something Rudd, or someone, has said and then asks how that squares with certain data or statements. In his second question there are three "I refers" alone. And that is the other thing - look at the length of those questions. They read like a QC asking a witness a question before the Supreme Court, or worse a question asked at an Oxford Union debate. They are long and far too clever for their own good. Turnbull delights in picking up on words, and thinking that he has caught Rudd in a lie or trap. Too often he has trapped himself.

This happened last year when thinking he had got Rudd trapped about not having talked to the Governor of the Reserve Bank about the deposit guarantee he asked:

Mr TURNBULL (3.07 pm)—My question is addressed to the Prime Minister. Given that the Prime Minister was too busy to speak to the Reserve Bank governor himself on the deposit guarantee matter, if it turns out that the Reserve Bank governor did not, in fact, expressly recommend an unlimited deposit guarantee, will he dismiss the Secretary of the Treasury for misleading the cabinet?

And suddenly the story wasn't about the deposit guarantee it was about Turnbull saying Rudd should sack Ken Henry. Dumb politics, and exactly what happens when you are only asking questions to show how smart you are, and not because there is a bigger picture in mind, such as whether or not the deposit guarantee was a good thing for the economy. Turnbull didn't care, all he cared about was whether he could make Rudd look incompetent.

Consider the ute that Rudd has on loan. Is there any evidence of impropriety? Nope. None. And yet Turnbull thought he could make it seem like there would be because he fancies that he can outsmart Rudd - and seems desperate to prove it. But Parliament is not a Court. The speaker is not a judge. And Rudd is a much, much better politician than Turnbull will ever be (and you can take that anyway you like).

But heck, lawyers should be out for the truth. So let's get some truth about the ute. Let's actually ask the guy who loaned Rudd the ute:

The Ipswich car dealer at the centre of the opposition's attack on Mr Rudd has spoken out, saying he gave the prime minister a 1996 Mazda Bravo ute as a "gift" and received no benefit.

"He's a friend of mine, we're neighbours, we live in the same street and I've known him before he got into politics," John Grant, the proprietor of John Grant Motors, told AAP.
"I can't see there's an issue, I don't understand why there's so much hype about the thing."

The ute, valued at between $4,000 and $6,000, is used by Mr Rudd in his Brisbane electorate of Griffith, and was declared on his pecuniary interest register two years ago.
A bemused Mr Grant said he could not see what the fuss was about in giving Mr Rudd free use of a ute, with registration and insurance paid for, adding the vehicle would be returned to him once Mr Rudd no longer needed it.

"The car that I loaned - and let's emphasise loaned - to Kevin was a 1996 Mazda Bravo, so it's 13 years old, for the campaign that he ran recently in 2007," Mr Grant said.
Mr Grant said he had no conversations with either Mr Rudd, Treasurer Wayne Swan or their staff about the OzCar plan.

"I could not go to (OzCar) and say 'I need money'."

Mr Grant said he did ask Treasury how the OzCar plan worked because the industry had struggled, following the withdrawal from the market of financiers GE Money and GMAC in December.

"A lot of motor dealers were asking the same question. That's how I found out it was purely for finance companies to draw down on to support the dealer network."

Wow, good work there Malcolm, you really lifted the lid on that sordid business. Not quite Watergate though is it? That Rhodes Scholarship is really being shown off isn't it? Geez, what a waste of intelligence.

But perhaps we need to get Turnbull the intelligent lawyer to turn his attention to a situation where a Government Minister gave $10m to the company of a mate of his despite his Department advising him not to. The Minister? Why none other than Malcolm Turnbull:

... in October 2007, the day after the election was called, Mr Turnbull, as the Howard government's environment minister, had requested a $10 million grant for the scientific trial of rainfall enhancement technology.

Matt Handbury, a neighbour and political donor to Mr Turnbull, is also the chairman of the Australian Rain Corporation, which owns the cloud-seeding technology in Australia.
A large part of the grant went to Mr Handbury's firm.
When the Minister for Climate Change, Senator Penny Wong, put the kibosh on the grant after the election, about half the money had been paid out and was irretrievable.

So what did Turnbull have to say about that?
"It's a completely different issue," Turnbull said yesterday.

For once Turnbull has got to the truth of the matter.
In one case a PM got a loan of a $6,000 ute for electioneering purposes that has not resulted in any preferential treatment for the donor or cost to the taxpayer. In the other, the company of a friend of a Minister got $5 million for nothing. Completely different - and I know which one I am more concerned about...

Keep up the lawyer work Malcolm; but when it comes to politics you are nought but an empty suit.


veritas said...

I think I can confidently predict Malcolm will have egg on his face over this. The ABC reported the the wording of the so-called "email" and it reeks of ComCar/Justice Kirby deja vu. Turnbull should know by now that fierce and serious looks on Erica Abetz face doesn't always add up to a credible tale.

Grog said...

A pretty good call there veritas.