Implications from Joyce’s Affair
Now that Joyce has made the right decision to resign as Leader of the National Party and hence Deputy PM, it is pertinent to attempt an interpretation of the various events and their potential implications. I don’t often agree with Paul Kelly’s analyses but his observation in an article today seems correct, viz “The entire crisis exposes again the essential problem of the Turnbull government: disastrous political management. The government was a sitting duck in the fallout from the Joyce affair. Turnbull and Joyce were never frank enough with each other even to devise a strategy. The fiasco is extraordinary” (see Kelly on Joyce’s Resignation).For Australia’s leading journalist to express such a view is an indication of the extent of the problem facing Coalition MPs.
There is no doubt that Joyce himself handled the affair very badly. As a leader of the government he should have realised that the breakdown of his marriage and the establishment of a new relationship with a former staffer, would raise the question of his capacity to continue being a senior minister and continue performing the functions of that role. And, by allowing the discovery of his affair to be by the media, he immediately made that question an issue not only in regard to his own capacity but also relating to possible adverse effects for the Coalition too. By then claiming it to be only a private matter, when more was obviously involved, he made the issue even more exposed to questioning and whether public funds were (mis)used in employing the staffer.
An early announcement of the affair might have justified then the claim of it being private, although it would still have left unanswered whether the new relationship would be marital and hence consistent with the National Party’s claim to have “family values” as one of its principal objectives. That is still unanswered, as is the possible misuse of public funds. Now that Joyce is also accused of sexual abuse by a prominent WA woman, it will take considerable time for his exploits to be forgotten.
Those National Party MPs who knew about the affair early on similarly handled the issue badly. They should have told Joyce that, unless he announced early on the breakdown of his marriage and the establishment of a new partnership, they would let the media know about it and their concern that it be handled properly, including in regard to use of public funds. Those now competing for the leadership of the National Party do not provide optimism about the capacities of Joyce’s replacement: despite them being a member of a “National” party, they seem to focus mostly on regional or local issues.
There has also been a failure by Turnbull to explain when he knew of the affair and whether he now proposes to ask for a report on the use of public funds in employing the staffer. His majority of one in the House of Representatives is now more fragile and the possibility is increased that more than one will vote against the government. Relevant here is the fact that Turnbull is very close to the Coalition having a lower TPP than Labor for 30 successive Newspolls (which is what Abbott had when Turnbull challenged him), and his performance rate of only 34 per cent who are “Satisfied” is now down to the same rate as Shorten’s. Also relevant is that, while he claims there are no differences between the Nationals and the Liberals, he obviously has no support from Joyce, who will now be on the back-bench and who crossed the floor about 20 times when he was a senator.
In his article in today’s Australian, Chris Kenny draws attention to the many problems facing Turnbull on his return from a 90 minute session with Trump in Washington. He suggests that, with a “progressive” Prime Minister, the conservatives in the Coalition find it difficult to tackle important issues which are being neglected by him (Turnbull) and “some conservative voters have walked away” to One Nation and the Australian Conservatives (see Kenny on Joyce).
Kenny also refers to the over-reaction by Treasurer Scott Morrison to a speech by Abbott (outside Parliament) advocating an almost halving of the annual immigration intake. Morrison virtually ruled out any possibility of reducing the annual immigration intake at a time when there is widespread concern about the present rate from both an economic and social perspective. For Morrison to reject a debate at a time when the Coalition faces polling problems seems badly judged. And, in any event, it is by no means clear what the rate should be relative to total population (see further discussion in Sloan on Immigration). My longer term view is that, from a defence viewpoint, it is important to be taking substantial levels of immigration so that we can tell other countries that we are building up our population.
Importantly, Kenny draws attention to energy policy as one of the most important issues facing Turnbull and argues, correctly I believe, that “at the moment it is trying to be all things to all people… and arguing its national energy guarantee will ensure emissions reductions occur with less disruption than under Shorten’s plan”. Kenny argues that “abandoning the Paris Agreement would “start the right argument” but Turnbull “has invested too much through the years on climate gestures”. “ Yet this much is clear: the more they diverge from Labor’s climate activism and renewable energy push and the more they support affordable and reliable electricity, the more support they will win from the mainstream and the fewer votes they will bleed to parties on the far right. They need to unleash conservative instincts for tough political battles or they will drift to oblivion”.
Unfortunately, it is not possible for Turnbull to change his views and he is set for oblivion. The only chance of the Coalition having a revival is to change its leader asap