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MUNGO MACCALLUM: Sukkar catches an even break

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Assistant Treasurer Michael Sukkar has been caught in a branch stacking scandal within the Victorian Liberal Party (Screenshot via YouTube)

Despite branch stacking allegations, Assistant Treasurer Michael Sukkar has avoided Labor's wrath as they focus on a bigger target — the PM, writes Mungo MacCallum.

THE CONNIPTIONS and shenanigans are many and complex, but as usual, they boil down to an unseemly bloodbath about who is running the rattletrap conveyance which is – or at least was – supposed to deliver them back to government.

The Lady Macbeth figure in the darkened room at the centre is one of the party’s state Vice-Presidents, Karina Okotel, who has not yet managed to rinse the stains of her unsuccessful campaign against same-sex marriage from her incarnadined hands.

And the knife she supplied was largely wielded by Marcus Bastiaan, who was forced to resign from the party after revelations that he was already a seasoned branch stacker, to recruit the religious with a promise of more to come. He boasted that once he had achieved his goal to slip himself into the state upper house, he could use the time and money to continue his machinations full time. He was clearly ready to burst into a chorus of “The working class can kiss my arse, I’ve got a bludger’s job at last”.

However, Bastiaan’s real crime was not his cynical misuse of Parliament and taxpayers’ money, but the fact that he inveigled his troops to infiltrate the lairs of two fellow fundamentalist parliamentary warlords — Kevin Andrews and Michael Sukkar, using their entitlements to indulge in what were obviously party political games.

These days, Andrews hardly matters; he has been playing to the religious Right – or people of faith, as the God-botherers prefer to describe themselves – for many years and now he is so far past his use-by date that his career can only be recorded in hieroglyphics.

But Sukkar, a hugely ambitious junior minister, is a serious reactionary who sees his destiny as part of the back-to-the-future leadership when his time comes.

So, one might have thought that he was an obvious target for Labor and particularly for Anthony Albanese, whose own leadership is seen by many as a bit timorous when it comes to the rough and tumble of Parliament.

But when the depleted Parliament came back last week, Albanese was content to pass the clobbering to one of his own ambitious frontbenchers, Stephen Jones, who was only too keen to follow the great showman P.T. Barnum, who devised (almost) the slogan: “Never give a Sukkar an even break”.

And clearly his leader’s silence was deliberate, because, let’s face it, neither side of politics can claim the high ground, or indeed any firm ground at all when it comes to the ethics of tactics devised by the organisational wings.

Sukkar shrugged off the attack and his colleagues were keen to return to Labor’s far-from-spotless reputation. The Victorian party is still recovering from its own embarrassment over the branch stacking implosion run by Adem Somyurek, also no longer on the roll. And both parties know that there is plenty more to be uncovered by a diligent media campaign and would prefer that it wasn’t. M.A.D. – mutually assured destruction – is a strategy best confined to the cold war.

However, there is a key difference. Sukkar is not just another apparatchik — he is Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s own hand-picked Assistant Treasurer, seen as a coming man. He intends to be around for a long time, as he shimmies up the greasy totem pole and his parliamentary leader cannot pretend that it is purely a matter for the backroom boys. Sukkar’s is a scalp worth taking and he will wear a target on his back from now on.

But there is another reason Albanese wants to leave Sukkar to simmer in his own soup for the moment. He is certain that he has Scott Morrison in deep trouble over aged care and wants no distraction as he prods, pokes and teases out the issue, while the Prime Minister exhausts his marketeering expertise in a futile attempt to defend the indefensible — to deny reality.

Continuing to maintain that he has the confidence of his minister Richard Colbeck, after stripping him of the only part of his responsibility that actually matters, is surely absurd. But ScoMo will not resile from his policy of never giving a nanometer to the opposition — any opposition.

So, day after day, we’ve had implausible denial. Funds to aged care were not cut. There was a plan, an ongoing plan: everything is under control. Adequate supplies of protective equipment are getting to the homes for both residents and carers. And in any case, 97 per cent of homes are okay. We are doing better than almost anyone else in the world. Aged care is in the very best of hands — Colbeck’s. Or if that doesn’t quite wash, then his own. After all, he was the one who set up the current Royal Commission. So, nothing to see here — move on.

Some of this is patently false, although some may be construed, by charitable commentators, as at least partly true. But this is not the point — it is simply irrelevant because the daily evidence is that the system has clearly failed.

And we are not talking about individual disasters, spectacular and appalling as many of them are. We are talking about thousands of infections, hundreds of deaths, despite numerous warnings. This is a breakdown from top to bottom and the root cause is underfunding and short staffing which cannot, despite Morrison’s determined blame-shifting, be shoved aside. It is an undeniable federal responsibility and he has to wear it.

And the more he ducks and weaves, obfuscates and blusters, the more threadbare his defences are revealed to be. Albanese may not yet be on a winner, but Morrison’s embarrassment is far more satisfying than sniping at Michael Sukkar, however tempting that worthy aim must appear. Sukkar can keep, as long as Morrison suffers.

Mungo MacCallum is a veteran journalist who worked for many years in the Canberra Press Gallery.

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