Mungo MacCallum: Turnbull's pre-Christmas gift of Sam Dastyari

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Senator Dastyari and Prime Minister Turnbull

Turnbull turned his pent-up anger and resentment towards Shorten onto the easy target of Sam Dastyari and unleashed it with vehemence, writes Mungo MacCallum.

THERE is an old science fiction story about a totalitarian state which regularly paraded dissidents before a packed arena bent on retribution and punishment.  

Led by a professional hate master, the crowd was encouraged to take their anger and resentment to a hysterical level, until the force and heat of their hatred actually caused the victim to catch fire and be burned to death, to the cathartic delight of the mob.

Now obviously Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull is hardly a full-time hate master — the lawyer-banker is far too suave and supercilious for the role. But having said that, it is just as well Senator Sam Dastyari is fireproof. As a warlord of the New South Wales right, and its chief bagman, he has had to be.

But the problem is that while the miscreant Senator may not be flammable, he, like asbestos, can still be potentially lethal to those around him. Which is why Opposition Leader Bill Shorten, who is of the real target of the Prime Minister’s vehemence, is in serious trouble from his long association while consorting with one of his main men.

Shorten has reluctantly demoted Dastyari — twice. But of course that it is not enough for Turnbull, who wants him expunged from the Parliament, if not the nation. This, is simply not in Shorten’s power, even if he was inclined to try — which he is not.

Dastyari was elected by the people and cannot be removed except as a result of a long and tortuous process, in which he would have to be shown to be guilty of very serious offences. The Government is now planning to widen its authoritarian net to possibly include any future malefactors, but the legislation will not be retrospective and may, in any case, be insufficient for a successful prosecution.

So, for the moment, Dastyari can hang on for at least the end of his Parliamentary term. Shorten could try and persuade the Labor Party’s executive to expel him from its ranks, but is unwilling to take such a drastic step — the consequences would be unpredictable but potentially catastrophic. And Dastyari shows no signs of resigning on his own accord — from anything. So Shorten will have to wear the albatross around his neck until it eventually drops off and Turnbull is determined to keep it hanging there, getting smellier and smellier, for as long as possible.

Indeed, despite all the bluster and ranting, it is not in Turnbull’s interest to see Dastyari smoulder away into a pile of ashes: the scandal over his association with a Chinese benefactor linked to Beijing is a rare and welcome pre-Christmas gift to be cherished and protected.

Turnbull can celebrate the totally foreseen win in New England and, outrageously, even claim some of the credit for it; he can cheer that Newspoll has finally edged forward and that the numbers foretell a crushing defeat rather than a complete wipeout. But his party room wanted to see claret flow — bring back the biff! And Turnbull, given the easiest of targets, is happy to try and oblige. When do you kick a man? When he’s down.

Sam Dastyari is well and truly down, but the real bonus would be if he tried to get up again. It is not time to bring him to ignition point just yet — there is much more hate to be unleashed until the final conflagration.

Mungo MacCallum is a veteran journalist who worked for many years in the Canberra Press Gallery. This article was published on 'Pearls and Irritations' and is republished with permission.

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