Mungo MacCallum: Turnbull's yelling and gesticulating, signifying nothing

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(Image via sbs.com.au)

Turnbull spent the last week of Parliament repeating the same diatribe in ever-increasing volume, says Mungo MacCallum.

THE GREAT FRENCH mime artist Marcel Marceau had an act which consisted solely of walking briskly onto the stage.

It seemed entirely normal, but when he got to the middle of the stage something happened — he kept walking, but he wasn’t getting anywhere. Marceau became alarmed, then frantic: his legs and arms worked harder than ever but he remained stuck in the same spot.

Which brings us, inevitably, to Malcolm Turnbull. Our prime minister is obviously not as graceful and elegant as Marceau, nor, unfortunately, as silent. Turnbull has spent the last week of Parliament repeating the same diatribe in ever-increasing volume in the hope that those few voters who watch question time on television will hear him, even when they have reached for the mute button.

His loyal colleagues have followed the same formula, with varying results. Peter Dutton is, as you would expect from a Queensland copper, a natural; Scott Morrison is getting there. Christian Porter and Josh Frydenberg are trying hard, but Greg Hunt is seriously unconvincing — let’s face it, he always has been. Barnaby Joyce, on cue, can be relied on to provide comic relief.

And, on the other side, Bill Shorten and his troops are delivering all their hard-won experience of barracking at rowdy union meetings to ensure that the cacophony is bipartisan. If there are any actual messages, they are lost in the hubbub, which is probably just as well, because the pseudo-arguments from both sides do not bear examination.

The National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) is not dependent on an increase in the Medicare Levy; Turnbull’s pretence that there is no alternative is frankly deceitful. The NDIS can be funded from multiple other sources from consolidated revenue if the Government chooses. But an increase in the levy – which is, in fact, an across-the-board increase in the variable, progressive, tax schedule – is not in itself such a bad idea. Shorten is being, at best, disingenuous saying it is an unfair burden on lower and middle-income earners.

But he has a point about the end of the tax levy on high-income earners: if it was designed to reduce the deficit, why does it cut off when the deficit is far larger than it was when the levy began? Everyone agrees the banks should be bashed, so although this is clearly ad hoc populism, the bank levy will go ahead. But it would be nice if the Government could explain just how much revenue it hopes to gain and the apparent paradox of charging the levy at the same time it claims all corporations desperately need a tax cut.

Labor, on the other hand, continues to play silly buggers on Gonski Mark 2, piously fingering its collective rosaries as it pretends to protect the Catholic Church from the horrors of the sector-blind, needs-based model that it once extolled as the solution to all educational ills. And in the meantime, both are scrabbling frantically behind the surface to persuade the self-important crossbenchers in the Senate to join their cause — if they can ever figure out what it is and find a way articulate it.

Plenty of sound and fury but, as the man said, signifying nothing — at least that is what Turnbull’s unhappily invoked bible, Newspoll, is telling us. The Coalition optimists reckon that it is all too early to tell, that the benefits – of the politics, if not the policies – will emerge in the fullness of time. But if the fiasco of the last few days in Parliament is any guide, it is hard to see any sign of a dawn for their brave new world.

And as a natural consequence of the dysfunction, the media have gone off in pursuit of any souffles they can beat up — the perils of Pauline Hanson, the syntax of ASIO chief Duncan Lewis, the suggestion – the hope – that there just might be the beginnings of a leadership tussle between Shorten and Anthony Albanese that just might take some of the heat off Turnbull.

And, when in doubt, when any serious contemplation of the issues on which Turnbull and Shorten are ranting is either too hard or too unedifying, there is always terrorism to fall back on, making the latest international atrocity a handy segue into the Lewis non-story.

Presumably, we are to go on with business as usual. The Senate will squabble, bicker and bargain until some kind of unsatisfactory compromise to the 2017 Budget measures will be hammered out, with outrageous and irrelevant concessions to the smartest operators offered by ministers desperate for a result — any result.

And what cannot be traded will either be junked or else left languishing as a new set of zombie measures for next time. The remains of the Budget, which a month ago was so vital to our economic survival, so crucial to the national interest, will once again be history. And Turnbull, Shorten and the rest of them will go on shouting in the hope that eventually at least one of the puerile insults will stick.

Anything rather than confront the awful reality: the punters are not interested. They have been disappointed too many times and they simply don’t believe this Government – probably any government – is going to provide them with any serious relief. All they can see is the pantomime, the melodramatic farce of impotent political caricatures indulging themselves for an hour or two before going back to do whatever it is they do — presumably continue jumping up and down in the same spot.

Fortunately, there is a solution to Marcel Marceau’s and Malcolm Turnbull’s twin predicaments: “My dear," said the Red Queen, “here we must run as fast as we can just to stay in place. And if you wish to go anywhere you must run twice as fast as that.” Of course, that is Alice in Wonderland, but it’s about the only advice around.

So get moving Malcolm — get "agile"!

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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