Could it be just a week since the Wentworth by-election?
You know, the by-election that saw one of the worst primary vote swings against an incumbent government in history?
The shockwaves on the night were rapidly muffled by a recovery for Liberal candidate Dave Sharma — some of it in postal vote counting.
Instead, inside the “Canberra bubble” which the Prime Minister is so fond of talking about, yet seems to be the main inhabitant of, there was an earthquake and, miraculously, astonishingly, nothing happened.
The Libs’ take on the swing
On the night, Scott Morrison generously said the party, rather than Sharma, had to own the loss because of (not quite spelled out) events of recent months. From which we were all invited to read: “the leadership change”.
But by the next day, the Liberals, showing creativity and a finely honed political ear, blamed someone who wasn’t actually there — Malcolm Turnbull.
That’s right: the bloke who left because they had got rid of him because they thought he was an electoral liability. Apparently he should have stayed around and helped them win the by-election. Makes sense.
The result in no way reflected the fact the Liberals had got rid of another prime minister, or any of the policies of the shambolic government, or its behaviour during the last week of the by-election campaign.
A change in direction? Not quite…
In fact, the result was not only not a reflection on the government, it wasn’t even a reflection on the electorate!
The voters of Wentworth, it seems, are an aberration that don’t reflect actual voters across the rest of the country.
Normally, a government that has had such a by-election trouncing, or even one that, according to the latest Newspoll, is trailing magnificently in every single state in the country, might have pause for thought.
It might think: “well something isn’t quite working here. Maybe we need to change direction, and dramatically?”
Think the sort of spectacular resetting of policy undertaken by Paul Keating when he became prime minister in late 1991, or, 10 years later, by John Howard. Not this mob.
The prime minister says proudly the government is changing nuthin’.
It is going to get on with the things that are of concern to real voters* (*not the ones in Wentworth).
Last minute promises still hold
This week, it transpired that among the things he wasn’t changing were the things he suggested he might change in those last days before the Wentworth by-election.
Remember how the whole religious freedoms debate went a bit off the tracks for the government ahead of Wentworth? How a debate broke out about discriminating against students on basis of sexuality?
This itself was a veering off the previous main road in this particular debate, which had been about discrimination against teachers in religious schools.
But the agile Prime Minister sensed a problem, and noting that the issue of discrimination against students was all Labor’s fault (of course), announced he would immediately put forward legislation to fix it.
Except Labor says the proposed legislation — which is yet to be seen publicly — doesn’t do that at all. It does it, but then gives religious institutions the world’s biggest out.
Kids in detention gaining traction
The same was true on asylum seekers. This is the issue where the politics have really been moving in the last few weeks and Wentworth played a role in escalating that move.
Our politicians still aren’t at the point where they can embrace, or even consider, the idea that offshore detention perhaps isn’t actually necessary any more as a deterrent, if boat turnbacks work as effectively as they do; that offshore detention is just making life miserable for the people who got stuck when policy changed.
But once again, the Prime Minister both tried to wedge Labor on this issue while suggesting he was very reasonable and open to negotiation over the so-called New Zealand deal.
Scott Morrison argued that the government had been trying to implement the deal for a couple of years and it was only Labor intransigence that was stopping it going ahead.
When Parliament resumed this week, Labor made the first significant shift in this area of policy by making concessions on the NZ legislation.
But the government’s response was to go back into full wedgie, bring out the military and terrorist scare, border-force showbag.
What’s the big picture here?
It is hard not to avoid the impression, having watched the government over the past two weeks, that it has not the barest clue about what its policy agenda is.
Yes, tax and energy prices. But that’s all stuff that was already in play before they knocked off the last prime minister.
For the rest, it seems to be going back to all the old plays, even though the rest of the country seems to be moving on.
The jaw-dropping revelations out of estimates this week about how the government came to announce a “review” into moving our embassy in Israel were excruciating to watch.
Defence chiefs who were not told of an announcement which would have potential implications for defence deployment and personnel security. A foreign affairs department that was not consulted. No formal cabinet process. A foreign minister who was not consulted until two days before the announcement.
Truly the stuff of complete amateurs. And not just complete amateurs but political cynics who think it is okay to play with national policy as a political tactic, and then have the gall to suggest that it is they who are avoiding all the nonsense of the “Canberra bubble”.
Abuse apology a double standard?
In the rest of the parliament, MPs are growing increasingly distressed and anxious about what is happening on Nauru and Manus Island.
The contrast between the political establishment’s inability to do anything about the fate of children on Nauru, with all the emotion commemorating, and apologizing for, the dreadful damage done to generations of children in institutional settings only heightened their distress.
“Someone is going to die soon”, was a sentiment heard in many corners of the building.
To date though, the response has only been argy bargy over two bills that have never really had any great prospect of passing.
It took an MP who has said she is leaving at the next election to call it out.
Julia Banks told Parliament on Thursday night:
“Our country, overwhelmingly on Monday, committed to keeping children safe. Children are citizens of the world and the children on Nauru are our ultimate responsibility.”
Why is it so hard for this to happen, or indeed for the prime minister to change policy on anything? Because it turns out he is just as trapped by the destructive forces tearing conservative politics apart as Malcolm Turnbull ever was.
Laura Tingle is 7.30’s chief political correspondent.