Malcolm Turnbull is like the man who threw down a match, started a fire, and is now struggling to breathe because of the smoke.
He has inadvertently become the centre of a debate on guns which is at least a diversion from what he wants to talk about, and at worst has turned into a series of pressure points.
It started on Tuesday with Liberal Democrat David Leyonhjelm wanting the ban on the importation of the Adler seven-shot lever-action shotgun lifted in a deal over the government’s industrial relations legislation. When Turnbull failed to immediately just say no, things spun out of control.
Now Tony Abbott has seized the issue and the moment to parade, including an appearance on the ABC’s 7.30 in which, of course, he parried on leadership.
The Nationals, facing a difficult NSW byelection next month, are touchy on guns. Ministers from the states, which have responsibility for gun classification, happen to be meeting on Friday but are not expected to break their deadlock over which category the Adler should be in. The opposition has struck gold.
On Wednesday Turnbull tried to turn the issue back onto Bill Shorten by focusing on Labor’s refusal to support tougher action against illegal guns.
But there was too much other noise, especially from Abbott’s intervention, which some critics see as part of his raising his profile ahead of a weekend meeting of the NSW Liberals that will discuss party reform, a cause on which the former prime minister is running hard.
Abbott declared that “no-one needs a rapid-fire gun other than perhaps our law enforcement agencies, the military and just possibly people involved in serious pest extermination.
"This idea that shooters generally should have access to rapid-fire weapons is just crackers and it should never happen as far as I’m concerned.”
He dismissed email evidence that when he was prime minister ministers did a deal with Leyonhjelm, in exchange for his vote on another matter, to put a sunset clause on the ban his government had imposed on the Adler seven-shot while its classification was considered.
“As far as I was concerned as prime minister, there was absolutely no way on god’s earth, with a heightened terror threat, we were going to allow perhaps tens of thousands of rapid fire weapons into the country,” he said.
His former chief-of-staff Peta Credlin had already insisted there had not been a deal, backing her point with a reference to the concern at the time about terrorism. This prompted a tart tweet from Leyonhjelm: “Conflating licensed firearms owners with terrorists. When you don’t know what you are talking about you should STFU.”
Leyonhjelm points out there wasn’t just the email – there was the fact of the regulation for the sunset clause being brought in. Abbott suggests that was just a routine way of doing things.
While Abbott is standing for an extremely hard line on the gun, the Nationals have a different view. Deputy Speaker Mark Coulton said farmers would mainly use it against feral pigs. “I know of one gun dealer who has hundreds on order waiting for this decision,” he said.
Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce is believed to be in favour of the gun being put in category B, which is the position of NSW Nationals leader and police minister Troy Grant. This is the second-most-accessible category under the multiple level classification scheme. The version of the gun which has a more limited magazine capacity is currently in category A.
But the Nationals, worried about the Orange byelection and judging they have no prospect of getting their way on the classification question, don’t want the issue further stirred before the vote on November 12. Nationals sources are quick to point out it wasn’t them who raised it. Just like Turnbull, they’d hoped this week’s focus would be on industrial relations.
Leyonhjelm, meanwhile, despite his complaint of being “dudded” by the continuation of the ban, says he’s “not inclined to spit the dummy” and close down discussions about some deal on the legislation. “If they don’t negotiate with me on the ban, we’ll see what else they have on offer,” he says. Uh-oh.