Politically, it is not so hard to see why Malcolm Turnbull, marshalling his barrister skills and a degree of chutzpah, on Wednesday was digging in behind the indefensible position of his special minister of state.
Mal Brough is in deep trouble, and perhaps legal danger, over in 2012 allegedly seeking from James Ashby, a staffer of Peter Slipper, material from the then-Speaker’s diary. This is now the subject of a police investigation.
It is Turnbull’s first ministerial scandal. As John Howard found, the maiden scalp conceded to the opposition provides a precedent for dealing with later cases, which often do come. Howard started pure about ministerial standards but then descended into total pragmatism, refusing to lop heads.
Then there is the fact that it was Turnbull who elevated Brough to the ministry. The new prime minister should have known better but Brough was a supporter. Turnbull claims (not quite rightly) that circumstances in the Brough affair haven’t altered for a long time. So it’s awkward for Turnbull to change.
If Brough were offered up, the opposition would home in on Assistant Innovation Minister Wyatt Roy who allegedly, according to Ashby, “presented me with a sheet of paper with instructions of what I should do, and one of the first steps was to get a copy of the office diary”.
And what about Innovation Minister Christopher Pyne? Ashby has said Roy indicated he needed to consult Pyne before providing advice.
If Brough sank, it would become more likely that Turnbull’s ministerial innovation team would find itself caught in the wash.
Finally, although less certainly, Turnbull might judge that if he forced his minister to stand aside, Brough could get rough. He’s the sort of person who fights back.
Brough on Wednesday added to the challenge for his prime ministerial defence counsel when he gave an “apology” to parliament that just provided Labor with fresh grounds for attack. The apology was over his suggestion on Tuesday that there had been misleading editing of the key question he was asked last year on Nine’s 60 Minutes when he admitted asking for the extracts.
Much more centrally, in Question Time on Wednesday Brough flatly contradicted his position of last year. When quizzed on 60 Minutes about whether he asked Ashby to procure copies of Slipper’s diary, he said yes, he had. When in parliament Shadow Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus put the same question to him, Brough said no.
This is bizarre. Whatever Brough’s spurious argument about the question, the full context of the 60 Minutes interview left no doubt about what he was saying. The key answer was reinforced by his other answers in the TV interview.
But Brough’s denial is in accord with comments earlier this week from Ashby, who said he volunteered the diary material to Brough, rather than Brough seeking it.
In his role as defence lawyer, Turnbull claimed the minister “has answered the questions put to him”, when in fact he had not answered a number of them.
Turnbull also ascended the high moral ground, declaring that “guilt or innocence is not determined by public denunciation”. He has left himself a let out – he’ll review the situation if something new comes up.
But Turnbull’s defence of Brough implicitly contains the judgement he can be sustained – in the absence of something unexpected, or a new political assessment – until the police finish their investigation. The line coming from ministers is that the investigation should run its course.
It’s a messy way to end the parliamentary year, especially as the last few days have also been marked by breakouts from former prime minister Tony Abbott, who is reacting angrily to the results of media deep diving for more detail of the coup and its lead up. Abbott has responded with a continued fierce defence of his former chief-of-staff Peta Credlin and by lashing out at deputy Liberal leader Julie Bishop.
Soon after stepping of the plane from the Paris climate conference Turnbull on Wednesday was addressing the last meeting of the Coalition parties for the year.
With the grouchiness of the losers from the coup in mind, Turnbull observed:
The less we talk about ourselves and the more we talk about the people who elect us the better.
As Abbott used to say.
So much has changed since Turnbull took over. But that message has been recycled from one leader to the next, and remains true now as before.