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Grattan on Friday: The art of walking, forwards and backwards, and some thoughts on Brandis

Whatever the status of the speculation, it would be a very bad idea for Malcolm Turnbull to despatch George Brandis to London. Mick Tsikas/AAP

Malcolm Turnbull will overfly Western Australia twice next week, when he makes a brief dash to Indonesia to attend a conference of Indian Ocean Rim leaders.

He has no plans to drop into Perth. It is reported the local Liberals weren’t much impressed with his one brief sortie into the state campaign.

Is that Tony Abbott smiling through clenched teeth? Remembering how the Western Australian Liberals were cool about his visiting ahead of the 2015 Canning byelection? Turnbull terminated Abbott’s leadership just before those voters got to the polls.

Not that Turnbull’s leadership is under any short-term threat. But he has entered that unfortunate zone when the media read significance into the incidental.

Such as the photo of Peter Dutton, who is suddenly fashionable on the succession ladder, striding out for a morning walk with Finance Minister Mathias Cormann.

The accompanying Courier Mail report said that “key conservative powerbroker Mathias Cormann and Liberal leadership aspirant Peter Dutton have been meeting for secret talks most mornings this week”.

The two were just trying to slim down, Dutton said; Cormann – who called out Abbott in strong language last week–- was decidedly snippy. “Secret talks? Is this a joke? Only in Canberra will some interpret a longstanding early morning (public) exercise routine as a conspiracy.”

Indeed. But in their pally perambulations the pair may lament the government’s bad situation.

Not least, how strips have been torn off it over the decision of the Fair Work Commission to cut Sunday penalty rates in the hospitality, retail, fast food and pharmacy industries.

So much so that Thursday saw Turnbull doing a quick step backwards, as he struggled desperately to neutralise the political damage.

It had become obvious that the government could not protect itself simply by trying to fit up Bill Shorten with the decision, or saying the umpire should be obeyed.

So Turnbull began talking about the “transitional arrangements” to be canvassed at a commission hearing later this month. It asked the government to make a submission, and one is being prepared.

Turnbull said: “We’re very supportive of the commission managing this transition in a way that ensures that take-home pay is, as far as possible, maintained”, while stressing that how the commission protected workers was a matter for it.

Employment Minister Michaelia Cash said: “Nobody in Australia wants to see anybody’s take home pay go backwards”.

If this was where it was going to end up, the government should have started there. It misjudged how deeply this decision, albeit made by the “umpire”, could harm it. Its obsession with Shorten had clouded its view.

Meanwhile Dutton tried to shore up the government’s jobs credentials by announcing a crackdown on the fast-food industry importing foreign workers on 457 visas. “Australian workers, particularly young Australians, must be given priority,” he said. Given that only several hundred workers had come in, the hype seemed a bit of politicking.

“Jobs and growth” has been the Turnbull mantra but this week’s good news on growth – 1.1% in the December quarter – hardly registered politically, drowned out by other issues.

While the penalty rates debate raged in the House of Representatives all week, senators were taken up with estimates hearings. At one of these, Attorney-General George Brandis’s role in the fracas between the federal and WA governments over litigation relating to the liquidation of the Bell Group was back in the spotlight. This followed a claim Brandis had been involved in the matter earlier than he’d said.

The Bell affair is subject of a Senate investigation – the second Senate inquiry in which Brandis has featured since the election – reporting on March 21.

Speculation has had it that Brandis will be out of the parliament in coming months, sent as high commissioner to London, paving the way for a reshuffle that could install Christian Porter as attorney-general.

Despite the constant talk it is understood Brandis has not been approached, nor has Alexander Downer, whose London term is up in May, been told anything. It’s not clear that Brandis wants the job.

Whatever the status of the speculation, it would be a very bad idea for Turnbull to despatch Brandis to London.

Let’s deal with the supposed advantages. They are said to be that it would remove an accident-prone minister; that Cormann, close to Turnbull and an excellent negotiator with the crossbench, could be elevated to Senate leader; and that Turnbull could freshen his team.

The first point must be conceded. As for the second, the crossbenchers already deal extensively with Cormann, who is deputy Senate leader. On the reshuffle: if Porter were switched from social services, a complex and sensitive job, to attorney-general, he would be of less value to the government in political terms.

The risks and downsides of giving Brandis the high commission post are obvious.

It would bring Turnbull a storm of criticism. London is a job to which former politicians are, quite reasonably, often sent. But the public’s current mood is deeply cynical, and Brandis is a damaged figure. Labor would have yet another field day.

Brandis is from Queensland, which is vital to the Coalition federally and has an approaching state election with One Nation rampant. Losing Brandis would take a Queenslander out of the cabinet, and the replacement isn’t obvious.

The outer ministry contains no one from Queensland. So to elevate another Queenslander into cabinet, Turnbull would have to reach down into the ranks of the assistant ministers – James McGrath (a mate of Turnbull), Jane Prentice, Karen Andrews, and Keith Pitt (a National, ruling him out).

It would be a big jump for any of the three Liberals. But not to fill Brandis’s cabinet spot with a Queenslander would be seen as a downgrading for the state.

Brandis to London would only harm Turnbull. Anyway, it would be a poor fit – in the post-Brexit era the next high commissioner should have economic and trade skills. Turnbull would do best to leave Brandis where he is for the time being and hold off on a reshuffle while the government tries to get steady on its feet. If it can.

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