The Government's Embarrassing Public Spats Are Doing It In
The deep cracks in the Liberal Party have barely been papered over in recent weeks but they're already widening again, with a number of embarrassing public spats between senior members of the team.
Many political observers would have been left wryly smiling or quietly shaking their heads as Josh Frydenberg chastised Christopher Pyne, and as Kelly O'Dwyer gently rebuked Prime Minister Scott Morrison. But just months from the federal election, the relatively minor tiffs show fissures in the government that will need to be repaired if they want to retain office.
After a decade of Rudd-Gillard-Rudd-Abbott-Turnbull-Morrison, Australians are sick of the leadership merry-go-round; of going to bed at night and wondering who will be the PM when they wake up the next morning.
We've lost faith that our leaders will serve a full term in office, that our elected representatives can be trusted to stop bickering and back-stabbing for five minutes.
Both parties will surely run on the theme of 'stability' at the next election, due by May 2019.
The Coalition will want to show they can stay united, considering the immense and toxic political fallout from the knifing of Turnbull, the sniping of Abbott, the scandal and resignation of Barnaby Joyce, and the seemingly never-ending drama of section 44 disqualifications.
Labor will want to show the party has changed since it was last in office, when it was plagued with bitter in-fighting and division, and can be trusted again with power.
Bill Shorten has led Labor for more than five years, spearheading a team that has remained remarkably -- for this political era, at least -- stable and united.
It's why even minor rumblings about leadership in Labor -- like a speech from Labor MP Anthony Albanese interpreted by some as a not-so-veiled stab at Shorten -- make big news, because Shorten's team has been comparatively well-behaved in recent years.
In contrast, government ministers have been ripping into each other all week.
The ongoing debate over whether Australia should relocate its embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, first raised during the Wentworth by-election and criticised by some as a cynical ploy to appeal to the electorate's high Jewish population, is dividing the government.
Defence industry minister Steve Ciobo opposed the idea this week, while treasurer Josh Frydenberg backed it.
Defence minister Chris Pyne gently chided those speaking about the issue, saying "you'll have to ask the people who are making those comments" when asked on ABC radio whether the debate should be playing out in public.
“Chris has been giving his opinion freely on this matter for quite a while so I don’t know what got into his Wheaties this morning,” Frydenberg replied, in an interview later that day on 2GB radio.
“Chris is his own person. Quite unique. And we leave him to be a legend in his own lunchtime.”
Frydenberg reportedly later apologised to Pyne for the insult, but it wasn't a good look for one of the government's most senior ministers to be publicly bickering with the deputy Liberal leader.
The very next day, Minister for Women Kelly O'Dwyer called out Morrison on national TV, saying he "probably regrets the comments that he made" about Pamela Anderson.
Morrison was blasted as "smutty" by the former Baywatch actress earlier this week, over his claim that "I've had plenty of mates who have asked me if they can be my special envoy to sort the issue out with Pamela Anderson." She had been lobbying the government to intervene and assist Wikileaks founder Julian Assange.
During a speech at the National Press Club, O'Dwyer publicly hinted her leader had made a misstep, comments which were widely reported.
This is before we even get to Malcolm Turnbull's wild week. In just a few days, Turnbull's news included him following the Instagram page for a community group looking to unseat Tony Abbott from Warringah, then a Sydney branch of the Liberals calling for him to be expelled from the party, then his explanation (24 hours later) that he didn't mean anything by the Instagram follow.
Abbott wryly told 2GB radio on Thursday he hoped Turnbull would help him remain in parliament at the election.
"Malcolm gave me plenty of support in Warringah last time and if he’s going to get involved at all, that’s what I’d be hoping for this time," Abbott said.
"Maybe he’s just keeping an eye on them so he can help me more effectively."
Of course, judging from the Twitter of Turnbull's son Alex -- who also followed the anti-Abbott Instagram page -- that hope might be a long shot.
We're potentially just four months from an election, which could be held in March or May. At this stage, the public spats are small potatoes -- but for a government looking to retain office, already wracked with division and in-fighting, these little distractions are nothing to sneeze at.
They add to a general sense in the voting public that politicians aren't doing the work they need to be doing, that they're too focused on petty point-scoring, mindless feuds and inside political trickery to help the country.
And for Morrison, who still hasn't delivered a good answer to Labor's incessant questioning of "why was Malcolm Turnbull dumped", it's just one more headache he doesn't need.
What he does need, however, is to pull his team into line.