When Scott Morrison stands next to Donald Trump in Washington later this week, he may find himself feeling envy for the American President's ability to blithely say things with no concern for their relation to reality. Well, envy is one word - nostalgia might be another.
There was lots of noise in Parliament last week, but the most significant event, I suspect, was the long-overdue snapping of the elastic tying the words of government MPs to political consequences.
The first instance occurred when David Littleproud expressed ambivalence about man-made climate change. Not long ago such views might have been noted then allowed to slip away, seen within the context of a dying, conflict-prone government. This time, someone with authority clearly gave Littleproud the news that expressing such views as the minister responsible for natural disasters was not OK. Within two days he was exhibiting the zeal of the converted.
The second involved Liberal MP Gladys Liu. After she offered, in an interview, a series of confused answers about China and her membership of various China-related groups, someone thought it simplest to distribute a written statement. The statement was in Liu's name, just as Littleproud was the one to declare his backflip, but nobody really believes they wrote their own scripts.
Together, these cases suggest a Prime Minister's office running a tight ship. They also confirmed what we already knew: Morrison intends to watch his MPs very closely, and has zero compunctions about ordering them around. The fact that Littleproud was willing to embarrass himself so completely also suggests that at this point they will take those orders.
But the most interesting illustration was provided by the Prime Minister himself. Having cynically dragged race into the Liu debate, on Friday he flat-out denied ever having referred to Sam Dastyari as "Shanghai Sam". But he'd done exactly that, and he'd done it on camera, several times.
It's possible Morrison misheard the question - but as I've noted before, he has a habit of issuing absolute denials that turn out to be untrue. He has been called on it by journalists like Jane Cadzow and Barrie Cassidy. And these bald falsehoods have never put the slightest dent in his career, which is probably why he felt comfortable during the campaign saying firmly that Melissa Price would remain environment minister, even though every reporter in the country knew it was a lie. And, after the election, sure enough, she was no longer the environment minister. If you were Morrison, what lesson would you draw?
So the really interesting fact was that Morrison felt the need, on Friday, to go on radio to clean up the mess he'd made. Perhaps it was an acknowledgment that if he was going to hold his MPs to a certain standard he'd better meet it himself. Perhaps it was awareness the Liu scandal was getting out of hand. Whatever the case, it indicated a recognition that something had shifted - that he could not so breezily get away with what he was once able to.
Opponents shouldn't get too excited. John Howard was often attacked for dishonesty, but the only time it did him damage was in 2001, when a memo written by then federal Liberal president, Shane Stone, leaked. Stone said voters saw the government as "mean" and "tricky". Note the combination. Lies only tend to matter in politics when voters feel some actual harm is being done.
Which points to why the government was so keen to fix these particular gaffes. There is a sense that all of the particular issues in question - the influence of China, the poison of donations, and climate change - are not just important, but are nearing tipping points, both substantively and in the public imagination.
That goes for the economy, too - and on this, Morrison has lately been too smart by half. Twice last week he defended his economic policies by quoting the governor of the Reserve Bank: "I have not called on the government to do fiscal expansion." The quote was accurate, but the Prime Minister's use of it was dishonest. The rest of the governor's words were: "It would be inappropriate for me to do that. I don't advise the government. What I've sought to do is lay out some options." It was a technical statement about the limits of his official duties.
I should say that both Morrison and Littleproud offered excuses for their mistakes (though neither was very plausible). In the past, when Morrison has been caught out for his denials, he has always had a fallback excuse. With that modus operandi in mind, it's been interesting to watch the government's recent forceful attempts to tell business what to do. I can't help feeling as though ministers are preparing their alibis for when the economy falters. If only, they will say, business had taken their advice.
Paper over cracks, deny when you can, make excuses when you can't. This type of "astute" political management works fine - until tipping points are reached, and voters start to suffer. At that point, voters blame governments, and no excuse in the world will change their minds.
- Sean Kelly is a former adviser to Labor prime ministers Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard and SMH/The Age columnist.