Turnbull v Gretch – a truly ugly moment

August 6, 2009 |

Politics is as tough a gig as they come.  At the pointiest end, parliamentary politics, it can feel like a sitting in a blast furnace while having the weights dropped on you.  And I only know that from being a research officer/speech writer many years ago.  A hard day in court can be stressful.  With a grumpy judge or a case going to hell the adrenalin output must be equivalent to our ancestors reaction when first seeing the lion/sabertooth tiger up close and personal.  But usually the stress in court is anticipated and there is a conclusion to the terror.  Not so in politics.

How Turnbull could have emerged from this trainwreck?  Let’s look at it through the eyes of a lawyer.  After all he was a barrister for a while.And despite what the scribblers of the Press Gallery write there is always more than one option.

Turnbull has run the “I am a victim here” line.  He was duped.  He was lied to.  He is the wronged one. True on all accounts at first blush.  But it takes very little analysis to see how bereft that argument is. He is in no different a position than a barrister/solicitor who sees his key witness turn 180 degrees in the box.  The whole proofing thing goes to hell.  In my second year at the bar and my first trial I was severely burnt by a a witness in a personal injury case.  She was a young Irish exchange student.  Butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth.  Yep, she saw the whole thing and yep my client was wronged.  So I start questioning her and all of a sudden her memory fades and but she does remember seeing my client moving in a way that she thought contributed to the collision.  With a grumpy defendant orientated judge and a take no prisoners opponent that was a bad day one to a very, very long three day trial.

So what should a barrister do?   Suck it in and takes your hits.  The term for it is “confess and avoid.”  Turnbull wanted to make a big splash and get the killer point.  He took the risk on an inside source who went melancholy on him.  Sure he was dudded but so what.  He ran high risk.  The risk crystallised.  Crash. Michelle Grattan, who thinks politics only leaves one viable option to every scenario, approved the approach when saying:

MALCOLM Turnbull has presented a solid case to show how he was duped by the very strange Godwin Grech. Whether this will be enough to rescue Turnbull’s credibility after this extraordinary affair is quite another matter. He has taken such a battering that he is likely to have suffered deep, permanent wounds.

Still, most honest journalists would have to admit that, presented with Grech and his document, they would have thought they had a pretty watertight story. Especially given that the evidence points to a long relationship with the Opposition.

Grattan is wrong.  There is no “solid case” is demonstrating you are duped.  All Turnbull demonstrated in his detailed analysis/defence was that he was duped.  As for the “very strange” Gretch that is a childish piece of analysis.  You take your witnesses as you find them.  OK Gretch is is eccentric and perhaps a bit strange, whatever that means.  It is part of the assessment process to look at a witness and decide whether they can be believed.  To now say they are strange, living a double life or whatever is neither here nor there.   As for what most honest journalists might or might not have done is irrelevant. Checking sources and a natural skeptisism should keep such missteps to a minimum.

When I worked as a staffer there was a steady trickle, sometimes a stream, of people offering all sorts of government destroying material.  Most of it was rubbish.  Sometimes there was some potentially good material, sometimes from public servants (or so they claimed).  But then you looked at the source.  Usually you begged off because there was just something wrong.

The problem is that Turnbull forgets or has never really understood that opposition politics is like siege warfare; incremental developments, slowly working towards the defences all the while trying to protect yourself.  There is a lot of hard digging and few moments of glorious action.  Turnbull sees himself as a petardier, charging the gates, placing the petard and hoping he doesn’t get shot on the way there or the way back or being blown up by the petard.  Well he got “hoisted by his own petard” here. But Turnbull should have known as a barrister that few cases are won on one question or even a short run of questions.

The most troubling aspect about this affair is how Turnbull has strung Gretch out over a proverbial ant hill.  It has shades of Nixon removing his staff, one at a time as the Watergate scandal grew, hoping that with each sacrifice the wolves will be sated.

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