For Turnbull, Dastyari is a gift that keeps on giving Tony Walker

Bill Shorten is long way from the record of Harold Wilson, Britain's prime minister between 1964-70 and 1974-76, but in one respect he would identify with a much-quoted Wilson observation

During the sterling crisis of 1964 when the British pound was under enormous stress, a hard-pressed Wilson said this to lobby correspondents: "A week is a long time in politics."

This observation might have become a political cliche, but it does not make it any less pertinent.

Shorten has just endured one of his worst weeks as Opposition Leader. He will be hoping Wilson is right and he can put behind him a horror few days thanks to the appalling judgment of one of his own.

Just over a week ago, colleagues at Fairfax Media reported Labor senator Sam Dastyari had tipped off a Chinese donor his phone was being tapped by intelligence agencies.

Taken together with revelations Dastyari had accepted money on a previous occasion from this same big money donor to pay his personal debts, that was bad enough.

But when it emerged the next day in further Fairfax reporting of a previously unpublished tape recording that showed the senator had lied about remarks contradicting Labor policy in a private briefing with Chinese media on the South China Sea, his position became untenable.

He has been stood down. He should be obliged to find alternative employment. This is unacceptable behaviour for a public official in an environment in which Chinese daqian - literally "big money" - influence risks corrupting the politics.

Bill Shorten: has just endured one of his worst weeks as opposition leader. Photo: Nick Moir

Bill Shorten: has just endured one of his worst weeks as opposition leader. Photo: Nick Moir

In long overdue legislation to ban foreign political donations - and require those acting on behalf of foreign entities to register - the Turnbull government should be commended.

What is now required is a clinical approach to cataloguing institutions that seek to influence the political process and their sources of funding. There is no point putting legislation on the statute books unless it is properly policed in the interests of transparency, especially when it comes to lobbying organisations operating in the service of foreign entities.

Labor Senator Sam Dastyari: should be obliged to find alternative employment. Photo: Mick Tsikas  

Labor Senator Sam Dastyari: should be obliged to find alternative employment. Photo: Mick Tsikas

 

This brings us back to Shorten's various predicaments, starting with the Dastyari affair, and including a byelection this weekend in the Sydney suburban seat of Bennelong. Then there is the likelihood of at least one byelection in the new year in a seat Labor may well lose in Shorten's Victorian heartland.

For an embattled Turnbull government, the Dastyari matter is a gift that keeps on giving. To say the Labor senator's colleagues are in a rage with him would be an understatement.

Australian political history is replete with cases like this that shift the calculus one way or the other.

Attorney-General George Brandis has ensured the matter will linger by moving to refer the case to Parliament's Privileges Committee.

Shorten's options are not palatable. But this is leadership. If he does nothing and allows the Dastyari matter to fester, he will look weak. On the other hand, he would be risking an argument with the New South Wales right if he moves against one of its own, notwithstanding what this is costing Shorten and party politically.

"We have lost all momentum because of this," says a prominent Shorten ally on the Labor right.

While Shorten's immediate concerns may revolve around the misbehaviour of one of his higher profile factional allies, he has multiple other political uncertainties starting with the coming weekend's Bennelong byelection.

A bad loss would add to his woes after a year during which he could afford to allow Malcolm Turnbull to stew in juice confected by a phalanx of critics on the right in the Coalition caucus and in a Sky News echo chamber.

Speaking of factional allies, among Shorten's other multiplying headaches is the case of his long-time friend David Feeney, in the Melbourne seat of Batman, who is being self-referred to the High Court after falling back on the "dog ate my homework" excuse for "mislaying" his citizenship documents.

It is hard to see Labor holding Batman in the event of a byelection. Feeney was lucky to survive against a Greens challenge in 2016 after suffering 9.58 per,cent swing against him.

Given trends in the recent state byelection in Northcote, in which the Greens candidate crushed her Labor opponent, Feeney - or an alternative - would be gone. Northcote largely falls within Batman's boundaries.

If anything, parts of Batman are more gentrified than Northcote, and therefore "Greener", potentially.

In Turnbull's case luck might be said to be a fortune, thanks to Dastyari and a feel-good environment surrounding the passage of the same sex marriage legislation.

However, it remains to be seen whether any bounce will prove to be more than a dead cat.

As far as Shorten is concerned, the two weeks until Christmas and a momentary cessation of hostilities will seem like a very long time. We might remind ourselves as well that, not much more than a week ago, Turnbull's fervid critics on the right were predicting he was about to enter a "killing season".