It was refreshing to hear Malcolm Turnbull late last year, while still newly ascended to the prime ministership and enjoying towering prominence in the polls, to put early election speculation to rest by declaring that the Coalition government would go full term. Rather than take advantage of his popularity, Turnbull said he was “expecting” to call an election “around September, October” this year.
This undertaking seemed to confirm the measure of the man; here was a Prime Minister who was clearly determined to retire the naked politics of his predecessor. Malcolm Turnbull was living up to voters’ expectations of their new Prime Minister being more statesman than politician.
Turnbull’s immediate appeal to the electorate was the fact that he was the antithesis of Tony Abbott: urbane, charismatic, articulate, thoughtful – prime ministerial. And perhaps most importantly he was perceived as a moderate and a modernist whose eye was on 2050 rather than 1950. Among his many faults, Abbott was embarrassingly stuck in a past that was no longer relevant to most Australians. The Prince Phillip knighthood fiasco was not of itself the reason to draw a line under Abbott’s cringeworthy prime ministership, it was simply one reflection too many of a tin-eared Prime Minister who was irretrievably out of sync with the Australian people.
Turnbull’s demeanour, reputation and public utterances on a range of hot-button issues suggested a Prime Minister in whom Australians could place their trust to be a leader for the 21st century.
But many voters of late have wondered what became of that idealistic figure, a doubt which has been reflected in recent opinion polls. Turnbull and the Coalition remain well ahead of Bill Shorten and Labor respectively, but there’s been a noticeable wobble in the polls recently which suggests voters fear that Turnbull is after all just another politician, albeit a charming one.
Turnbull has changed; he’s more of a politician than he used to be, and perhaps he needs to be to keep in check the febrile Abbott-right conservatives who are suspicious of his progressive inclinations.
Malcolm Turnbull is well aware, perhaps too aware, that he lost leadership of the Liberal Party to Tony Abbott in 2009, albeit narrowly, because he stood on principle rather than political opportunism in his support for the Rudd government’s emissions trading scheme.
The disappointing upshot of that experience is that Turnbull has gagged himself from speaking out on the issues that call for Keatingesque leadership and resolve: asylum seekers, same-sex marriage, the republic, climate change, et al.
Turnbull the heart-breaker
To hear a mealy-mouthed Turnbull casually dismiss the republic as a second-order issue is almost as heart-breaking as the republic referendum sabotaged by proto-monarchist John Howard. Turnbull’s insistence on a plebiscite, rather than a vote of Parliament, on same-sex marriage, is contrary to his earlier stated position and an abrogation of leadership on what is an essential reform. Turnbull turning a blind eye to the unspeakable suffering of asylum seekers in off-shore detention centres is another heart-breaker. On climate change – Greg Hunt’s Coco Pops award as Best Minister in the Known Universe notwithstanding – world leaders must be wondering if Australia has the same understanding of the threat posed by climate change as the rest of the world.
Even Turnbull’s broad-shouldered commitment that all tax matters would be up for debate as part of an open process to arrive at necessary tax reform has proven short-lived. Turnbull’s premature decision to rule out changes to the GST – despite his commitment to bring “rule in/rule out” politics to an end – revealed a Prime Minister who did not have the stomach for genuine consideration of the GST option.
Turnbull buckled under the pressure of Labor’s scare campaign against a “15% GST”, a rare win for Opposition Leader Bill Shorten. Yet there was every indication that the electorate was open to an increase in the GST from 10% to 12.5% as being in the national interest. Paul Keating, Australia’s most influential and unflinching economic reformer, while implacably opposed to a 15% GST as a general revenue raiser, did see merit in a GST increase of “one or two percent” if the extra revenue was earmarked for health spending.
But with Labor’s scare campaign starting to bite, Turnbull decided that discretion was the better part of valour and closed down the debate, leaving two State Premiers – Jay Weatherill in South Australia and Mike Baird in NSW – high and dry. They had taken Turnbull at his word and bought into the GST debate (supporting an increase) at considerable political risk to themselves. The backdown also caught short Treasurer Scott Morrison who was up for the fight and left him in a position not dissimilar to Paul Keating in 1985 when Bob Hawke reversed his support for then Treasurer Keating’s consumption tax – and we all know how that ended.
Seeking a mandate
So what’s going on? For those prepared to Turnbull the benefit of the doubt – including this writer – the forgiving interpretation is that he is unwilling to act on matters of policy principle until he can be sure of having a mandate that can only come with an election win in his own right. On this reading, Turnbull, his prime ministership “legitimised” through the ballot box, will have political license to unveil the “real Malcolm” without reference to his lunar-right colleagues.
On his recent performance, however, we are left to wonder whether even a mandate will embolden Turnbull. On the key policy areas outlined above, Turnbull has not even seen fit to drop any clues, subtle or otherwise, that change may come with a returned Turnbull government. But perhaps he is playing it extra careful.
If so, the time for an election is sooner rather than later. If Turnbull feels that he requires a win – and presumably a decisive win – before he can take on the conservative elements within his party, and indeed his Coalition partner, then he must attain that mandate at the nearest opportunity.
Labor is gaining traction when it accuses Turnbull of being Abbott in Italian suits; it is not a charge that Turnbull can allow to take root if we are to see the best of the Turnbull government.
Malcolm Turnbull will stand condemned if he squanders the opportunity that he has worked a lifetime towards.
Perhaps this is not lost on Turnbull. In recent weeks Turnbull has, despite his early assurance, hinted that an early election, and possibly a double dissolution, is on the cards.
According to some pundits, a double dissolution would give a returned Turnbull government rare control of both houses. That would be an even better outcome for Turnbull and indeed for Australia. Although there is some democratic merit in the government of the day not controlling the upper house, Australia is at risk of languishing as a middling back-water nation of no account. Or in the call-to-arms warning of Paul Keating, a banana republic.
Australia needs principled and decisive government. It is still within Malcolm Turnbull’s grasp to go down as one of our great Prime Ministers. There is no doubt that Turnbull has returned gravitas to the office of Prime Minister. But he must go much further if he and his government are to leave an indelible imprint on Australia in the way that the Hawke-Keating governments did.
There is no doubting the vision, intellect and stamina that Turnbull brings to government. But it is leadership that Australians call for; leadership that will herald Australia’s arrival as a 21st century nation.
This can be Australia’s century, and Turnbull is the man most likely to usher Australia well and truly into the new century. That includes decisive action not just on the economic front, but on touchstone issues such as the just and long overdue constitutional reconciliation with the First Australians, the republic, same-sex marriage, the environment, energy reform, asylum seekers, federation reform, population policy and no doubt much for.
It’s a tall agenda and it’s an agenda that the Turnbull government must address without impediment, compromise or political reservation. If an early election means that we get to see an untrammelled Turnbull government, then most Australians would welcome such an election. Bring it on, Malcolm.