Bill Shorten believes he was robbed of the prime ministership and that should make Anthony Albanese very nervous

Bill Shorten is a political animal. Unelectable, but a political animal nonetheless. And while he may lack appeal, he does not lack wile.

He better than most understands the importance of optics in politics, and that is said despite his predilection for jogging for the cameras.

Instead of retiring to the backbench following his second successive election loss he very forcefully let it be known that he wanted to be a member of Anthony Albanese’s frontbench – despite having reportedly backed and campaigned for his deputy Tanya Plibersek to succeed him as Labor leader.

Albanese obliged his former boss by appointing him shadow minister for the NDIS and government services. “I thank Albo for giving me these responsibilities,” said Shorten, his chummy informality very possibly masking a range of truths, not the least being that he too struggles with the pronunciation of Albanese.

As for Plibersek, she had publicly declined the leadership, declaring that “now is not my time”.

“At this point, I cannot reconcile the important responsibilities I have to my family with the additional responsibilities of the Labor leadership,” she explained.

Plibersek has consistently taken this position over several years, placing family before political destiny. But while Plibersek can be taken at her word on matters of family, and likewise on her assessment that time is on her side, it is still telling to note what she has turned her back on.

Having lost two unlosable elections on the trot Labor will be understandably gun-shy about entering the 2022 election as favourites…but it will be, particularly if the Morrison government continues on its shambolic way.

There is every chance, given the “Rudd rule” which is designed to protect incumbents from challengers, that whoever is leader of federal Labor today will be prime minister in three years.

But do you get the feeling that nobody in the Labor caucus believes that?

Plibersek has plainly taken the view that accepting the leadership presented to her on a silver platter might not be the gift that it appears to be. Faction hostilities, after a hiatus of six years, show every sign of reigniting.

Shorten’s decision to remain on the frontbench is replete with portent. Albanese must know that but there is little he can do about it.

Albanese has decided to accommodate Shorten’s request, which is a little like “deciding” to say “yes” (on anything) to an 800Ilb gorilla. There is no way that Shorten’s Right faction would have permitted the Left’s Albanese to consign Shorten to the backbench against his will.

Although the NDIS is a matter close to Shorten’s heart, Albanese, in choosing it and the strictly junior portfolio of government services, will be hoping that Shorten’s narrow frontbench responsibilities will limit the subjects on which Shorten can speak publicly.

It will be interesting – and revealing – to see whether at some point Shorten claims the right, as a former Labor leader, to speak on any subject of his choosing.

Long-time leadership rivals

Shorten and Albanese are long-time leadership rivals. After the defeat of the second Rudd government in 2013 Shorten and Albanese became the first to contest the leadership under the Rudd Rule. The rank and file membership backed “Albo” but the caucus backed Shorten and triumphed.

It is almost certain that if not for the Rudd Rule Albanese would have challenged Shorten at some point in the latter’s leadership of Labor in opposition. Former leader of the House Christopher Pyne was not just creating mischief in Parliament when he repeatedly referred to Albanese’s leadership ambitions, much to his Labor mate’s discomfort.

One critical factor that protected Shorten’s leadership against anyone who would dare unleash the cumbersome and divisive process of launching a challenge under the new rules was the importance placed on a united Labor party.

Shorten, who played a key role in destabilising the prime ministerships of Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard, benefited from the self-evident – if self-interested – assertion that Australian voters would only trust a united Labor with government.

Except that they didn’t. Having lost the second successive unlosable election Labor’s factions immediately cast aside all semblance of unity and amity. Television footage of the first post-election Labor caucus meeting rendered palpable the unease and discord behind the wooden smiles.

Albanese becomes federal Labor’s twenty-first leader – elected unopposed; Richard Marles (shadow minister for defence) is his deputy. The redoubtable Penny Wong remains Labor leader in the Senate (and shadow foreign affairs minister), and former NSW Premier Kristina Keneally (shadow home affairs minister) – a loved or loathed figure in the Labor caucus – is her deputy. (Time will tell which senator will be the first to switch to the lower house.)

Keneally’s leadership berth comes at Albanese’s insistence. To make it happen, Labor’s byzantine factions, perhaps for one last time, chose to accommodate the new leader’s impertinence. In the name of gender equality the very talented Ed Husic stepped aside from the frontbench to create a spot for Keneally.

Albanese was quick to claim credit: “I’m making it very clear as leader of the Labor party [that] I want the best team, and the best team includes Kristina Keneally.”

Sacrifices made and not made

One might reasonably pose the question: if Albanese’s role is to come up with the strongest possible frontbench surely places could be found for both Husic and Keneally? That should be but isn’t Albanese’s role; his role is to balance the competing demands of the reawakened factions. Keneally is on the frontbench thanks to Husic’s sacrifice and she is deputy senate leader thanks to Right powerbroker Don ‘Who?’ Farrell giving up his claim on the deputy’s role.

Farrell, a key player in the defenestration of Rudd as prime minister, will no doubt keep a keen eye on the favour balance sheet, particularly as a boastful Albanese felt it prudent to claim credit for Farrell’s sacrifice.

“Even though he had the substantial support of caucus colleagues, [Farrell] was prepared to step aside as Labor’s deputy leader in the Senate on the basis that he understood that I had made it clear that my view was there needed to be gender balance in Labor’s leadership team,” Albanese said with firmness, if not elegance.

Farrell will be able to reflect on his sacrifice at his leisure: he has been appointed shadow minister for sport and tourism.

Shorten, however, did not feel the need to take a hit for the team. He would have known that his continued presence on the frontbench would spark speculation about his remaining leadership aspirations, as indeed it has. But his words have spoken far louder than his actions.

At the abovementioned Labor caucus meeting Shorten, while pledging his love for the Labor party and loyalty to Albanese – “I am ready to help you with uniting our party and carrying the case for Labor values” – made a point of blaming everyone but himself for the shock loss.

“[O]bviously we were up against corporate leviathans, a financial behemoth, spending an unprecedented hundreds of millions of dollars advertising, telling lies, spreading fear,” he said.

“Powerful vested interests campaigned against us, through sections of the media itself, and they got what they wanted.”

These words are telling and should make Albanese very nervous. In blaming dark forces in corporate Australia and the media (read Murdoch) Shorten is saying that voters were denied the opportunity to consider Labor under Shorten as ready for government. From this can be extrapolated the corollary: given clear air, given another chance, Shorten would be much more attractive to Australian voters as the alternative prime minister.

Bill Shorten believes he was robbed of the prime ministership and that spells danger for Anthony Albanese. Meanwhile, Peter Dutton still harbours leadership ambitions and will be watching Scott Morrison like a hawk. RIP the Canberra bubble? Don’t count on it.

Leo D’Angelo Fisher is a Melbourne journalist, writer and commentator. He is a former columnist with BRW and the Australian Financial Review and was a senior writer at The Bulletin magazine. He is on Twitter @DAngeloFisher

 

Shorten’s tears for his mum rev up the campaign and put News Corp on the defensive…but who was right?

The federal election campaign is in the home stretch which might explain why a deadly-dull election has taken on a suddenly manic turn. That’s not to say that disengaged punters are necessarily paying more attention – or even any attention – but the pollies and the media are getting all fired up.

For party leaders girding their loins for the final week of campaigning the issues have never been more urgent: will campaign scouts be able to find enough babies, hospital patients and factory workers in high-vis vests to see out the campaign? Who’s being disendorsed this week? Can we make our scare campaigns scarier?

What really woke up the campaign was Bill Shorten tearing up as he recounted how much he loved his mum. As any tabloid-TV producer knows there’s nothing like tears to get the ratings soaring.

Bill was crying because the Daily Telegraph was mean to his late mum, Ann, and everyone seemed to agree with Bill that he was a victim of News Corp’s “gotcha shit”.

Social media, never an institution to overlook a good cry, was as one in condemning News Corp and embracing Bill with cuddle-bunny warmth and tenderness. Levels of engagement normally reserved for cat videos, reality TV walkouts and Eurovision upsets went Bill’s way, giving his lacklustre campaign a last-minute surge.

The Daily Telegraph brushed off the opprobrium, indeed wore it as a badge of honour, and insisted that it was simply filling in the blanks of Bill’s potted back-story heard on what was generally agreed to be Bill’s star turn on ABC TV’s QandA program.

The backlash against News Corp has been seismic. Tony Koch, a 30-year veteran who worked for The Australian and Brisbane’s Courier Mail and winner of five Walkley awards, wrote an op-ed in The Guardian in which he blasted the “shameful bias” of his former mastheads:

“No editor I worked for would have put up with the biased anti-Labor rubbish that, shamefully, the papers now produce on a daily basis.”

Koch’s j’accuse is not to be discounted, but is The Australian’s bias – let’s not shilly-shally, of course there’s bias, sometimes breathtaking in its brazenness – really such a new thing? Is Murdoch’s influence more pernicious today than it has been in the past?

Koch is not the only News Corp insider to answer the latter question with a resounding ‘Yes’.

The Guardian’s media correspondent Amanda Meade – who was the must-read media writer at The Australian for 18 years – followed up Koch’s spray with a report that The Australian’s social affairs writer, Rick Morton, had gone on the record to criticise his newspaper.

‘Something has changed in the last six months’

Morton, a thoughtful and penetrating writer, told journalism students at the University of Technology Sydney that senior writers know what the “editorial line” is this election and write their stories accordingly. But the virulence of bias at The Australian has journalists worried.

“There is a real mood that something has gone wrong,” Morton told the UTS students. “People will tell you going back a decade it used to be a very great paper, and in many ways it still is, but some of the craziness has been dialled up.”

Morton added that “something has changed in the last six months”.

“I don’t know what it is. Death rattles or loss of relevance? And journos pretty much spend all day talking about it.”

Journalists at The Australian shouldn’t be too hard on the broadsheet or themselves. It still has some of the best journalism and writing in the country (including Morton’s). As for the bias, well, to be blunt, the Sun King will be breathe his last any day now. It’s unlikely that he will be setting “editorial lines” from the grave, although if anyone can, Rupert’s the man.

Is the “craziness” a function of Rupert Murdoch and his band of Little Ruperts, in which case salvation is only one obituary away, or is the poison so deeply rooted in News Corp culture that so is News Corp? (Rooted, that is.)

Which takes us back to Shorten’s mum and the Daily Telegraph. The newspaper clearly crossed the line in what it says was an exercise in correcting the record. Its virulence went well beyond overzealous reporting; it was a hatchet job and as such was widely seen as the latest salvo in a co-ordinated News Corp assault on Bill Shorten.

The overwhelming condemnation of the Daily Telegraph’s story was telling, although it is not immediately clear telling of what. Has News Corp finally offended community standards of decency? Will the backlash cause the empire’s editors to, if not retreat, tone down their bias in this and future elections? Will News Corp journalists do what their Fairfax comrades did in 1988 and demand a charter of editorial independence?

The pity of the Daily Telegraph’s jack-booted job on Bill Shorten and his mum is that a reasonable point was obscured by the rivers of bile.

Shorten’s argument found much favour

The premise of the attack was that Shorten only told part of the story on QandA when he recounted, sotto voce and with sorrowful countenance, how his mother gave up her dream to study law to instead train as a teacher because it came with a scholarship which would be a boon for her straitened family.

The Daily Telegraph’s position was that Shorten deliberately neglected to mention that Bill’s mum did go on to become a barrister. That was the “gotcha shit” that Shorten was referring to. Shorten later argued that he had discussed his mother’s legal career on previous occasions and so was not hiding anything in the latest telling of his story.

Shorten’s argument found much favour but by my reckoning it is disingenuous sophistry. One does not seek to make a defining statement – in Shorten’s case, how his late mother’s struggle was the reason he pursued a political career – by assuming that some of the most important detail will be understood and therefore need not be repeated.

As any seasoned politician knows: always assume there is someone in the room who hasn’t heard your argument or position before.

I, for one, did not know that Ann went on to become a barrister, despite hearing Shorten’s tribute to his mother several times.

Shorten made an error of judgement in being selective, on this particular occasion, about his mother’s life struggle. You do not address a national television audience, in a bid for the prime ministership, and wittingly or unwittingly tell only half of a story intended to elicit sympathy and/or admiration, and not expect to be called on it. It’s immaterial that the story happened to be a moving account about his mother.

There are lessons to be taken from this unfortunate incident. There are lessons that may or may not be heeded by News Corp. And there are lessons that election campaign strategists should consider.

Political leaders seeking to profit from their backstory are only asking for trouble. Kevin Rudd and Malcolm Turnbull sought to be defined (and reimagined) by their back-stories, only to have aspects of their narrative challenged. In any case, loving your mum is irrelevant to one’s qualifications for high office or as a measure of decency. Al Capone loved his mum too.

If Bill Shorten is the victor next week it will be entirely appropriate that Ann receives loving tribute from her son. Anything else Bill has to say about his mum will hopefully be saved for his memoir.

Leo D’Angelo Fisher is a Melbourne journalist, writer and commentator. He is a former columnist with BRW and the Australian Financial Review and was a senior writer at The Bulletin magazine. He is on Twitter @DAngeloFisher

 

We need to talk about Bill: Shorten’s unpopularity could still lose Labor the unlosable election

Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Treasurer Josh Frydenberg opened the federal election campaign proudly spruiking Frydenberg’s “back in the black” Budget. It was a disingenuous start to the campaign.

There is nothing in the black about Frydenberg’s first and very possibly last budget. More murky grey. The much vaunted surplus – intended to reinforce the mythology of the Liberals’ superiority over Labor as economic managers – is in fact a predicted surplus of $7 billion in 2019-20, which means it is not a fact at all.

The intention of the Government’s sophistry is to ensure that the binary of Liberal/surplus dominates the campaign.

The bogus nature of the Coalition’s budget was implicitly understood by the electorate. One powerful reason for this – something either not understood or simply ignored by the Government – is that despite giddy claims of a strong economy most Australians feel as if they are in the middle of a recession.

Negligible wages growth, job insecurity, underemployment, the rising cost of living at odds with official inflation data, crippling household debt, looming mortgage shock, a discernible gap between the richest and poorest and lacklustre consumer confidence combine to create a bleak reality far removed from the Government’s upbeat “back in the black” mantra.

In his Budget reply, Opposition leader Bill Shorten, delivering one of his best parliamentary performances, forcefully challenged the Government’s rosy view of the economy. He questioned the Budget’s optimistic assumptions, he identified some of Frydenberg’s conjuring tricks (most notably the sleight of hand involved in using the $3.4 billion underspend in the National Disability Insurance Scheme in the current financial year and a $3 billion reduction in NDIS spending for 2019-20 to pump up the projected surplus. This despite the fact that there is broad stakeholder agreement that the NDIS is dangerously underfunded.

Shorten was also effective in making his case that the Government’s regime of tax-cuts was in the face of a worsening global economic outlook.

“This isn’t a tax plan, it’s a ticking debt bomb,” Shorten said in one of his most devastating pronouncements. Another was: “What we need is a fighting fund for the country, a strong surplus to protect us from international shocks.”

The Budget was designed to put a spring in the Government’s step as it entered the election campaign. Instead, the Budget revealed its feet of clay. No wonder Morrison put off announcing the election for as long as possible.

Labor returns to its roots

Labor entered the campaign not only buoyed by the Budget’s manifest inadequacies but also Shorten’s Budget reply, which delivered an election manifesto unequalled since the Hawke-Keating years.

While the Liberal party can’t get past the nonsense of “if you have a go, you get a go”, Labor returned to its roots in setting out a vision for Australia that struck a chord with Australians no longer content with having their destinies decided by market.

The Liberal party promise of small government is ideological deadwood.

Australia has never had small government, nor has there ever been a genuine clamour for it. But it has been a clarion call that has historically served the Liberals well. Whatever “small government” has meant to Australians, it seems to have pressed the right buttons.

Labor goes into the election not with the promise of big government – no one would dare – but with a commitment to a big agenda: the revitalisation of TAFE, vocational education and training and apprenticeships; a voice for Indigenous Australians in policy-making (including the promise that the “Father of Reconciliation”, Senator Pat Dodson, will be Minister for Indigenous Affairs in a Shorten government); the ceasing of hostilities between Canberra and the ABC, including a commitment to boost regional broadcasting; and funding boosts for the NDIS, health (including the $2.3 billion expansion of bulk billing and the “biggest cancer-care package in Australian history”), education (including pre-school education) and infrastructure; and renewed commitments to addressing climate change, the introduction of a “living wage” and restoration of penalty rates.

Labor’s agenda is not just about economic management, but about values and a vision for Australia, long missing in Australian public discourse.

After six years of a Coalition government that has never been comfortable with the mantle of government (despite its belief that it is the natural party of government), which has found itself hostage to ideological warfare between the moderate and conservative wings of the party (resulting in three prime ministers in six years), and which has given every appearance – exhausted, frayed and erratic – of a government that has been in power not six years but 16. Add to that one of the weakest ministries since Federation, and a coalition partner comprising an assortment of village idiots, and the Morrison government’s “pro” column is looking pretty depleted.

Not surprisingly, the opinion polls could hardly spell better news for Labor and one does not have to be a one-eyed leftie to judge Scott Morrison a bumbling, inept and shallow prime minister of caricature proportions.

Voters wary of the Bill factor

And yet, with the election in full swing, there is noticeably little appetite for declaring Labor the sure winner. The reason for that reticence can be summed up in two words: Bill Shorten.

The same opinion polls that have consistently put Labor ahead of the Coalition also highlight Shorten’s unpopularity with voters. It’s true that disliking a leader generally does not dissuade Australians from voting for the leader’s party. And yet, Bill Shorten seems to be in a league of his own when it comes to unpopularity. One does not need the pollster’s statistics to know that most Australians have a visceral dislike of Shorten.

It’s difficult to pinpoint why that is, mainly because there are so many possibilities. Bill Shorten is the Charlie Brown of Australian politics: wishy-washy, indecisive, bland, with a penchant for saying the wrong thing. Yet most of us love Charlie Brown – as long as he doesn’t ask us to vote for him – so what is it over and above Shorten’s wishy-washiness that repels voters?

Most Australians cannot move beyond Shorten’s role in the unseating of Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard as prime minister. Shorten has made some capital from the inability of Scott Morrison to explain why Malcolm Turnbull is no longer prime minister. Yet Shorten has never explained why he was moved to orchestrate the demise of Rudd and Gillard, let alone why, having deemed Rudd unelectable and/or unworthy of high office mid-way through his first term as prime minister, engineered his triumphant return.

Not to be unkind, but there is a lot more to dislike about Shorten.

His ambivalence on contentious policy issues (Adani, asylum seekers, taxation, Christmas Island) is grating, particularly when taken against his commendable readiness to release contentious policies such as the abolition of negative gearing and franking credits.

His wooden unease in public despite a lifetime in the public eye (“What’s your favourite type of lettuce?”), his inability to think quickly on his feet (from “I don’t know what PM Julia Gillard said, but I agree with her” to this week’s yes/no gaffe on superannuation taxation), his peculiar speechcraft (in which he experiments with various speaking techniques and intonations in a single speech), his tendency to speak to the media in over-rehearsed soundbites (and stumbling when speaking off the cuff) and his ill-advised jogging in the (presumably pre-arranged) media glare, complete with goofy grin, arms in the air triumphantly on crossing the non-existent finish line, and his bouncy exuberance.

Who is Bill Shorten?

Not unreasonably, voters like to think they have a handle on their political leaders when it comes to voting time. After six years as Opposition leader voters think they have at least a partial fix on Shorten: untrustworthy, inauthentic, evasive, awkward and perhaps a little strange. More frustrating, one suspects, is the feeling that if there is more to Shorten it’s many layers below the surface.

After his impressive Budget-reply speech Shorten seems to have reverted to his unpopular self.

Defenders of Bill Shorten point out that Shorten came within one seat of winning government. Others, including this writer, would argue that the 2016 election was Labor’s to win.

Australia cannot afford the return of the Morrison government. It is tired, incompetent and spent, has no long-term vision for Australia, nor a short-term understanding of the economic and social changes facing Australia. It’s also very likely that Morrison will find his leadership challenged, despite claims that the Liberal party has introduced a system to ensure it is more difficult to unseat a prime minister.

But Labor should be under no false illusions; a disaffected electorate will return the Coalition – very possibly as a minority government – if “the Shorten factor” proves too big an obstacle to overcome.

Labor has the agenda and a powerful line-up of shadow ministers to implement it. Australians need to hear more about the former and see more of the latter. As for Bill Shorten: just settle down. This is your race to win. Or lose.

Leo D’Angelo Fisher is a Melbourne journalist, writer and commentator. He is a former columnist with BRW and the Australian Financial Review and was a senior writer at The Bulletin magazine. He is on Twitter @DAngeloFisher

It would be a great achievement, but we should drop the bumper-sticker promise to halve the number of suicides in 10 years

There’s something distasteful about politicians promising to halve the number of suicides in 10 years. That’s the commitment of the Victorian government. It’s also the policy that federal Labor leader Bill Shorten took to the electorate at this year’s election. But can it really be that simple? Can the tragic epidemic of suicide be solved as an equation? In just 10 years?

Despite the epic dimensions of the suicide crisis in Australia – each year 2000-plus Australians end their own lives – politicians have mostly looked the other way. But suicide has finally made it on to the political agenda, thanks to the tireless efforts of mental health activists.

It is just like politicians to reduce suicide to a mindless slogan, a mathematical fancy, oblivious to the agonising and very personal hell that each case of suicide represents. We cannot know what torment tears at the heart and mind of someone who feels he has no choice but to take his own life. Stephen Fry speaks of the “blackness, lethargy, hopelessness, and loneliness” of depression, and so it must be with suicide. Suicide is an escape from an unremitting and deeply ingrained hell.

Despite the unimaginable burdens that suicide victims carry, when they finally do take their own lives, even the closest family and friends report no clues or warning signs beforehand.

So, while halving the suicide rate in 10 years might sound a worthy and decisive goal, given the complex, personal, determined and often very secretive nature of suicide, how can politicians make this bold, not to say rash, commitment with such confidence? There is no doubt that carefully targeted strategies can prevent some suicides from occurring – particularly in communities with a high prevalence of suicide and suicide attempts – but it’s also true, if you will forgive the black turn of phrase, that suicide has a life of its own. No effort should be spared to reach every potential suicide victim, but bumper-sticker targets only trivialise the agony that somebody contemplating suicide must experience. Australia’s suicide epidemic is much more complex than such such neat targets allow for.

To some extent politicians can be let off the hook on this occasion because the ambitious and catchy promise to halve suicide in 10 years originated with the experts.

Three years ago this month an Expert Reference Group (ERG) on Mental Health Reform – headed by Allan Fels – presented a series of targets to then new Health Minister Peter Dutton which included the recommendation to reduce Australia’s suicide rate by 10% within four years and 50% within 10 years. (Another target was to “reduce stigma against those living with mental illness” by 25% within 10 years, which seems a somewhat nebulous goal.)

Jack Heath, CEO of SANE Australia and ERG member said at the time that the targets “have come from the mental health sector and the wider community”.

“Holding ourselves responsible to specific targets is essential to mental health reform,” Heath said. “They are ambitious targets but Australia can meet them – if we put our minds to it.”

The target strategy is well understood in business, as reflected in two well-worn management maxims: if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it; and if you don’t know where you’re heading, you’ll never get there.

‘Suicide rates haven’t changed in the last 10 years’

The National Coalition for Suicide Prevention (NCSP) believes targets, when supported by “evidence-based strategies”, are attainable.

Professor Helen Christensen, NCSP member and director of the Black Dog Institute, says such strategies have helped to reduce suicide by 30% in Europe.

“Suicide rates haven’t changed in the last 10 years in Australia and just doing what we have always done is not really going to make any difference to those rates,” Christensen told the ABC last year.

“It has been a scattergun approach and funding has been distributed in a non-organised way. Initiatives are very fragmented and some are run by the government and others by NGOs.”

Christensen rejects the view that suicide is “an individual thing” and therefore not preventable: “[T]he evidence is very clearly the case that we can prevent suicide.”

There can be no ignoring the tragic proportions of suicide in Australia – and therefore the need for action – but until recently that’s exactly what has happened.

According to Australian Bureau of Statistics data released in March, there were 2,864 deaths from “intentional self-harm” in 2014, making suicide the 13th leading cause of deaths in Australia. (Around 65,000 attempted suicide.) Three-quarters (75.4%) of people who died by suicide were male, elevating suicide to the 10th leading cause of death for males.

Suicide is endemically rooted in Australian society. Annual death tolls are remarkably consistent and suicide is the most common cause of death among Australians aged 15-44. At the beginning of this century (2001), 2,457 Australians took their own lives, similar to the toll in 2013 (2,522) and 2012 (2,574). The 2014 spike is the highest since 1997, when 2,720 died by suicide.

It seems remarkable given such colossal loss of life that it has taken this long for politicians to confront Australia’s suicide epidemic. That they have finally done so is only because mental health activists have been relentless in their calls for government action.

Activists took full advantage of this being an election year to make suicide a policy priority for the major parties.

During the election campaign, an alliance of leading mental health advocates led by former CEO of the Mental Health Council of Australia and inaugural chairman of the National Advisory Council on Mental Health, John Mendoza, released suicide data in 28 federal electorates to stir candidates and MPs into supporting a national suicide-prevention strategy.

Its analysis of the 28 electorates found that between 2009-12 suicide rates exceeded the road toll and all but five had suicide rates at “high to extreme in levels”.

Any other cause of death at such magnitudes would have resulted in “a very assertive, nationally co-ordinated response”, Mendoza said. “Suicide and self-harm are now major public health problems in Australia that require a [national] public health response.”

To the credit of Mendoza and other suicide-prevention activists, this year has seen promising if belated political recognition of the need for concerted action on suicide.

‘No parent should ever bury their child’

Bill Shorten adopted the experts’ target of halving suicide rates over the next decade when he announced that a Labor government would invest $72 million to establish 12 regional suicide-prevention pilot programs in communities with high suicide rates, including in at least three indigenous communities.

Describing suicide as a “hidden story in this country” – in fact, not hidden, just ignored – Shorten also pledged $9 million for a national suicide prevention fund to support research into reducing suicides and programs to break down social stigma.

“Teenagers are taking days off school to attend the funerals of classmates who have taken their own life,” he said.

“Parents are sitting at kitchen tables, numb with incomprehension, shattered by grief, trying to write a eulogy for their child. No parent should ever bury their child. Yet seven Australians die every day at their own hand, every single day.”

Shorten didn’t get the chance to implement his promises, but for the first time a party of government had placed suicide front and centre on the national political agenda.

Victoria’s Labor government led by Premier Daniel Andrews is, however, in the position to implement a suicide-prevention strategy in his state. In 2015, 646 Victorians took their own lives.

“We cannot sit back and do nothing, and somehow accept that it is just the way things are,” Andrews said.

In July, he announced a strategy to halve Victoria’s suicide rate over the next 10 years by targeting at-risk communities.

The government has committed $27 million towards community-based support trials that will be implemented through sporting clubs, schools and other local networks. The program will also provide intensive support for people who have previously attempted suicide at six suicide hot spots throughout state.

The Victorian program will be implemented in 2017.

In August, an “integrated suicide prevention program” was launched in NSW with backing from the NSW Government, Commonwealth Primary Health Networks (PHN) and a $15 million grant from the Paul Ramsay Foundation.

Based on successful European models, the “Lifespan” program was developed by the Black Dog Institute and the NHMRC Centre for Research Excellence in Suicide Prevention.

The “evidence-based systems approach” will be implemented in four regional locations in NSW and involves the implementation of nine suicide-prevention strategies, including improved access to mental health care, quality education programs for people at the front line (emergency staff, teachers, GPs) and encouraging safe conversations about suicide in schools, workplaces and communities.

It is estimated that this new evidence-based program will reduce the suicide rate by at least 20% in “a few years” and suicide attempts by 30%.

These are welcome initiatives and hopefully herald ongoing government efforts to reduce the incidence of suicide in Australia.

Perhaps the “halving suicide in 10 years” promise was a clever ruse by savvy mental health activists to reel in politicians who tend to see things in terms of slogans and catchphrases. Given that politicians have notoriously short attention spans, it might also have been an attempt to lock them in for  10 years.

With suicide now on the political agenda, it might be best if we never hear again about halving suicide in a decade. Such promises have a way of turning into political red herrings that overshadow and even derail original good intentions. We need only recall Bob Hawke’s sincere but doomed “by 1990 no Australian child will be living in poverty”.

We don’t need the artificial inspiration of arbitrary targets when it comes to the scourge of suicide – or child poverty, for that matter – we must simply acknowledge the problem and ensure that governments take the best-informed actions to overcome it. At long last, we now appear to be on that path.

In the meantime, as a community we can play our part by bringing suicide out in the open and ensuring that it never again becomes a “hidden story”. We must talk about it, we must confront it and we must do everything we can to understand and overcome this corrosive epidemic which is killing so many of our young people, and many others, in communities around Australia.

Leo D’Angelo Fisher is a former associate editor and columnist with BRW and columnist for the Australian Financial Review. He was also a senior writer at The Bulletin magazine. Follow him on Twitter @DAngeloFisher or correspond via leodangelofisher@gmail.com

If you or someone you know may be at risk of suicide, help is available from Lifeline ­(13 11 14), the Suicide Call Back Service (1300 659 467) or Kids Helpline (1800 55 1800).

 

‘Q&A Malcolm’ is back and puts the Right on notice; meanwhile, Bill’s still telling whoppers

Malcolm Turnbull can still save his prime ministership, but to do so he must be bolder, more assertive and truer to himself than he has been in the 10 months since assuming the leadership from Tony Abbott in September last year.

Amid the uncertainty thrown up by voters on July 2, what is beyond doubt is that the key to restoring confidence in the Coalition government – and in government generally – is not Tony Abbott, nor is it the embrace of the Liberal party’s far right.

Seething sections of the Coalition – starting with Cory Bernadi and his band of merry men – are no doubt keen overthrow Turnbull, but in the Prime Minister’s favour is the fact that there is no ready successor. Turnbull should use this breathing space wisely and decisively.

Turnbull feigns bewilderment when told that voters have been disappointed that the “real Malcolm” disappeared from view soon after becoming Prime Minister. Constrained by leadership deals with conservative power blocs within the Coalition, Turnbull has been all elegance, no substance.

If Turnbull ever did sincerely doubt that voters were disenchanted with “Turnbull lite”, or even “Turnbull fake”, it would have been dispelled by the punishing election result. Punishing, not murderous.

If voters were truly finished with Turnbull, the result on July 2 would have been very different. Former Queensland Premier Campbell Newman can attest to the force of a hostile electorate. Even as a first-term government with a record majority the deeply unpopular Newman government was hurled out of office, and Newman himself lost his seat.

In the federal election year of 1996, the late Wayne Goss, the former reformist Premier of Queensland, said of then Prime Minister Paul Keating’s unpopularity in Queensland that voters were “sitting on their verandas with baseball bats, waiting for the writs to be issued”.

Flash-forward 20 years and nobody was talking of voters waiting for Turnbull with bats at the ready. Virtually no one seriously doubted that the Turnbull government would be returned, even within Labor ranks. Opinion polls that quizzed voters on who they thought would win the election – as opposed to who they were going to vote for – showed an overwhelming expectation that the government would be returned.

As stunning as the election result was, it can be surmised that voters were expressing their discontent with Turnbull in the expectation that he would still be PM on July 3. On the other hand, while the likes of Bernardi and Eric Abetz may still pine for their departed leader, it is a near certainty that had Tony Abbott gone to the polls as PM, the baseball bats would have been given a thorough workout. And Bill Shorten would be Prime Minister right now.

No prizes for almost winning

As it is, Shorten is revelling in his status as a giant slayer. But if the Turnbull government was so atrocious, and its policies so odious and Turnbull himself such a woeful Prime Minister – so inept that Shorten has demanded his resignation – then the logical question must be: why didn’t Labor win this election? A follow up question might be: why did Labor attract one of its lowest primary votes on record?

In politics there are no prizes for almost winning. This is bound to sink in at Labor headquarters sooner or later.

It is hard not to bring to mind the late Liberal leader Billy Snedden who, after losing to the Whitlam government in the 1974 federal election, insisted that he didn’t lose, “we [just] didn’t win enough seats to form a government”.

Shorten is for the moment enjoying his newly acquired adulation and especially Turnbull’s discomfort, but the Labor party has as many questions to ponder as the Liberal party. The fact is that the minor parties and independents scored their highest primary vote ever, which is to the discredit of both Labor and the Coalition.

Shorten’s at times graceless post-election skiting misses the point that voters are fed up with the political status quo.

The 2016 election result flatters neither Labor nor Shorten. Labor has mistaken a brush in the corridor as a moment of unbridled ardour. The ambivalent election result is democracy’s way of saying “A plague on both your houses!”

It took a rattled Turnbull longer than it should have to grasp the import of the July 2 result. On Monday he gave the leader’s speech that he should have given on election night, taking “full responsibility” for the government’s campaign and election result.

In conceding that there were “lessons to be learned” Turnbull went much further than simply making what has become a routine admission by penitent political leaders. He outlined what those lessons were and starkly confessed the failures that need to be corrected.

“There is no doubt that there is a level of disillusionment with politics, with government and with the major parties – our own included. We note that. We respect it,” he said in the Sydney address to the media.

“Now, we need to listen very carefully to the concerns of the Australian people expressed through this election. We need to look at how we will address those concerns.”

‘The Coalition must do better on health’

While still angry at Labor’s deceitful “Mediscare” campaign, in which it was falsely claimed that the government intended to privatise Medicare, Turnbull admitted the fact that the campaign succeeded was a matter for the Coalition to address.

“They [voters] believed it or at least had anxieties raised with it. It is very, very clear that [Deputy Prime Minister] Barnaby [Joyce] and I, and our colleagues, have to work harder to rebuild or strengthen the trust of the Australian people in our side of politics when it comes to health. There is no question about that,” Turnbull said.

“This was a shocking lie. I’m not going to pretend it’s anything else. But the fact that significant numbers of people believed it, or at least believed it enough to change their vote, tells us that we have work to do and we are committed to that. That is a very clear lesson.”

This was a frank and significant statement that gives notice to his troublesome colleagues on the right. In acknowledging that the Coalition must be seen to unequivocally support Medicare – that the healthcare system can no longer be treated as political fair game – the message was loud and clear that the ruthless and combative politics of the Abbott era are over.

Turnbull’s speech was the closest thing to “Q&A Malcolm” that voters have seen since he became Prime Minister.

If Turnbull is to recover his reputation and regain the trust of voters he can no longer afford to appease the right wing of his party. He will be only too aware that doing so almost scuttled his prime ministership.

It defies logic that Liberal conservatives are blaming Turnbull for a weak and uninspiring campaign when it placed the very restrictions on him that prevented him from venturing beyond the dull “jobs and growth” mantra.

Turnbull has served notice that he will now be Prime Minister on his terms. If true to his vow to restore the trust and confidence of the electorate, Australians can be satisfied that they have achieved what they set out to on July 2.

As for Bill Shorten, he is so busy gloating (and jogging) that he has given no indication whatsoever that Australians are fed up with mealy-mouthed and dissembling political leaders – whether Liberal or Labor.

Far from considering himself lucky to get away with his brazen Medicare scare campaign – and a few other whoppers along the way – Shorten was at it again this week when in his most prime ministerial bellow he warned of an imminent early election:

“There is a very real chance that Malcolm Turnbull is considering a snap federal election in the mistaken belief that this will sort out his problems.”

A “very real chance” that Turnbull is “considering” another election. Not only a concoction, but not even a convincing one. Talk about the Opposition Leader who cried wolf.

Quite apart from having no evidence for such a plan, the Governor-General would be under no obligation to accede to such a request from a caretaker Prime Minister. His first priority would be to ensure that one or the other party of government could secure a vote of confidence on the floor of the house.

If Malcolm Turnbull heeds the admonishment of the electorate and gets his act together, Australia may at last get the leadership it craves and Bill Shorten may find that his own leadership is undone by one whopper too many.

Leo D’Angelo Fisher is a journalist, writer and commentator. He is a former associate editor and columnist with BRW and columnist for the Australian Financial Review. He was also a senior writer at The Bulletin magazine. He is the author of the book Rethink: the Story of Edward de Bono in Australia (Wiley). Follow him on Twitter: @DAngeloFisher

Voters seem set to give Malcolm Turnbull a second chance as Bill Shorten reveals his darker side

It’s not over till the plus-size lady sings, but at this stage it looks like a win for the Turnbull government. However Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull needs more than just a win. It must be a decisive win if he is to have the authority necessary to ensure three years of stable – and energetic – government.

Despite the disappointment in the first leg of Turnbull’s prime ministership most Australians seem set to give him the benefit of the doubt and hope that he comes good once in possession of his own mandate.

It remains to be seen whether Turnbull has been biding his time before unleashing the “real Malcolm” or if in fact “pragmatic Malcolm” is the true tenor of the remade man. It’s hard to imagine that Turnbull, having coveted the prime ministership for so long, has no intention of leaving his mark on Australia as a moderate and visionary leader, but politics does strange things to people.

Not so Paul Keating who was always his own man. Keating has cut the template for a PM determined to use his office to drive reform, right social and historical wrongs, shape public opinion and set a course for the future. Keating, as Treasurer and later Prime Minister, had no interest in power for power’s sake. Keating was an activist Prime Minister, precisely the leader Australia needs at this critical time of rapid and profound social and economic change.

Turnbull is irritated by suggestions that his leadership has been constrained by a Faustian pact with the conservative bloc of his party, but it is the only credible explanation for a leader who has appeared compromised and unusually coy on so many issues.

A Coalition that just manages to scrape back into power is unlikely to give Turnbull the confidence or the impetus to break free from the influence of the hard right.

The opinion polls are not especially revealing about the likely outcome of the election. The Fairfax-Ipsos poll concludes that at 50-50 the two party preferred split makes it too close to call, while the Galaxy poll in News Corp papers shows the Coalition ahead 51-49 and The Australian’s Newspoll forecasts a modest 2.6% swing to Labor which would see the Coalition returned with 82 seats, Labor 63 and crossbenchers 5.

A result along the latter lines would allow Turnbull the internal authority he currently lacks – although to raise the former Labor PM again, one suspects Keating would waste no time bowing to the “pissants” and “low-altitude flyers” in the first place.

A contest of ideas and values

Although the marathon campaign has been variously described as tedious, boring and lacklustre, the 2016 election has nonetheless provided the first genuine contest of ideas and values in over a decade. For that, Labor leader Bill Shorten deserves credit.

Shorten has delivered a much stronger performance than even his closest supporters could have hoped for. A preparedness to release policies in the run up to the election strengthened his credentials as alternative PM.

Shorten has also been working on the cosmetics of his leadership. The most casual observer will have noticed an improved wardrobe – although not quite matching Turnbull’s sartorial elegance – and a speaking style that has shed some of its irritating tics. The zingers are noticeably, and mercifully, few and far between. And for what it’s worth, Shorten’s media team ensured that there were lots of TV grabs of the Opposition Leader jogging. If Dad Jogging attracts votes, then he’s on a winner.

Neither Turnbull nor Shorten had ever led an election campaign before, so neither side could be sure that their man had the stamina, discipline and mental toughness to withstand a gruelling eight-week campaign.

Turnbull, once known for his impatience, short-fuse and imperious intolerance, has been true to his word that he has changed from when he was Liberal leader the first time around. This campaign has borne that out in what has been a remarkably even, good humoured and unflappable – if uninspiring – performance by Turnbull.

For much of the campaign the “new Bill Shorten” took the fight to Turnbull and more than held his own. Strong debate performances, a good showing on the ABC’s Q&A program and an air of confidence raised the real possibility of a Shorten government after July 2.

But the last fortnight or so has revealed a side of Bill Shorten that has been less than prime ministerial.

Shorten’s “Mediscare” campaign – in which he insists that the Coalition secretly plans to privatise Medicare and that Turnbull’s promises to the contrary are lies – was breathtaking in its duplicity.

Health is clearly a weak spot for the Coalition and there’s plenty of material with which to mount an attack against the government. Shorten’s Medicare gambit is lazy and deceitful, made all the more extraordinary by Labor’s claims that the media is showing bias in taking Shorten to task.

Shorten’s sophistry on penalty rates is another example of cheap political trickery: Labor says the Coalition plans to cut penalty rates, but the decision on the future of penalty rates rests with the Fair Work Commission not the government. What’s more, it’s a decision that a Labor government would abide by.

Pick your ‘defining moment’

Shorten also over-reached when he dramatically announced “the defining moment of this campaign”… “the gaffe that marked the end of the Prime Minister’s credibility”.

The supposed gaffe – instantly featured in TV ads – was a statement by Turnbull in which he said that “what political parties say they will support and oppose at one time is not necessarily ultimately what they will do”.

It’s true. Turnbull did say that. But he immediately went on to say:

“You have seen the Labor Party has opposed many measures of ours at which they have subsequently supported or subsequently changed their position on. The best-known of those is obviously the School Kids Bonus, which they made an iconic issue and launched petitions and campaigns and said they were going to fight all the way to election day to restore it and then did a very quick backflip on that.”

If there is a defining statement in the campaign, it deserves to be Turnbull’s: “Bill Shorten put this Medicare lie at the heart of his election campaign. And they boast of how many people they have deceived. That’s not an alternative government, that’s an Opposition unfit to govern.”

Exaggerated claims and economies with the truth are an unedifying but inevitable feature of election campaigns, but Shorten has pushed the envelope to an unacceptable degree. If he is capable of telling such whoppers in pursuit of power, how can Australians be sure that he will not do so again in the exercise of that power? It’s a point that is especially apposite given that the question of trust has been canvassed by both political leaders in  this campaign.

Shorten has done himself, his party and the Australian electorate a disservice in sullying the election in this way.

Labor commenced the election campaign with policies, values and ideals that provided a stark contrast to the Coalition’s “jobs and growth” mantra and promised a bright alternative to the policy torpor of the past three years. Then they threw it all away.

Perhaps Labor feared that Australians were more concerned about the economic management credentials of the next government and its strength to face whatever challenges lay ahead.

Labor’s panicky resort to the Mediscare strategy initially seemed to work, although it remains to be seen whether the unravelling of that ruse in recent days will rebound against Labor.

What a pity that instead of trying to scare voters away from the Coalition that Shorten did not do more to emphasise Labor’s successful response to the Global Financial Crisis; and what a mistake not to focus on the strength of Labor’s considerable talent on its frontbench when compared to the government’s lacklustre frontbench.

In the end it has come down to the two men leading the parties of government. Based on their performance of the past eight weeks, the electorate will likely judge Turnbull to be the more effective campaigner and, more importantly, the more credible alternative as Prime Minister.

If that is the case, Turnbull should consider this a second (and final) chance by voters disappointed by his demur debut as PM but prepared to believe that we have yet to see the best of Malcolm Turnbull. It may also signal that Australians have seen the worst of Bill Shorten, and didn’t like it.

 

Where’s Malcolm? The election is Turnbull’s last chance to be the PM everyone thought he was going to be

It’s the question on everyone’s lips: “Where’s Malcolm?” And it’s not a misplaced question. The Malcolm Turnbull who became Prime Minister on September 15 last year – to the palpable relief of a grateful nation – is not quite the man who occupies the office today.

There are occasional glimpses of the charming, eloquent and charismatic visionary whose elevation to the top job aroused much anticipation. Even the Labor opposition seemed quite giddy and star-struck in those first few heady days of Malcolm at the despatch box. At question time, even when he dared to helpfully suggest the question the Opposition should have asked, there was much fluttering delight on the Labor side.

“Early Malcolm” certainly set the scene for the post-Abbott era: soaring speeches, a mini-summit of diverse interests that heralded a new era of inclusion and consultation, a softer tone on terrorism, and of course the innovation statement.

But then, just as suddenly as he appeared, the urbane statesman who promised to usher in the glorious “Turnbull era” became just another politician – and not a very good one, with missteps galore, wasted opportunities, flights of policy fancy that came and went in the space of a news cycle, and a curious reluctance to give voice to those convictions he once proudly wore on his bespoke sleeve: the republic, same-sex marriage, climate change, [insert your own issue here].

Perhaps, opined those prepared to give Turnbull the benefit of the doubt, including this writer, he was silenced by whatever agreements he needed to strike with conservative elements within his party, not to mention his coalition partner, to secure the leadership. Once he has a mandate in his own right, the theory ran (runs), then the “real Malcolm” will re-emerge.

But Turnbull has given not so much as a hint that voters’ patience and understanding will be rewarded in due time. On the republic he has been especially disappointing, relegating it to a distant third-order issue, one to be revisited, maybe and perhaps, when the Queen dies (begging your pardon, Ma’am). On same-sex marriage, he has opted not to reverse the Coalition’s controversial commitment to a divisive and expensive plebiscite.

Who is this imposter claiming to be Malcolm Turnbull? Turnbull is Turnbull in much the same way that the waxen Shane Warne is who he says he is. Of the former spin king, once we get past the swallow’s nest on his bonce, we might agree that he sounds like Warnie and if you squint he even looks a bit like Warnie.

That goes for Turnbull too; if you squint, there is a passing resemblance to the old Malcolm.

Even if we can make allowances for Turnbull squibbing it on those cornerstone issues until after the election – and increasingly that now seems like a big if – it’s much harder to explain the past six months of stumbles, about-faces and inglorious defeats.

It’s even possible to pinpoint the very day when the Turnbull gloss turned to fluff.

That was October 9, less than a month after becoming PM, when Turnbull stupidly (no other word for it) told a Liberal Party state council in Sydney that their party was neither run by factions nor subject to “deals in back rooms”. For his trouble he was openly jeered and laughed at.

Who can say what possessed Turnbull on that day, but ever since Turnbull has been squandering the enormous political capital he initially enjoyed.

A PM who promised so much

The turning opinion polls tell the story of a public’s disappointment with a Prime Minister who explicitly and implicitly promised so much.

It had widely been assumed that Turnbull would be Keatingesque in his policy gravity and vision, but mostly he has just been Abbottesque.

Turnbull deliberately set high expectations on tax reform, promising an informed community debate on taxation, with all tax options to be considered, and a government tax reform blueprint to be presented to the nation in its aftermath. There was no blueprint and debate was pretty swiftly cut short when federal Labor successfully spooked Turnbull into taking any changes to the GST off the mostly bare table. Changes to negative gearing, also initially entertained by the government, had its sacred-cow status confirmed when it too was ruled out – all the better to hammer Labor at the election.

Turnbull, suddenly bereft of a tax reform centrepiece, much less a tax reform manifesto, came up with a proposal to return limited income tax powers to the states for the first time since World War II. It was, the PM boasted, the greatest reform to income tax and the federation in 70 years.

“What we are talking about is the most fundamental reform to the federation in generations, really since the income tax powers were ceded to the commonwealth in the Second World War. There is a failure at the heart of the federation and this is the failure: it is the failure of the states to have access to the revenue sources. This, we believe, is the only way that we can genuinely reform our federation.”

While the proposal – such as it was – was still alive, Turnbull actually did a good job explaining why giving states a share of the income tax base would be an important reform. But, on April 1, appropriately enough, the COAG meeting at which the proposal was formally raised, was informally buried.

Officially the communique stated: “COAG agreed…[to] work on broader opportunities for tax reform, including state tax reform…with a progress report to COAG at its next meeting.”

There’s been not a peep from Turnbull on his momentous state income tax reform since.

Given its significance, one would have thought the Turnbull government would fight harder for such a reform rather than meekly acquiesce to the predictable objections of the states and territories. Or indeed that such a seminal reform might even be an issue to take to the voters? Apparently not.

Wishy-washy brand of politics

Turnbull vowed in his first address to the nation as Prime Minister-elect that his government would be one of “engagement, of consultation, of collaboration”, respecting the intelligence of voters and explaining necessary policy changes.

There has been no such engagement, mainly because there has been no great policy shift which the government has had to explain. It certainly hasn’t been on tax reform, and most certainly not “the most fundamental reform to the federation in generations”. Turnbull has squandered much goodwill; in those first six months we can only speculate on how much he could have achieved in policy terms.

We know from the opinion polls that voters are not happy with Turnbull’s wishy-washy brand of politics – it’s the very opposite of what they expected from him and completely at odds with his take-no-prisoners approach in previous lives as a journalist, lawyer, businessman and investment banker.

Yet, every now and then Australians are treated to a glimpse of the Turnbull they thought they would see on a more regular basis: Turnbull’s prime ministerial Anzac Day address; or Malcolm in command as he announced the awarding of the $50 billion submarine contract to French company DCNS, which will build 12 submarines in Adelaide.

It may be that the Budget will make up for Turnbull’s disappointing start to his prime ministership. To do so it would have to be a budget for the ages, a cornucopia of vision, narrative and bold policy brilliance. It’s possible, but the hamfisted lead up to the Budget suggests nobody is expecting much at all. Except for cigarettes going up again.

And so to the election, which will be called just after the Budget formalities are over.

For jaded Australians who remain hopeful that a mandate will ensure the return of “real Malcolm”, it is no longer the certainty that it was seven months ago that Turnbull will be returned as Prime Minister.

Neither Turnbull nor Labor leader Bill Shorten have led an election campaign before. Neither man will ever face a more important contest.

Hopefully it will be a contest not just of endurance and theatrics, but a contest of ideas, a genuine choice between two plans for Australia. The fact that Shorten lives to tell the tale – not cut down by an all-conquering Turnbull as expected – is a plus for democracy.

Turnbull’s uneven start as PM has been cleverly exploited by Shorten who has for the first time cut through electoral indifference to point out chinks in the government’s armour. More than that, he has been more adventurous on the policy front. Even so, the polls suggest that, whatever gains Labor has made at the expense of the government, people still haven’t warmed to Shorten as the alternative PM and Turnbull comfortably remains the preferred PM.

Turnbull supporters will be hoping that on July 2 Malcolm Turnbull and his government will be returned, and the Turnbull era will at last begin in earnest.

However, Turnbull needs to be aware that thanks to his less than stellar debut as PM Bill Shorten is now very much in the race. Turnbull isn’t the only one hoping to kick off a new era in Australian politics.

 

 

Why Malcolm Turnbull must call an election now

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.

 

Turnbull is glad to see the back of Brough and Briggs but they’re the least of his challenges in election year 2016

“Cabinet chaos” ran one of the racier headlines accompanying the story that Ministers Mal Brough and Jamie Briggs had resigned from the government frontbench. “The Turnbull government has been rocked after two senior ministers stood down within 30 minutes of each other,” the story opened.

Well, not quite. Neither the former Minister of State Brough nor the former Minister for Cities and the Built Environment were in Cabinet. Both sat in the outer Ministry. Nor is Briggs a “senior minister”. He was very much a junior Minister – whether he thought so or not – whose ambition and opinion of himself ran way ahead of his limited talents and immaturity.

Far from rocking the Turnbull government, the government will be the stronger for the absence of Brough and Briggs.

Labor has landed few punches in the wake of Tuesday’s resignations (strictly speaking Brough has stood aside pending Australian Federal Police investigations into his role in the seedy Peter Slipper diary scandal), but acting Opposition leader Tanya Plibersek was right to question what Brough was doing in Turnbull’s Ministry in the first place.

Plibersek called into question Turnbull’s judgment in appointing the former Howard Minister – given that Brough was under a cloud over his alleged role in prevailing upon former Slipper staffer James Ashby to procure copies of the then Speaker’s diary – but realpolitik had more to do with the appointment than judgment.

Brough supported Turnbull in his successful leadership challenge against former Prime Minister Tony Abbott and delivered a handful of key party-room votes. That came with a price tag. Turnbull would have been aware that Brough was a political time bomb waiting to go off. And so it proved when Brough, rattled by persistent Opposition questioning, denied in Parliament on December 1 that he had asked Ashby to obtain copies of the Slipper’s diary, despite telling Channel Nine’s 60 Minutes in September last year that “Yes, I did”.

The Opposition has questioned why the resignations were presented as a job lot, and why it was necessary to wait until the pointy end of the holiday season.

“This grotesque form of media management that would think it appropriate to drop this out in the week between Christmas and New Year in order to avoid questions is absolutely appalling,” Labor frontbencher Gary Gray told Fairfax Media.

The next opinion poll will reveal if voters share Labor’s concerns, but the likelihood is that, like the PM, voters will be glad to see the back of Brough and Briggs. Voters might also conclude, not unreasonably, that if the issue was not serious enough for Bill Shorten to break from his holidays then it can hardly be that important.

Abbott in short pants

Brough very likely avoided losing his job because the PM’s office was already aware of the November incident in which Briggs acted inappropriately towards a female public servant (a consular official) at a bar in Hong Kong during a Ministerial overseas trip. (She made a formal complaint and two independent investigations followed, which sealed Briggs’ fate as far as Turnbull was concerned.)

If there is serious question about Turnbull’s judgment it relates to Briggs’ appointment to the Ministry. It was apparently a reluctant appointment. Quite apart from Briggs’ modest attainments as a political apparatchik before winning the 2008 by-election to replace Alexander Downer for the South Australian rural seat of Mayo, two men could not be less alike.

The nuggety, somewhat menacing and abrasive Briggs was underwhelming as Tony Abbott’s Assistant Minister for Infrastructure and Regional Development. His aggression at the dispatch box mirrored that of his mentor Abbott. Briggs was an Abbott acolyte; Abbott in short pants one might say.

In his letter of resignation, Briggs admitted that there were “aspects of my behaviour which I will address” and that “this behaviour has not met the particularly high standards required of Ministers”. Curiously, he described his behaviour – the precise details of which have not been revealed – as “an error of professional judgment”.

It’s unclear what this phrasing is meant to convey, but if it’s intended to suggest a technical rather than substantive breach of decorum, his boss is not having a bar of it:

“This is a serious matter,” Malcolm Turnbull said. “It was considered very carefully with due process [and] consultation with senior [Cabinet] colleagues; it was considered very, very carefully.”

Briggs had already shown himself illsuited for high office.

When Briggs appeared in a wheelchair in Parliament House the day after the defenestration of Tony Abbott he denied that the injury to his knee had anything to do with a wild party in Abbott’s office. This was the party at which a marble table was infamously reduced to rubble.

The denial was made in some detail, with both Briggs and his spokesman explaining that the injury was sustained while jogging.

Briggs told the ABC: “I was running and I changed direction quickly and in doing that I heard a very loud pop and [was in] quite a deal of pain.”

Two months later he admitted that he sustained the injury when he attempted to tackle Abbott at the farewell party.

“I went to tackle him, I ran at him and missed, and the rest is history,” Briggs finally confessed.

And now Briggs is history.

The disgraced Minister holds hopes of returning to the frontbench. That’s a hope that won’t be realised while Turnbull has any say in the matter, but perhaps Briggs is among the rump of Liberal conservatives still pining for the return of Abbott to the prime ministership. (Briggs voted for Abbott in the September leadership contest.)

The first of many important decisions in 2016

Turnbull still has enough political capital to shrug off the two ministerial resignations, but that’s not to say that he is entirely off the hook.

His choice of Briggs’ replacement will be the first of many important decisions awaiting the Prime Minister in the new year. Turnbull’s choice must reflect his promise of an executive based on merit, renewal and, to quote the PM, “whose composition and focus reflect our determination to ensure Australia seizes the opportunities at this the most exciting times in human history”.

Briggs has no place in such a government. Were his behaviour to have occurred in a corporate workplace, his resignation would be sought not just from whatever position he held, but from the organisation itself. It is a pity the national Parliament does not operate to similar standards – although it is quite possible we have not heard the last of this unseemly incident.

In the meantime, Turnbull is presented with an opportunity to strengthen the team he will take to the electorate some time in 2016. It is already a team far stronger and more capable than Abbott’s ramshackle ministry.

The stronger the composition of government, the easier the politics of government are to manage – as the Whitlam government found to its cost, and the Hawke-Keating government to its productive longevity.

And Turnbull has a lot of politics to manage in 2016.

The recent surprise announcement of cuts to Medicare payments for pathology, imaging services and MRI services by Treasurer Scott Morrison has shown that the Turnbull government still has some way to go in meeting its promise of explaining honestly and intelligently to the electorate about big-ticket policy changes.

The government has a lot of explaining to do in 2016: tax reform and the likely increase in the GST, penalty rates (it is not good enough to argue that the decision rests with the Fair Work Commission) and the future of Gonski education funding.

Turnbull also has some prickly times ahead steadying Coalition relations following the aborted defection to the Nationals of dumped Minister Ian Macfarlane and revelations of the behind the scenes manoeuvring by Deputy PM and Nationals leader Warren Truss and his deputy Barnaby Joyce.

With Truss’s retirement expected in the weeks ahead – which will also have some bearing on Turnbull’s reshuffle – and the likely elevation of Joyce to the Nationals leadership, and therefore the Deputy PM’s position, the chalk-and-cheese duo of Turnbull and Joyce will be something to behold.

The year ahead also promises growing pressure on Turnbull to provide greater clarity and progress on touchstone policy issues such as same-sex marriage, indigenous recognition in the constitution, climate change and the republic.

There is also the prospect of the continuing disruptive presence in Parliament and the public domain of a vengeful Tony Abbott – not the kind of “disruption” that Turnbull purports to find so invigorating.

Brough and Briggs? To put it mildly: good riddance. They’re the least of Malcolm Turnbull’s worries in election year 2016.

 

Malcolm Turnbull has already changed the political landscape but the new PM knows the Turnbull era doesn’t start until 2016

It’s been a good week for Malcolm Turnbull and his new government. And it might be said that a good week for Turnbull is a good week for Australia, one that portends good times ahead.

Prime Minister for just five weeks, Turnbull has already revitalised and redefined the political landscape and commands over it with the authority of someone who has been in power for considerably longer.

Labor hopes to convince the electorate that the Turnbull government is simply the Abbott government in another guise, but it’s doubtful that even Labor believes that. However it is true that two years of the Abbott government won’t disappear overnight.

Turnbull recently went further than was strictly necessary in praising Abbott’s “greatness” as PM, but having discharged his internal obligations Turnbull has now commenced in earnest the process of distancing his government from his predecessor’s hapless and combative administration.

In this regard it has been a defining week for the new Turnbull government: its embrace of the landmark Murray report into Australia’s financial system (all but ignored by Abbott), the reappraisal of Abbott’s family benefits purge, announcing reforms to parliamentary question time that will reduce the number of Dorothy Dix questions (a change foreshadowed by Christopher Pyne in opposition but shelved by Abbott in government), and securing Labor support for the Chinese Free Trade Agreement.

There was never any doubt that the ascension of Malcolm Turnbull to the prime ministership was going to translate positively for the Coalition government and this was borne out at the beginning of the week with the October Fairfax-Ipsos poll. The poll revealed that Australians have resoundingly endorsed the new PM and his government.

One reason the switch from Abbott to Turnbull has gone so seamlessly is because voters already considered Turnbull the heir apparent.

Almost from day one of handing Tony Abbott government at the September 2013 election voter-remorse kicked in; voters knew that Abbott was not PM material, and Abbott provided plenty of confirmation of that over the next two years. Since that election, the conundrum for voters, including Labor voters, has been the nagging doubt that Labor leader Bill Shorten is not up to the job either.

While Abbott remained PM there was every chance that Shorten would ride into office on the coattails of Abbott’s unpopularity. The prospect of replacing one second-rate PM with another held little appeal for voters.

Fortunately, Abbott inevitably provided his party with sufficient grounds to topple him. And voters got the prime minister they wanted.

Australia’s political system is working

Australians adjusted to the new Turnbull government quickly and without fuss. Voters dismissed the protests of Abbott and his cabal that he was the “duly elected” PM and that only the voters could decide his fate. Australia’s political system is robust, resilient and reliable. Its machinations may not always be elegant, but Turnbull’s seamless elevation to the prime ministership speaks volumes for Australia’s democracy which is reliant not solely on the ballot box but also on the calculation of elected parliamentary peers to choose their best and most able of their number as leader. By and large the system works.

Liberal party strategists came to be believe their own sophistry when they reasoned that voters would not stomach the dumping of a PM mid-term; that the Liberal party should not succumb to the “Labor disease”. Voters’ distaste for the leadership instability of the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd years was that the change of leader was more a manifestation of a disintegrating government, factional powerplays, bitter internal feuds and personal ambition. Voters knew that the change of Labor leader was never about them; that’s what they resented.

Whatever attributes Abbott possessed as Opposition Leader, he was by any measure out of his depth as Prime Minister.

When Turnbull became Prime Minister in September, voters knew that the better man had the job. More importantly, there was a sense that Turnbull was a man of substance, vision and ideals who would “do something” with the prime ministership.

To use a word which has already become over-used since Turnbull became PM, the “atmospherics” in Australian politics changed from the moment he made his first speech as the nation’s leader.

Critically, Turnbull did not make the mistake of retaining Abbott’s ministry in the name of stability. Instead, with a minimum of political compromise, Turnbull revamped his Cabinet and outer Ministry. The new line-up included five women in Cabinet; far from being token appointments, they merely served to underscore Abbott’s thin reasoning for not having more women in his Cabinet.

This was a new government, and it was recognised as such, which added to the momentum of the Turnbull prime ministership.

Turnbull losing the Liberal leadership to Abbott in 2009 was probably the best thing that could have happened for Turnbull and ultimately Australia.

Turnbull says he has changed and heeded the lessons of losing the confidence of his peers six years ago, and it would appear that he has – unlike Abbott, who despite his claims to the contrary, was incapable of change. He remained tin-eared and bone-headed to the last.

Tin-eared and bone-headed to the last

The rhetoric and style of government shifted tangibly and immediately under Turnbull.

His “mini-summit” on the economy included not just the usual big names from business but also leaders from unions, community organisations and think tanks, setting the tone for the government’s promise of being consultative and “collaborative”.

Like any politician, Turnbull has his “key messages”, but gone are the three-word slogans and rote-like messaging for the day. The new PM, with greater command of the language than his more pedestrian predecessor, speaks with ease and eloquence on the issues that matter to voters.

His talk about the “agile economy” and the importance of innovation as the driver of growth have struck a chord. Business and consumer confidence have accordingly enjoyed a welcome fillip on the back of the Turnbull prime ministership.

Fortunately, it is more than talk. Abbott was never known for his interest in policy, either as a Minister or as Prime Minister, and as Opposition Leader Abbott’s slipshod policy thinking received far too little scrutiny.

Turnbull is a policy man; he understands that good policy is at the heart of good government. Even before the above examples we saw this in the areas of urban infrastructure, his openness to taxation reform and his emphasis on innovation. The creation of a department of Industry, Innovation and Science bodes well for Turnbull’s promise of being a 21st century government – which may or may not be a reference to the oft-made criticism that Tony Abbott’s idea of the future was 1955.

Parliamentary question time since the leadership change shows a government and prime minister at the height of political supremacy. Anyone who takes an interest in question time will notice an air of (relative) civility and good humour. Gone is the perpetually combative environment under Abbott’s prime ministership, the hectoring by government ministers and the constant uproar from the backbenches. And new Speaker Tony Smith – the successor to Bronwyn Bishop, who was permitted to cling to her tarnished office for far too long by a weak-kneed Abbott – has been a revelation.

Turnbull at the dispatch box is charming and affable – he even seems to have the Opposition under his spell.  Far from dominating question time, Turnbull is happy to defer questions to relevant Ministers, true to his word that his Ministers would have more autonomy – and accountability – in his administration.

Question times don’t win elections for governments or oppositions, but they do reflect the confidence of both. And it’s plain that the government’s is up, and the opposition’s is way down.

The opposition under Bill Shorten is as charmed by Turnbull as it is shell-shocked by his instant enormous popularity.

A serious blow to Shorten’s leadership

Abbott’s unpopularity and ineptitude ensured that Labor was spared any angst about its own leader. Once Turnbull became PM, however, the leadership spotlight shifted uncomfortably to Bill Shorten.

Shorten is a leader bedevilled by his crucial part in the making and unmaking of two Labor prime ministers as well as his union past – and whatever the political motivations behind the trade union royal commission, its findings are likely to prove a serious blow to Shorten’s leadership.

Shorten is also a victim of the persona he has created for himself as Labor leader; a persona seen as weak, inauthentic, wooden, stagey and, like poor old Charlie Brown, wishy-washy. And the less said about his zingers the better. There’s almost certainly more to Shorten than meets the eye. Occasionally there are glimpses of a more assertive, thoughtful and articulate leader. His recent performance on the ABC’s Q&A television program was well received and his speech at former Treasurer Joe Hockey’s farewell from Parliament this week was a leader’s speech.

Turnbull’s elevation to the prime ministership was just what many voters needed to turn away from Shorten and Labor in droves.

The October Fairfax-Ipsos opinion poll places Turnbull well ahead as preferred PM over Bill Shorten 67% to 21%.

The poll also found that the Coalition’s primary vote has surged to 45% versus Labor’s 30%. Based on the second preference allocated by voters in 2013, the two party preferred vote has the Coalition ahead 53% to 47%.

Turnbull’s success places enormous pressure on Shorten. He must now convince his party and the electorate that he is equal to the considerable task of taking Turnbull on head to head, but also in the realms of policy, vision and values.

The Turnbull effect will have one of two outcomes for Labor: either Shorten rises to the occasion, or the party places in motion its cumbersome new system for electing its leader (under which Shorten was the first to be elected post-Rudd II) to find a new alternative PM to go to the 2016 election. Either result will be good news for Australian democracy. The third possible outcome, that Labor goes to the election with Shorten as a lame-duck leader, could see Labor annihilated, which would not serve the best interests of a vibrant democracy.

For Turnbull, the challenge is to maintain his considerable momentum and lead the Coalition to victory in 2016. Should he achieve that – and he’s definitely the man to beat at the moment – he will have a mandate to pursue government on his terms and without reference to the hardline Liberals who still hold a torch for Abbott.

A returned Turnbull government will be a very different government again, reflecting more of the man than is possible in the current political circumstances. That’s when we can expect to see change in such touchstone areas as asylum seeker policy, same-sex marriage, climate change and the republic.

While this is admittedly the most optimistic (or naïve) take on a fully fledged Turnbull government, on the barest understanding of the man and his many accomplishments to date, it is hard to imagine Turnbull being interested in power for its own sake. In that and many other respects he has much in common with one of Australia’s most exciting and epoch-defining prime ministers, Paul Keating.

A Turnbull era beckons, and with it an exciting era for Australia. It’s hoping for the best, the very optimism Turnbull called for on becoming Prime Minister. Malcolm Turnbull is a formidable talent. He deserves to be viewed not through the prism of Liberal or Labor politics, left or right ideologies, but as a substantial figure whose time has come.