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).

 

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‘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.

Malcolm Turnbull will restore trust in Canberra and put an end to revolving-door prime ministerships

The Liberal party’s leadership contest that delivered the prime ministership to Malcolm Turnbull is about much more than the Coalition government now having a real prospect of being returned at the next election.

That no doubt was the driving impetus behind Turnbull’s 54-44 victory over Tony Abbott, and it’s hard to imagine that awkward Bill Shorten can triumph over the self-assured Turnbull come election day.

But for the change of party leadership – and therefore the nation’s leadership – to mean something beyond high political drama and back-room number crunching, it’s important to recognise what Malcolm Turnbull means not just for the Liberal Party, but for Australia.

The last three prime ministers – Rudd, Gillard and Abbott – held office for between just shy of two years (Abbott) to just over three years (Gillard). Each of those leaders lost the prime ministership in their respective party rooms, although Rudd ultimately lost the prime ministership at the 2013 general election to Tony Abbott.

The rapid succession of party room “coups” has hardly been edifying, but that was no reason to shy away from dumping Tony Abbott. Abbott is entitled to the respect befitting a former Prime Minister, but the job was clearly too much for him and the nation could ill-afford the dysfunction and paralysis of his ramshackle government.

Former Victorian Premier Jeff Kennett lamented of the leadership change that “we must be the laughing stock of the world”.

Of all the people to demonstrate that the cultural cringe is alive and well in Australia, who could have imagined that it would be the hard-nosed Kennett.

To deny the right of parliamentary party rooms to choose their leaders under our system of government is just wilful ignorance; to suggest that the federal Coalition should have stuck to a deeply flawed leader because Americans might have a shaky grasp of the Westminster system is puerile tosh.

Treating voters like mugs

Abbott Ministers – and Abbott himself – who cynically repeated the self-serving, modern-day canard that the Australian prime ministership is the exclusive preserve of voters should know better. It’s time political leaders stopped treating voters like mugs.

The supreme benefit of our system is that we need not be saddled with flawed leadership and inept government in between elections.

There is no doubt that the system is open to abuse and mischief-making, and that it encourages backroom strategists to take a short-term view of the complex work of government. But that is more an argument about the integrity and calibre of the modern political class than it is about the deficiency of our system of government.

Critics lament that political leadership in Canberra has become a revolving door. And since the defeat of the Howard government that has been the case. But it is also true that competent leaders and competent governments can stave off leadership speculation and disruptive intrigue.

Perhaps it is harder for government leaders to have the space they need to govern effectively in the pressure-cooker environment of the 24-hour news cycle and its unforgiving scrutiny, the relentless barrage of opinion polls, and the restless ambition of career politicians. But it can be done. Strong leadership will always triumph.

Witness the commanding and highly effective premierships of Daniel Andrews in Victoria and Mike Baird in NSW. It will take much more than backbench malcontents or party powerbrokers to dislodge these men from their premierships. And it’s very likely that Jay Weatherill in South Australia and Colin Barnett in WA, premiers since 2011 and 2008 respectively, will get to choose the time of their retirement.

The same system of government, the same pressures, apply in the state spheres.

If something is broken, it is not Australia’s robust adaptation of the Westminster system. By and large the system has delivered stable, strong and reliable government. And party room intrigue notwithstanding, and allowing for inevitable exceptions, the system has delivered able leaders and talented administrators.

Fixing Canberra

If something is amiss, it is in Canberra. But the elevation of Malcolm Turnbull may at last be the long-awaited solution to the mediocrity and mendacity of Canberra which has so alienated voters in recent years.

In Turnbull, Australia has an urbane, charismatic, eloquent and intelligent Prime Minister. His failings as leader the first time around, as Opposition Leader, revealed imperfections – he was impetuous, impatient, arrogant and he was not politically astute. And, as has been noted ad nauseam, he was not one to suffer fools.

Frankly, the latter attribute is under-valued. The sooner the numerous ninnies in the former Abbott government are consigned to the backbench the better. As to the other foibles, Turnbull is no fool: he will have heeded, and is capable of heeding, the lessons of his first time as leader.

Turnbull does not strike one as the sort to make the same mistake twice.

It is because of the robustness and soundness of our political system that Turnbull gets to come back a second time as Liberal party leader, and on this occasion as Prime Minister of Australia.

If Malcolm Turnbull lives up to his considerable promise, Australia will have a more enlightened government, a government open to ideas and progress, a government that welcomes and encourages intelligent public discourse, a government that communicates, engages and consults, and a government of compassion. There is every reason to expect that a Turnbull government will be an intelligent government, and a genuinely reformist government.

Turnbull will return gravitas to the office of Prime Minister, and to the Australian Parliament.

As preferred Prime Minister throughout Abbott’s time in office, it is now for Malcolm Turnbull to repay that trust and confidence by giving Australians a renewed sense of optimism for the future and new-found respect for the institution of the federal Parliament and national government.

While the Abbott government was headed for certain defeat in 2016, with an undeserving and illprepared Bill Shorten to be reluctantly handed the prime ministership by a disillusioned electorate, the Turnbull government will now go to the next election as the clear favourite.

And if a Turnbull government delivers, there is every good chance that Malcolm Turnbull will lead a Coalition government to victory once again in 2019 – signalling a return to stable and good government in Canberra and an end to revolving-door prime ministerships.

If anyone can be the first Prime Minister since John Howard to win successive elections, it is Malcolm Turnbull. And if that gives Labor cause to elect a more effective leader, then so much the better for Australian democracy.

Bill Shorten shows leadership on marriage equality; the question now is will Tony Abbott join him at the altar?

Same-sex marriage may well prove the rebooting of Bill Shorten’s less than inspiring leadership of the Labor party, but in the meantime, and more importantly, it provides much needed political momentum in support of marriage equality in Australia.

Australia’s reluctance to face up to marriage equality as a fundamental issue of human rights ended with the announcement by Shorten and his deputy Tanya Plibersek to co-sponsor a private member’s bill. Marriage equality is now only a matter of time; if there was ever any doubt about that, those doubts can now be cast aside.

It is mischievous to dismiss the Shorten-Plibersek initiative as a political stunt. While there is growing support for same-sex marriage among MPs and the community, there remain pockets of entrenched opposition to such a reform.

As Shorten admitted to Fairfax Media: “I know this private member’s bill will not have the universal support of my colleagues.”

Plibersek’s recent misjudged call for a binding Labor vote on same-sex marriage illustrated how passions can be very quickly inflamed on the issue.

The Shorten-Plibersek announcement should be welcomed as an act of policy leadership – leadership sorely lacking from the Abbott government which has preferred to stall on the matter in the hope that it goes away.

But the Irish referendum ‘yes’ vote in favour of same-sex marriage put paid to that misreading of a generational move for change. If Ireland can overcome its social conservatism and Catholic mores, what is Australia’s problem? More to the point, what is Tony Abbott’s problem?

Abbott has personal views against same-sex marriage, but those views, as deeply held as they may be, must be secondary to the objectives of national inclusiveness and respect for the rights of all Australians. As Prime Minister he has a responsibility to show leadership on the issue that transcends his own personal position.

When all is said and done, there are no fundamental reasons for opposing same-sex marriage. Certainly none so fundamental that Australia can continue to say to a section of its citizenry that they are not free to marry the person of their choice; that marriage as a profound expression of love is not available to them.

Australia’s Marriage Act has not been handed down from the heavens. It is an instrument of the state, an expression of community values. The state has an obligation to ensure that the laws governing the institution keep pace with changing social attitudes and the human rights of all its citizens.

One day Australians will scratch their heads in disbelief

Marriage is hardly a fixed entity. It was not so long ago that laws proscribing marriage between white and African Americans, and laws circumscribing marriage between white and Aboriginal Australians, were considered reasonable and consistent with preserving the “sanctity” of marriage. Such laws today would be considered unthinkable by all but the most extreme margins of society.

Generations from now, Australians will scratch their heads in disbelief that homosexual men and women had to fight for the right to marry the person they loved.
Tony Abbott has called for tolerance in the conduct of the same-sex marriage debate, but he has no tolerance for the profound desire of some Australians to marry someone of the same sex.

“[W]e need to see mutual respect of all the different views on this debate because as I said, decent people can differ on this subject,” Abbott says.

No doubt the PM is blind to the irony that while he is pleading for mutual respect, he is denying it to those gay Australians who wish to marry but in law cannot.
It is absurd that homosexual Australians should have equal standing before the law in every respect but marriage. By what perversion of logic does equality stop at the door of marriage?

It’s true, some Australians do have deeply held views of marriage as being between a man and a woman. Convictions deserve to be respected, but they are not always the best foundations for a just and inclusive society. Marriage can longer be preserved as an exclusive club.

There is no excuse for Australia’s inaction on marriage equality. Nineteen countries have so far legalised same-sex marriage, including the country of Abbott’s birth, Britain, and our neighbour New Zealand. Australia is in danger of standing as isolated on gay marriage as it does on climate change. For Abbott this may be a point of pride, but only at the cost of his credibility.

Quite apart from issues of equity, inclusiveness and respect it is preposterous that what is legal in a growing band of countries, in nations as familiar as Canada, the Netherlands, Sweden and France, is illegal in Australia. In multicultural Australia it is now the case that many citizens find themselves wondering why it is possible for marriage equality to apply in the countries of their origin but not in their own country.

There is no turning back

Bill Shorten and Tanya Plibersek are to be congratulated for bringing the issue of same-sex marriage to a head. There is no turning back following their decision to place the issue front and centre of the nation’s political agenda.

Curiously, and unconvincingly, sections of the government and its backbench have accused Labor of politicising the issue of same-sex marriage and of jeopardising a bipartisan approach to change.

Liberal MP Warren Entsch, a long-time supporter of marriage equality, rather than welcoming an imminent vote on the matter, says he is “profoundly disappointed” by Shorten’s announcement because it will turn the result into a partisan vote.

“This is about survival for Bill, this is not about marriage ¬equality. It was always our intention to bring something on this year. I’m determined to get something up and I don’t want it to be partisan. Let’s do it in a civil, orderly way,” he says.

Tony Abbott, avowedly opposed to marriage equality, has been stalling on the issue since assuming office. Even granting Coalition MPs a conscience vote has been a stumbling block for Abbott, let alone opening his mind to the substantive issue itself.

Whatever “something” Entsch had in mind, there was no definite prospect of the government bringing the issue to Parliament; nor, in the event that it did, that it would permit Coalition MPs a free vote. Similarly, the issue being brought to the Parliament by a minor party would have been fraught and far easier for the government to stymie.

The fact that the alternative government has announced its intention to put the issue to the Parliament is entirely another matter. In doing so it has raised debate and discussion on marriage equality to new heights. The genie is out of the bottle and proud.

“Political”? Yes. An out-of-step, tin-eared, ideologically hidebound government has been out-manoeuvred by Labor. But it is no less an action of leadership by Shorten and his deputy. Their next leadership challenge is to prosecute their case and take the rest of Australia with them to the altar of reform.

Warren Entsch and like-minded colleagues can ensure that marriage equality is not a partisan issue by backing the Labor initiative and urging their Prime Minister to adjust his hearing aid and, like his opposite number, show some courage on the issue.

Even if the Prime Minister finds gay marriage confronting, as he does so many things, he must declare that the time has come for marriage equality in Australia.

Bill Shorten’s position is compelling, unambiguous and ultimately straightforward:
“Our current [marriage] law excludes some individuals, and to me that is unacceptable. It says to them: your relationships are not equally valued by the state, your love is less equal under the law.”

We should have heard such a statement from the leader of the nation.

But better late than never. There is absolutely nothing to stop Tony Abbott from regaining the initiative and endorsing Shorten’s sentiment as a matter of fundamental principal.

It is not too late for Abbott to race down the aisle, join Shorten, and declare “I do too”.

Whoever leads the government at the next election, it’s time for Bill Shorten to show he has what it takes to be PM

Bill Shorten has been wise to stay clear of the Abbott government’s leadership agonies. Tony Abbott, often derided for behaving as if he is still Opposition Leader, seems to be doing Shorten’s job as well. But Shorten cannot continue to rely on the imploding Abbott government.

Abbott survived this week’s leadership spill motion 61-39: that’s hardly a rousing victory. Ministerial solidarity saved the Prime Minister – which makes you wonder just what level of ineptitude it would take for Ministers to be guided by the national interest. Even so, Tony Abbott will not be able to rely on that solidarity a second time. He is now on notice that Malcolm Turnbull is waiting in the wings.

For Bill Shorten, it’s time to move from the sidelines and get back into the fray. It’s time – well time – for Shorten to demonstrate his credentials as Australia’s alternative Prime Minister.

He is almost certainly right to believe that facing Abbott at the 2016 election is the best chance he has of leading Labor back to power and securing for himself the prime ministership. But winning by default, as Tony Abbott did in 2013, is neither the key to good government nor to restoring Australians’ eroded trust in the institutions of power.

Bill Shorten owes Australians a blueprint for the nation in these critical times of post-GFC economic volatility. Many families are concerned about their financial wellbeing; many Australians are concerned about job security, and for too many unemployed, of ever working again; consumers are nervous and business is increasingly pessimistic about future prospects.

Shorten has made statements about what he will not do: he won’t place added pressures on the weakest and most disadvantaged in the community; he won’t deregulate the university sector; he won’t dismantle Australia’s universal healthcare system. These are welcome commitments, but now Australians need to hear what Shorten would do as Prime Minister.

Australia needs solutions to many fundamental problems, problems which are clearly beyond the wit of the current government.

There is a long list of serious challenges which require vision, a coherent strategy and public policy sophistication, none of which has been present in this government. Nor do the previous Rudd-Gillard-Rudd governments, of which Shorten was a member, stand close scrutiny on many of these challenges.

A long list of serious challenges

Australia faces many problems; let’s go through some of them.

An ageing population for which little provision has been made, and for that matter a rising population for which there has been even less planning.

Our health system is rightly the envy of the world, but it requires resetting for the challenges ahead. So does our education system, from schools, to higher education to vocational education and training.

The Australian economy is vastly changed, and faces even more profound change in the years ahead as whole industries restructure and even disappear under the weight of global competitive pressures, rapid advances in technology and shifting consumer behaviour. Labor squibbed reform of Australia’s ramshackle taxation system when it was last in power; Australia cannot afford not to undertake such vital and long overdue reform.

The depletion of vital funding that will keep Australian scientific research and innovation at the forefront of the world’s best is at crisis point and a national disgrace.

Australia needs to regain its place as a valued and respected member of the international community. Turning the global refugee crisis into a zero sum game for domestic political gain has dehumanised us as much as it degrades those stateless men, women and children who are fleeing oppression, torture and in many cases certain death. We cannot take all who would seek a place in this country, but that is no excuse for Australia to turn its back on these people and to place unreasonable pressure on inadequately resourced regional neighbours to shoulder a burden that is ours to bear.

Climate change, “the great moral challenge of our generation”, has all but become a political no-go zone – can there be a greater abrogation of leadership than reducing this crisis unfolding before our eyes to a matter of seats won and lost?

The fabric of the nation also needs urgent attention; whether it’s cultural diversity, religious and racial cohesion, women’s rights and inclusion, government has a critical, and under this government mostly neglected, role to play.

Bill Shorten, and Labor under his leadership, must confront these and many other issues. It seems an inexhaustible list of issues awaiting attention in very great part because of political inaction by both major parties.

Some issues cannot wait: true and proper reconciliation with the First Australians. Others must at least be put on the political agenda, such as reform of Australia’s creaking federation and system of government, including further consideration of the Republic.

It is simply not acceptable for Shorten to give himself the added insurance of not upsetting the prospect of certain victory by withholding a detailed plan to voters well ahead of the next election.

A generation of mediocre government

The blight of “small target” election campaigns has condemned Australia to a generation of mediocre government and mealy-mouthed sloganeering that masquerades as political leadership.

Shorten must repudiate the debased and deeply flawed modern political wisdom that being honest with the voters is a sure route to political oblivion.

Australia needs a plan, and Australians sorely want their trust in political leaders restored. Tony Abbott promised he was going to do just that. Instead, Abbott is a politician clearly out of his depth, as is his government, the most flawed, inept and duplicitous in the post-Menzies era.

If the challenges facing Australia were not so serious, it might well be enough that Bill Shorten is not Tony Abbott. But that is not the case.

Shorten needs to convince Australians now that not only is he committed to good government, but he has a gameplan that will drive his government. It is essential that he produce such a manifesto even if he is to face Abbott at the next election, and doubly so if, as is more likely, Malcolm Turnbull, in which case a one-term Coalition government is not such a certainty.

When Tony Abbott won office in 2013 it was despite Australians not being convinced that he was PM material. Which is why from the first opinion poll after winning office, voters expressed their remorse with an unprecedented repudiation of their choice. Voter dissatisfaction with Abbott and his government has been the one constant of this most chaotic, dysfunctional and arrogant of governments – as writ large in Victorian and Queensland state elections.

At this stage, voters are no more convinced that Shorten is PM material. The task of convincing voters that he is deserving of the highest elected office in the land, whether he is assured of it or not, must start now.

Shorten’s parliamentary performance during the Opposition’s no confidence motion in the Prime Minister immediately following the aborted leadership spill was a masterful and too rare performance. It was a speech coherent, articulate and withering, highlighting with pinpoint accuracy the government’s flaws, setting clear points of difference between Labor and the Coalition, and for once, none of his trademark lead-weighted zingers. Instead, humorous and well phrased barbs found their mark and energised the Labor benches. Tellingly, Shorten also had Turnbull in his sights, letting it be known that he was ready to face him if that’s where the political cards should fall.

Parliament still matters – and should matter. It’s the forum that provides the best insight into the men and women who would govern the nation.

From Shorten we need to see more such performances. A strong Opposition holds governments to account, and provides voters with a viable alternative come election time.

But more than performances, we need from Shorten his plan, his party’s plan, for Australia. A plan not just for the next three years, but for the next 30 years.

Let’s hear about the Australia that a would-be Shorten government believes in and will work towards. Let’s hear how a Shorten government will restore Australia’s shaken faith in Canberra. Let’s see more of the men and women on Shorten’s frontbench that would form government in 2016.

It’s time for Shorten to start thinking and behaving like the alternative Prime Minister. No silly zingers (Shaun Micallef won’t like it, but he’ll move on), no dad jokes, no unconvincing theatrics.

The government will sooner or later sort out its leadership issues. That’s none of Shorten’s concern. Whether it’s Abbott, Turnbull or anyone else, Bill Shorten has one life-defining task before him: to convince the people of Australia that he deserves to be the next Prime Minister. To date, voters have been given very little reason for believing that is the case.

Whether he does become the next PM is, of course, up to voters. But what voters want, more than anything, is to go to the polls in 2016 with two worthy alternatives to choose from. That’s one immediate contribution that Shorten can make to public life.

Bill Shorten: your time starts now.