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.

A ‘ragged’ year for Tony Abbott, but does the PM have what it takes to save his hapless government or will it be more of the same in 2015?

The end of the year can’t come soon enough for Tony Abbott. And it’s got nothing to do with the call of Christmas and lazy summer holidays. It’s hard to imagine an Australian Prime Minister who’s had a worse first full year in office. But Abbott is unlikely to be too fervent in wishing for the onset of the new year, because 2015 promises more of the same.

If Abbott is to have a happy new year – or at least a happier one – he will need to have heeded the lessons of this one first.

There’s precious little sign of that, despite his weekend announcement that the government will restructure the much criticised and until now sacrosanct paid parental leave scheme in favour of more money being spent on childcare. Given the absence of detail it smacks more of an 11th hour bid to calm his restless backbench over the Christmas break than deliberate policy crafting.

When a government has had such a bad year as this one it’s difficult to pinpoint precisely when things started to turn toxic, but it’s hard to go past the Brisbane G20 leaders’ summit on November 15-16. What should have been a triumph for Abbott, an opportunity to recast his troubled government, was a humiliating fiasco.

Abbott’s empty boasts of “shirt-fronting” Russian President Vladimir Putin at the G20 set the scene for an embarrassing anti-climax. Far from confronting Putin for Russia’s role in the downing of Malaysian MH17 over Ukraine, the two leaders ended up having their photos taken cuddling koalas.

Nor did it help that Abbott’s opening address at the summit was a less than statesmanlike laundry list of domestic political difficulties faced by his government. For good measure, Abbott was outplayed and outmanoeuvred on his insistence that climate change play no part in the summit, most notably by Australia’s best buddy on the world stage, US President Barack Obama.

The barnacle-infested Abbott government has been in a state of perpetual crisis since the disastrous G20.

Victoria’s election on November 29 – in which new Labor Premier Daniel Andrews won comfortably against Denis Napthine’s Coalition government – intensified the political pressure on the Abbott government.

It was yet another black mark against the Abbott government, but there was something far more menacing about Labor’s win in Victoria: it was the first time since 1955 that a one-term government had been shown the door by voters.

Voter are angry and less forgiving

This was a serious psychological blow to the unpopular Abbott government which had taken heart from the conventional wisdom of modern Australian politics that even faltering first-term governments are given a second term to find their feet.

Labor’s win in Victoria after just one term in opposition represents more than a psychological setback for Abbott. It confirms what has been evident for some time: today’s voters are angry and less forgiving of governments they don’t like. Bear in mind that federal Labor only narrowly avoided being a one-term government in 2010, with Julia Gillard returned as a minority prime minister.

Whatever hope Abbott and his nervous backbench pinned to the mantra that one-term governments don’t lose elections ended with the Victorian election.

On that very day, Phillip Coorey in the Australian Financial Review, usually friendly turf for the conservatives, offered this barnacle-raising summation of the government’s woes:

“For the Abbott government the culprit is the May budget, a document so laden with broken promises, surprises and excuses and, crucially, perceived as unfair, it has sent the government reeling in the polls and crippled its credibility. The impact has been more marked because, in opposition, Abbott had campaigned on trust more than anything else. … He left his government no wriggle room.”

Abbott knows that he is unpopular and that his government is vulnerable. Well, he does and he doesn’t. Abbott’s December 1 “mea culpa” press conference in Canberra was more revealing of the PM’s tin ear than his humility.

This press conference was an attempt to “reboot” after a particularly damaging week bordering on high farce, dominated by yet another broken promise, the ABC funding cuts, and the government’s tortured sophistry variously aimed at explaining, depending on the day, that no such promise was made, that the substance of the promise was misunderstood, or that the cuts weren’t cuts at all. (Finance Minister Mathias Cormann stated outright that there no cuts; and Abbott initially insisted that they were not cuts but an “efficiency dividend”.)

Defending the $254 million cut, Abbott even had the hide to declare in Parliament: “This is a government which has fundamentally kept faith…with the Australian people.”

Even the Weekend Australian, on the eve of the December 1 press conference, could take no more. It editorialised: “Stop the silly slogans, start fixing a damaged budget”. The leading article went on to describe the government as “hesitant, tongue-tied and confused”.

A ‘ragged week’ is a long time in politics

The increasingly demoralised government backbench would have been hoping for the best from the December 1 press conference. Unfortunately, Abbott’s best was more of the same. The Prime Minister conceded it had been a “ragged week” – a new entrant to the Australian political lexicon. But he also stressed: “It’s been a year when this government has demonstrated guts, commitment and strength of character on a whole host of issues.” He might have added “chutzpah”.

Abbott appeared to concede that it had not been a great week, but then insisted this was largely a matter of “atmospherics”. Look beyond the atmospherics and, “I think we are getting the message across very clearly”. Tony Abbott at his most insouciant.

Some might say this was a lost opportunity for Abbott to re-connect with the Australian electorate, but there never was any such connection. And that is the key to the very real prospect that the Abbott government is a one-term wonder.

Abbott may not be aware of his feet of clay, but most of his ministers and backbenchers are only too aware. With Abbott, what you see is what you get. And that’s the problem. There is nothing to reset.

If Abbott was even an inch a leader, he would do away with his sycophant “political warrior” advisers and surround himself with intellectual rigour, diversity and candid counsel. Over a year into government the Prime Minister’s office remains consumed with putting out brush fires, many of them of their creation.

Abbott insists his private office delivered the Coalition government. Fine. Send them flowers, and on their way, because their job is done.

Even if Abbott lacks the self-awareness to be his own worst critic, has it occurred to him that given the dire straits of his government that perhaps his office is not as flash as he thinks it is?

Abbott and his office refuse to acknowledge how deeply unpopular the Prime Minister is. And it’s not because of atmospherics. It’s because Australians are on to him, and they always have been.

Australians were at no stage convinced that Abbott was PM material when they went to the polls in September last year, but Kevin Rudd was unable to provide them with enough reason to follow their instincts. Upon becoming Prime Minister, Abbott couldn’t even crack it for the traditional first-term honeymoon period.

Honeymoon over before it started

On 25 November 2013, the first Fairfax Nielsen opinion poll published since the September 7 election showed that Federal Labor, under new leader Bill Shorten, led the Coalition in the two-party preferred vote 52% to 48%. It was a major boost for Shorten, and just the first of many indicators that this was a government in trouble.

At that time I wrote in BRW: “The Abbott government should be in no doubt about the import of this poll: it reveals an unprecedented case of voters’ remorse that should be taken as a warning that voters expect much more of this government.”

One year later, voters remain unimpressed with the Abbott government, and Abbott himself. On 18 November, The Australian published the results of the 14th consecutive Newspoll to show Labor ahead of the government, on this occasion 55% to 45%. Shorten, without having to lift a finger, was ahead of Abbott as preferred PM 43% to 37%.

The government is so unpopular that it was unable to use the acclaim for Abbott’s handling of the MH17 tragedy as a circuit breaker. Nor was Abbott able to translate being a “war time” Prime Minister – when he committed Australian military forces to Iraq to fight the Islamic State terrorist group – into a galvaniser of public support for his government.

The government could not have ended 2014 on a lower note: its relationship with the Senate is in tatters; its May budget strategy is gutted; beleaguered Treasurer Joe Hockey has every reason to fear what the new year will bring; criticism of the PM’s office, and Peta Credlin in particular, intensified; and the government’s policy agenda, including university deregulation, the GP co-payment and even Abbott’s “signature” paid parental leave scheme are in limbo.

Abbott’s abundant weaknesses as a leader might not have been so glaringly obvious if he had a ministry of talent, vision and resolve. Instead, we have one of the weakest government frontbenches in living memory. Any ministry contains its deadwood, shirkers and beneficiaries of political favours, but that comes nowhere near explaining the weakness of the Abbott government.

Tony Abbott is no John Howard

With an election not due until 2016, Tony Abbott has time to save his prime ministership and his government. As he is fond of pointing out, most recently at the December 1 press conference, there is recent precedent:

“Let’s not forget that the Howard government had a pretty rocky first term. The Howard government was in a diabolical position at different periods in the first term and yet it recovered to win its second election and then went on to be arguably the most successful post-war government Australia has had.”

Except that Abbott is no John Howard. If Abbott is to avoid Denis Napthine’s historic fate, he has some tough decisions to make.

First, Peta Credlin has to go, and his private office must be overhauled. Secondly, he has to decentralise decision making and devolve accountability in his government. Abbott has professed to be an admirer of Westminster-style cabinet government: it’s time he put his text-book theory of government into practice. Thirdly, he must have a ministerial reshuffle early in the new year, not just to give the impression of renewal, but to ensure that the best men and women are entrusted with the government of the nation.

That means Joe Hockey, Christopher Pyne, Peter Dutton and David Johnstone, for starters, must be demoted to more appropriate junior portfolios, if not out of the ministry altogether. Fourth, Malcolm Turnbull should be appointed to the job he should have had in the first place – Treasurer – even if that is politically inconvenient for Abbott.

Were Abbott capable of doing these things, he would be well on the way to achieving the final plank of his rescue mission: Tony Abbott has to grow up. The government of the nation does not require a smirking, winking Opposition Leader with a grab bag of catchphrases, talking points and slippery slogans.

He won the position he fought for; now it’s time he started behaving like the Prime Minister. If he doesn’t, the voters will surely deliver their verdict in 2016 – if his own colleagues don’t beat them to it first.

Canberra wants to stop the boats, Bendigo wants to stop the mosques: this is what happens when leaders stop leading

Comments on social media reflect the shame and heartbreak that many Australians feel over the Abbott government’s hard-line asylum seeker policies: the inhumanity of Manus Island and Nauru detention centres; the intransigence and belligerence of Immigration Minister Scott Morrison; and most recently Tony Abbott’s egregious inducement of $10,000 for detention centre detainees to return to their countries of origin.

It’s not just the Abbott government that has maintained its rigid stance on asylum seekers.

The federal Labor caucus recently squibbed its chance to set right Australia’s internationally decried refugee policy when it voted against WA MP Melissa Parke’s motion to abandon offshore processing.

Former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd didn’t want to be seen as soft on asylum seekers either. He devised the “PNG solution” on the eve of the 2013 election, vowing to send all future asylum seekers to PNG for resettlement. “From now on, any asylum seeker who arrives in Australia by boat will have no chance of being settled in Australia as refugees,” said Rudd who three years earlier lamented that Australia’s asylum seeker policy would shift to the right under his successor Julia Gillard.

Under Gillard’s ill-conceived and unrealised East Timor and Malaysian “solutions” Labor’s asylum seeker policy did lurch to the right, but by the time Rudd returned to office last year, he declined to assert his much trumpeted Labor values.

To understand why Australia’s asylum seeker policy is so fixedly skewed on such an inhumane course, it’s necessary to return to the operative word in the opening paragraph: “many” Australians feel uncomfortable with Canberra’s treatment of refugees. But not most.

Since John Howard hit a rich electoral vein with his unabashed demonisation of asylum seekers, successive governments have dared not tamper (or Tampa) with his formula for political success. The deeply unpopular Howard government seemed set for defeat at the 2001 election, when along came the Norwegian freighter the MV Tampa and its cargo of 438 refugees rescued from international waters.

Tampa’s captain Arne Rinnan was refused permission by the Howard government to land the refugees on Australian soil. Within days the government introduced the Border Protection Bill to lend legislative confirmation to action which had been condemned internationally, and devised the “Pacific Solution”, whereby asylum seekers would be sent to Nauru for processing.

Howard’s “border protection” mantra

Right on cue followed the September 11 terrorist bombings in the US – which the Howard government used as vindication for its tough stance on Tampa; and in October came the “Children Overboard” affair, with senior ministers falsely claiming that asylum seekers intercepted by the Navy near Christmas Island had thrown children overboard from their stricken vessel in order to be rescued and taken to Australia.

Howard knew that his “border protection” mantra had struck a chord and that public opinion was on his side. “These are people we do not want, people who throw their children overboard,” said Howard at his most un-prime ministerial.

Howard stuck to the theme in the lead up to the November election. During his campaign launch speech on 28 October 2001, he delivered this infamous line, since parroted by the Abbott government: “[W]e will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come.”

These events are a black stain on Australian politics, but they accorded with the views of most Australians.

The Howard government won in a landslide, John Howard the warrior PM was born, and the template was set for asylum seeker policy in Australia: “illegal immigrants” and “queue jumpers” were demonised as potential terrorists and any political party soft on asylum seekers was decried as a danger to national security.

Australia’s inhumane policy on asylum seekers has bipartisan foundations: the Liberal National Coalition, despite some internal disquiet, is at home with its warlike posturing; and Labor, in particular Bill Shorten, is too afraid to show leadership on the issue.

This immovable stalemate – a connivance of political will and political cowardice – has led to the unspeakable suffering, anguish, mental deterioration, suicide and unlawful death of asylum seekers in faraway detention centres. While many Australians feel disquiet, even disgust, most are prepared to look the other way.

Australia has the policy it does on asylum seekers because focus groups and polls tell the major parties that they are in sync with popular opinion. Or it may be just a collective wink of the eye – Tony Abbott would understand that signal – but it gives the government the confidence to proceed with its inhumane policy.

There remains a strong thread of xenophobia, if not racism, that runs through the community. Witness the current highly organised protest against the building of a mosque in the Victorian regional city of Bendigo.

Bendigo: Australia on show

What began as a grassroots campaign has attracted the organisational and financial muscle of various right-wing and anti-Islamic groups from around Australia. The CEO of Restore Australia, Mike Holt, is unapologetic about his support for the Bendigo stop-the-mosque campaign: “They use the mosques as a centre for jihad. These things are not like the tea and coffee churches,” he told Fairfax Media.

These groups, and the Bendigo residents who support them, are the public face of the secret focus groups that stiffen the resolve of governments on asylum seekers. Rather than show leadership on the issue – as perhaps Malcolm Fraser or Paul Keating might do – Abbott and his immediate predecessors govern with an eye on the opinion polls.

And yet something seems amiss here. Walk down the street of any capital city or major regional centre – including Bendigo – and it seems impossible that Australia’s official response to asylum seekers could be so brutal.

Every colour, culture, creed and ethnicity is represented on the streets of Australia, which is rightly held up around the world as a model of multiculturalism. To see the peaceful harmony and vibrant co-existence of people in all their diversity on our streets and in our workplaces is to see Australia at its best.

But Australia’s relationship with diversity has never been straightforward. From the unambiguous racism that underpinned the White Australia policy to the tolerance (if not always embrace) of immigration which has given modern Australia its multicultural hue, ours has been an ambivalent relationship with race.

The gold rush era of the 1850s was an early example of multiculturalism in Australia, in which many races and creeds lived in harmony on the goldfields. Yet there was unspeakable racism and violence against Chinese gold diggers; and while African-Americans were welcome on the goldfields, Aborigines were being dispossessed and exterminated.

Between 1901 and 1939 the first large movements of non-British Europeans to Australia began. However, these mostly Italians, Greeks, Yugoslavs and Poles were only reluctantly permitted entry as “white aliens”.  

Australia opened its doors, if not its arms, to large-scale European migration after WWII, but always on the understanding that these “new Australians” would leave their histories and cultures behind and assimilate with the predominant “British Australian” population.

A question of leadership

It was not until the Whitlam government (1972-1975) that immigration was celebrated, as a matter of government emphasis, for its diversity and cultural enrichment and it was the Fraser government (1975-1983) that formalised and entrenched multiculturalism as a feature of Australian life, including the infusion of other “races”.

As well as increasing Australia’s immigration intake, with an emphasis on Asian migration, Fraser took a humanitarian approach to the Vietnamese refugee crisis and permitted nearly 60,000 Vietnamese refugees, including over 2000 “boat people”, to settle in Australia.

Fraser’s point has always been that if he had relied on popular opinion or focus groups neither his refugee policy nor his admission of large numbers of Vietnamese and other Asians to Australia would have occurred.

Which returns us to 2014 and Australia’s mean-hearted asylum seeker policy.

While the current policy may be in accord with the popular mood and racist attitudes – and not just of the white Anglo population – it does not excuse the absence of leadership on the issue. In fact, such leadership is all the more urgent.

The onus falls on our political (and community) leaders to respond with humanity and compassion to the refugee crisis. The primary issue is not how many refugees Australia can or should take, but how we treat those who seek refuge. And the responsibility falls on our political leaders to engage with the wider population not just on the issue of asylum seekers, but on matters of race, tolerance and harmony.

It may or may not cost taxpayers more to treat asylum seekers with decency, respect and compassion, but it is costing the soul of the nation dearly to lock these people in faraway detention centres and throw away the key by way of “sending a message” to other would-be asylum seekers.

But that is not the only message this policy is sending, as retiring Liberal senator Sue Boyce notes: ”I think the whole asylum seeker issue is…fraught with dog whistling.”

It is plainly too late to expect leadership from Tony Abbott on asylum seekers; he is more mindful of hanging on to whatever electoral support he still has than any desire to take a principled stand. And it is too much to expect Abbott, or Shorten, to visit Bendigo and urge residents to pull their heads in and show some decency towards fellow citizens who wish to build a place of worship in their community: they lack both the moral authority and political courage for such action.

Gough Whitlam, Malcolm Fraser, Bob Hawke or Paul Keating would have made the trip to Bendigo as prime ministers. They would have done so for reasons of symbolism, but also because they believed in a certain Australia and were prepared to stand up for it. They would have appealed to people’s best natures; they would have occupied a platform with Islamic and other community leaders; they would have spoken with vision and clarity about Australia as a vibrant, welcoming, open democracy.

That’s how much politics – and political leadership – has changed in Australia in such a short time.

 

 

Another royal visit, another reminder of a nation that refuses to grow up

There is nothing amiss with Australia enjoying affectionate ties with Great Britain, but there is every reason to blush a scarlet hue whenever the issue of the republic arises – particularly when there is a fawning conservative government in Canberra.

The latest example of Australia as the forever awkward adolescent too uncertain, or afraid, to assert its maturity, much less its independence, comes courtesy of Australia’s foreign minister, Julie Bishop. The issue was not the republic, but the Australian flag, and in particular the place of the Union Jack.

Quizzed on BBC radio, while in London for meetings with UK government ministers, Bishop was asked if Australia would be following the lead of New Zealand Prime Minister John Key who has promised to hold a referendum on the future of the NZ flag.

“Believe it or not it’s not an issue that actually draws much attention in Australia,” Bishop responded. “I believe we will stick with the flag. There’s no great demand to change it and many Australians have fought and died under that flag, sadly.”

Even by Bishop’s standards, this was an insipid defence of the national flag. Rather than a full-throated, heartfelt endorsement of the flag, Bishop’s principal reason for retaining it appears to be people’s indifference. Her response to the BBC interviewer might easily have been: “Let sleeping dogs lie.”

It’s an argument, such as it is, that constitutional monarchists are fond of. “There are no demonstrated benefits from the proposed changes,” then Prime Minister John Howard said during the republican referendum of 1999.

The case for the retention of the monarchy in Australia is rarely sophisticated or nuanced. The typical conservative response to change is to argue “better the devil you know”, dressed up with a few platitudes, and for good measure an aspersion or two directed at the proponents of change.

The issue of the flag is often entwined with the future of the constitutional monarchy in Australia – no doubt because of the prominence of the Union Jack. This is not an unreasonable association, but these are ultimately separate issues.

MONARCHY BY DEFAULT

The republic, perhaps more than any other issue, highlights just how gutless and puerile our political leaders are when it comes to change. In the absence of any leadership on the issue it is true that there is no groundswell of agitation for a republic; but remaining a constitutional monarchy by default is hardly a resounding endorsement of the institution.

Paul Keating stands alone as a leader who stood up for his vision of Australia as a confident, independent nation with the maturity to break free of its colonial shackles. He convinced reluctant Australians to confront the anachronism of having a British royal as Australia’s head of state.

Keating paid the ultimate political price for his courage on this and other issues of identity, but he paved the way for the referendum on the republic – and Australians voted to retain constitutional ties with the British monarchy. The referendum was widely considered to have been sabotaged by Howard, a fervent monarchist. He ensured that the vote was not a simple yes or no on whether Australia should be a republic. Instead, Australians were asked to vote on a specific republican model:

“To alter the Constitution to establish the Commonwealth of Australia as a republic with the Queen and Governor-General being replaced by a President appointed by a two-thirds majority of the members of the Commonwealth Parliament.”

The monarchists’ tainted victory (54.9% v 45.1%) – won with the support of republicans who did not favour the proposed model – was predicated on preserving the status quo by default. (Malcolm Turnbull famously predicted that Howard would be remembered as “the Prime Minister who broke this nation’s heart”. It will be interesting to see whether Turnbull will be true to his republican convictions should he ever become PM.)

“We should not lightly put aside something that has worked so well and helped give us such stability,” Howard said during the referendum campaign.

This is a familiar argument for remaining a constitutional monarchy. Yet, despite this claim being made repeatedly, I do not recall ever hearing an explanation as to how having a British head of state has provided this much vaunted stability.

Conservatives’ anachronistic relationship with the British monarchy reached its obsequious zenith under Howard, but Prime Minister Tony Abbott is proving no slouch when it comes to tugging the forelock. (I am more forgiving of Sir Robert Menzies’ pilloried ode to the Queen in 1963, “I did but see he passing by. And yet I love her till I die”. It suited the times, perhaps only just, and it was also a very personal tribute from the ageing statesman to his young sovereign.)

WHEN TONY MET HARRY

When Prince Harry, the fourth in line to the British (and therefore Australian) throne was in Australia in October 2013 for the navy’s centenary, Abbott, who is no Menzies, was excruciating in his devotion to the young prince.

“Prince Harry, I regret to say not every Australian is a monarchist, but today everyone feels like a monarchist,” Abbott gushed. “You grace us as your family has graced our nation from its beginning, as the Crown is a symbol of our stability, continuity and decency in public life.”

The depth of Australia’s relationship with the royal family, and the institution of the monarchy, these days depends not on popular sentiment, but on the political hue – or the political cowardice – of the government in power.

Abbott knows that Australians are at best fair-weather monarchists; that the extent to which crowds respond to the visits of young royals has more to do with celebrity than deference. Just because Abbott happens to be an ardent royalist does not suddenly make Australia a nation of monarchists, and it certainly does not give him the right to impose his ardour on the rest of the country.

If Abbott was the true leader of vision and substance he imagines himself to be, he would be occupying himself with the task of ensuring that Australia embarks upon the necessary constitutional reforms to prepare it for the challenges that lie ahead in the “Asian Century”.

Instead of concerning himself with shaping Australia for the future, Abbott is more interested in playing fairytale kingdoms. But brace yourselves for more vomitous fealty from the Prime Minister. If we thought Abbott was over the top in his cloying attempts to impress Harry, just wait until William and Kate (and baby George) hit our shores in April.

Grow up Australia? Not while Tony Abbott is PM. Unfortunately, Opposition Leader Bill Shorten is in no hurry to disturb the status quo either. While supporting the retention of the flag, Shorten prefers to play it safe on the future of the constitutional monarchy: “The republic’s a different issue … I think that’s one which the people of Australia sort of have to show a level of interest in.”

No, Bill, it’s an issue on which somebody who would be Prime Minister sort of has to show a level of leadership. We know where Abbott stands – or kneels – on Australia’s constitutional future. But where do you stand?