‘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

Advertisements

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.

 

Why I’m supporting Stephen Mayne’s run for Parliament as an independent candidate in Kevin Andrews’ seat of Menzies

Journalist, business commentator, Crikey founder, shareholder activist and Melbourne city councillor Stephen Mayne is running as a “pro-Turnbull, liberal-minded independent” candidate in Kevin Andrews’ blue-ribbon seat of Menzies in the federal election. And I’m supporting him.

As a journalist, and one who regularly comments on federal politics, there will be some who consider it improper that I should align myself with a political candidate. There is good reason for that point of view, which is why I am “coming out” to explain my decision. It’s certainly true that if Mayne had opted to pursue political office as a party candidate I would not be inclined to offer my support.

But on this occasion, irrespective of his pro-Turnbull affiliation, I am comfortable lending Mayne my support and good wishes. In doing so I am acutely aware of Mayne’s less than popular status among sections of the media. He does have a way of rubbing some of his peers up the wrong way. This was perhaps best exemplified by the infamous incident at the 2006 Walkley awards when an aggrieved Glenn Milne attempted to bodily force Mayne, who was presenting an award, from the stage. (Milne subsequently apologised.)

I am supporting Mayne in part because he has earned his stripes as an early advocate for improved corporate governance at a time when corporate governance was the subject of much lip service but little action in the nation’s boardrooms.

The collapse of Enron in the US and HIH locally in 2001 brought issues of corporate governance, ethics and transparency to the fore. Much change in corporate behaviour was promised, but little followed. Corporate governance became just another box to tick, another milch cow to be exploited by carpetbagger consultants. Bad corporate citizens kept on being bad corporate citizens – as the world was reminded with the catastrophic global financial crisis of 2007-8.

Stephen Mayne called out many of these companies, firstly as a journalist and commentator and later as an activist. During the 1990s and 2000s he would use negligible shareholdings in public companies to target their negligent governance by asking pointed questions at AGMs and by running for positions on company boards. On the latter front, Mayne delighted in dubbing himself “Australia’s most unsuccessful candidate”.

It was this crossover into active participation that irked so many journalists. And I have to admit that I was among those to roll my eyes with each announcement that Mayne was running for yet another company board seat.

Making his presence felt

Mayne was not setting upon a career as a professional company director; his aim was to expose improper corporate behaviour which breached principles of good governance; the spirit if not the letter of the law. Mayne’s targets were shoddy remuneration practices, dubious transactions, conflicts of interest and poor market disclosure.

Mayne continues to make his presence felt at company AGMs, as recently noted by the Australian Financial Review’s Rear Window column:

“The Westfield chief and lover of the beautiful game [Frank Lowy was]…officiating at his company’s AGM…handing out unsolicited career advice to the nation’s favourite shareholder activist-turned-political aspirant, Stephen Mayne. Mayne peppered the octogenarian shopping mall magnate with questions about political donations…But cranky Franky gave voice to the frustrations of every shareholder meeting chair, letting fly with a few choice retorts, including: ‘Isn’t it about time you grew up and did something useful with your life?’”

The Rear Window columnist’s tongue was no doubt firmly located in his cheek when describing Mayne as “the nation’s favourite activist-turned-political aspirant”, but at least the description lacked the hint of scorn in The Australian’s recent epithet for Mayne of “self-appointed corporate conscience to the nation”.

Whatever affection, or lack thereof, the media may have for Mayne, his longstanding campaigns for better corporate (and political) transparency, accountability and standards of behaviour have proven well founded and more relevant than ever. The call by Labor and consumer groups for a royal commission into banks and a wide body of stakeholders for a federal independent commission against corruption may or may not have the support of Mayne, but they go the heart of his conviction that there exist systemic inadequacies in our institutions, whether corporate or political, which must be rooted out.

Mayne may well be a “ratbag” (and worse) to his critics, but he has been vindicated many times over for his determination to shine a light into the darkest recesses of corporate Australia.

Yes, that’s what journalists do, and do very well, but as Maxwell Smart might say, Mayne has used his ratbaggery for good instead of evil. He has opted to go beyond shining a light. He has been a doer, and with the passage of time not just a prescient doer, but a dogged one.

By his own count, Mayne has asked questions at more than 400 public company AGMs and stood for 48 public company boards. From 2011 until 2014 his advocacy was conducted through the Australian Shareholders’ Association as a director and then as Policy and Engagement Coordinator. He has played an instrumental role in turning the somewhat amateurish ASA into a respected voice for shareholder rights.

Practising what he preached

Mayne also served more than three years on Manningham City Council before his election to the City of Melbourne in 2012, where he chairs the finance and governance committee. In that role he has practised what he has preached about financial rectitude and transparency.

Mayne’s decision to contest the seat of Menzies may or may not bear political fruit. Ridding the federal Parliament of 1950s relic Kevin Andrews (he was actually elected in a 1991 by-election) is as much an aim as a seat in parliament.

Parliament would certainly be a better place without the peculiar Andrews, who still swings a torch for deposed Prime Minister Tony Abbott. His ultra-conservatism would not be missed, and an injection of fresh blood into the House of Representatives would make for a better place. Andrews’ political demise is a worthy aim in itself. But there’s more to Mayne’s candidacy than a negative-plus.

Mayne’s time as an elected councillor, particularly as a Melbourne city councillor, suggests that he would make a fine MP. There’s every likelihood that “Australia’s most unsuccessful candidate” will make it to Canberra if not in 2016 then at some future election.

I hope he makes it on July 2 as a “pro-Turnbull, liberal-minded independent”, or as he alternatively presents himself, as a “Hamer L/liberal” candidate, after the late reformist Liberal Premier of Victoria Rupert “Dick” Hamer.

It’s a pity Malcolm Turnbull feels politically constrained from presenting himself as a Hamer liberal. Many have been disappointed by his diffident performance since becoming Prime Minister, but his supporters believe that will change when (if) he earns a mandate in his own right on July 2.

In the meantime, Mayne is prepared to give Turnbull the benefit of the doubt and is running as a candidate in the belief that a liberal Turnbull era beckons. And such an era has no place for the likes of Andrews.

As Mayne told Fairfax Media: “[Andrews] is a 1950s capital C conservative. These dinosaurs can hide in the Senate in smaller states but Kevin Andrews shouldn’t be doing this in Hamer Liberal territory in progressive Melbourne.”

Although Mayne has nailed his colours to the mast of the good ship Turnbull, a progressive Member for Menzies would be a welcome outcome irrespective of who forms government.

Good on Stephen for taking the fight to Andrews, and in what is shaping up as a values election, for standing up for values that can only be for the betterment of a modern and progressive Australia.

That’s why I’ll be handing out how-to-vote cards for Stephen Mayne on July 2.

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

 

 

 

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.