Malcolm Turnbull has hit a new low as he announces ‘Australian values’ crackdown on new migrants and foreign workers

Among the very few positive contributions that Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has made to public discourse in Australia has been on the subject of multiculturalism, so it is disheartening that he should sink to his most desperate low by demonising the very people he was lauding only weeks ago.

Turnbull has in recent days adopted the xenophobic language of Pauline Hanson and the far-right of his own party. The spurious “abolition” of the 457 skilled migration visa gave Turnbull the opportunity to repeat ad nauseam loaded phrases such as “putting Australian jobs first”, “Australians for Australian jobs” and “Australian values” as well as plenty of gratuitous references to “foreigners”. (When it comes to such Trumpisms, Bill “I make no apology, I’m going to stand up for Australian jobs first and Australians first” Shorten hasn’t got a spindly leg to stand on, so the less we hear from him on this the better.)

The abolition of the 457 visa – in fact no more than a tidying up of the scheme – is a political rather than a policy exercise. The more Turnbull stressed that this was “a careful exercise in policy development” the plainer it became that it was nothing of the kind. To the extent that it was “carefully considered by Cabinet” it was to provide the Government with the opportunity to indulge in some migrant-bashing.

Turnbull has been, to employ his terminology, “manifestly, rigorously, resolutely” shameless in the jingoism he has employed.

“It [457] will be replaced by a new system that will be manifestly, rigorously, resolutely conducted in the national interest to put Australians and Australian jobs first. That’s our commitment: Australian jobs, Australian values,” Turnbull said at his press conference, with Immigration Minister Peter Dutton nodding approvingly by his side.

And in case there was any doubt about the atmospherics of the 457 announcement, Turnbull could not resist this tribute to his former foe, now mentor:

“[W]e should not underestimate either our success as a multicultural society or the fact that our success is built on a foundation of confidence by the Australian people that it is their government and their government alone that determines in the national interest who comes here and the terms on which they come and how long they stay.”

For those who might have been curious as to how low Turnbull was prepared to plumb in order to retain his job, they may need to be patient as it appears Malcolm is still digging.

Nobody realised a crackdown was required

Hot on the heels of the concocted 457 announcement the Prime Minister has announced a crackdown on migration rules and eligibility criteria for prospective citizens. This may come as a surprise to anyone not realising that a crackdown was required.

The shake-up of the migration program includes tougher English-language requirements, an “Australian values” test and proof that applicants have attempted to integrate into Australian society, providing evidence of a job, the enrolment of their children in school, and even membership of community organisations. Migrants who have permanent residence must now wait four years – currently it’s one year – before they can apply for citizenship.

In announcing these tougher measures, Turnbull has provided no evidence of inadequacies in the current migration system that needed to be rectified. He is claiming credit for fixing a system that nobody knew was broken.

The tougher migration regimen being proposed has only one purpose: to pander to the most reactionary elements in the Australian community.

“Membership of the Australian family is a privilege and should be afforded to those who support our values, respect our laws and want to work hard by integrating and contributing to an even better Australia. We must ensure that our citizenship program is conducted in our national interest,” Turnbull said, pressing all the red-neck buttons.

It’s just what supporters of One Nation and fringe ultra-right groups want to hear – or at least, that’s what Coalition strategists are hoping – but precisely how it can be proven that would-be migrants will be true to these motherhood verities is something else again. The fact of the matter is that many Anglo Australians – what Pauline Hanson and her flag-draped supporters might dub “real Australians” – would fail to meet these standards.

Migrants come to Australia to seek a better life for themselves and their children, which by definition means a preparedness to work, to contribute and give-back in myriad ways, to strive for the best possible education for their children, and generally to prosper.

The idea that migrants come to Australia with a view to recasting the nation in their image is a myth as old as the vestiges of White Australia that persist to this day and are now being fanned by Turnbull. One would have to be of a particularly forgiving mind not to conclude that Turnbull’s shameless dog-whistling is aimed at those who believe Muslim migrants are hell bent on turning Australia into a Sharia state.

Turnbull’s sudden conviction that Australia needs tougher migration laws is at odds with his own recent statements on multiculturalism.

‘An example to the world’

In March, the government released its statement on multiculturalism: Multicultural Australia – United, Strong, Successful. What part of “united, strong, successful” is the government seeking to remedy?

In a soaring speech delivered to coincide with the release of the statement, Turnbull was at his most eloquent and statesmanlike. There was no hint that Australia’s multiculturalism was in need of urgent repair. Far from it. He declared with evident pride that Australia’s multicultural society is “the envy of the world” and “an example to the world”.

“We are the most successful multicultural society in the world and it’s a badge we wear with pride,” he said.

“We are proud of the role immigration has played in shaping the Australia we love so much.

“At a time of growing global tensions and rising uncertainty, we remain a steadfast example of a harmonious, egalitarian and enterprising nation, which embraces its diversity.

“We welcome newcomers with open arms and mutual respect because we are confident in our culture, our institutions and our laws. In return, our newest Australians pledge loyalty to Australia and its people, affirm our shared democratic beliefs and agree to respect and uphold our liberties, rights and laws.”

Well, apparently not if we are to believe Turnbull’s most recent statements calling for an Australian values-based migration system.

Even for a government notorious for flitting from one policy position to another, the differences between the sentiments expressed by Turnbull in that March speech and the subsequent narrow-minded, retrograde rhetoric of 1950s Australia weeks later could not be starker.

It is no wonder that voters have turned their backs on this Prime Minister who promised so much and has delivered so little. While many – including this writer – have dared to hope that we may yet get to see the “real Malcolm” it is hard to imagine that after this latest act of base populism and political cowardice that his prime ministership can ever be redeemed.

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

 

 

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As PM announces expenses reforms, the Sussan Ley affair will prove either a new beginning for Malcolm Turnbull, or the beginning of the end

It has not been a propitious start to Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s year. The inevitable resignation of Health Minister Sussan Ley over her tin-eared excesses on the public purse is another blow to the standing of the Turnbull Government, a government which has failed miserably to gain traction with Australian voters.

Ley’s egregious exploitation of ministerial entitlements – most notably the improbable “impulse” purchase of a $795,000 investment property on the Gold Coast while on a taxpayer-funded trip – has cut short the ministerial career of one of the few ministers to shine in Turnbull’s lacklustre frontbench. Ley’s fall from grace has been compounded by her insistence that she has done nothing wrong.

In her statement to the media, Ley avows that she has followed the rules, “not just regarding entitlements but most importantly the ministerial code of conduct”.

“Whilst I have attempted at all times to be meticulous with rules and standards, I accept community annoyance, even anger, with politicians’ entitlements demands a response,” she explained.

Amidst the delicately phrased words of borderline – not to say faux – contrition, Ley clearly considers her demise to be about politics rather than ethics: “The ongoing intense media speculation has made this… a difficult week for the Government.”

Voters will doubtless consider it fitting that, having been sprung with her hand in the public purse, Ley has paid the ultimate price. But Ley could not bring herself to make an unreserved apology, a fateful decision that will likely forestall a return to the frontbench any time soon as well as confirm voters’ deepening view that politicians are arrogant and out of touch.

This latest expenses scandal tells us as much about Malcolm Turnbull’s struggling leadership as it does Ley’s overblown sense of entitlement.

The fact that Ley and, as it has subsequently emerged, fellow ministers have not seen fit to curb their excesses in the wake of Bronwyn Bishop’s “choppergate” scandal and the resulting government expenses review can only suggest the Prime Minister commands scant authority over his government.

Despite making it clear that in his view Ley had breached his ministerial code of conduct, Turnbull chose not to dismiss his wayward minister. Instead, Ley stepped aside while the Secretary of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, Martin Parkinson, conducted a review – a course that presumably had more to do with buying time than establishing facts that were already known.

A question of judgement

Rather than buying time, the decision for Ley to stand aside prolonged the damaging political fallout for the government and again called into question Turnbull’s political judgement.

Turnbull’s choice of Cabinet Secretary Arthur Sinodinos – himself not without political baggage – to act as Minister for Health and Aged Care and Minister for Sport also suggests that the Prime Minister has few ministerial colleagues to turn to when it comes to ministers he truly trusts.

When Ley finally announced that she was falling on her sword – stressing that her resignation was a “personal decision” – Turnbull praised her “appropriate judgement”, which only raises the question of why Turnbull did not act himself to terminate Ley’s commission.

Ley’s departure opens the way for Turnbull to reshuffle his frontbench. His test will be to appoint a ministry that re-energises his government, a government languishing in the opinion polls and riven by factional discord.

After an initially sluggish response to the Ley affair, Turnbull’s bold announcement of reforms to parliamentarians’ work expenses, including the creation of a new compliance authority, may herald the emergence of a more assertive Prime Minister.

Or it may set up 2017 as another disappointing year in which a Prime Minister of whom so much was expected continues to disappoint as a diffident and unambitious leader. The difference this year is that neither the increasingly skittish Liberal party nor disillusioned voters will have any remaining stores of patience with Turnbull’s lack of authority and policy vigour.

Perhaps the Ley affair has finally prompted the “real Malcolm” to come out of hiding. If so, Sussan Ley has done Australia a great service. The question now is: can Turnbull maintain the momentum? He will need to, because 2017 will almost certainly be a make or break time for Malcolm Turnbull.

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

 

Trump’s victory sends a clear warning to Malcolm Turnbull, but does he have the courage to reboot his prime ministership in 2017?

As if proof were needed, the transition phase of Donald Trump’s imminent presidency shows all too clearly that Americans are in for a rough if not calamitous ride. And Australians have just as much to fear from a weak Prime Minister beholden to the barking right of his party emboldened by Trump’s victory.

The election of Trump as US President will define the world’s political agenda certainly throughout 2017 and very likely over the course of his four-year term – if in fact the mercurial Trump lasts a full term. Trump’s election gives license to far-right extremists largely kept in check by prevailing political orthodoxies, social norms and generally enlightened attitudes.

Trump’s shock victory has busted that paradigm wide open; deliberately and without disguise. More wrecking ball than thoughtful statesman, Trump’s reckless, deceitful and frankly monstrous campaign was a repudiation of those orthodoxies, norms and enlightened attitudes.

Trump tapped into a maelstrom of discontent that resonates just as loudly in Australia: a view that the “political elites” have been pursuing agendas – globalisation, economic restructuring, deregulation – without regard for how they affect the most disadvantaged in the community. When people’s jobs and livelihoods are at risk they will inevitably feel that their cultural values and ideals – their “way of life” – are also under siege.

It’s a heady cocktail of disaffection that manifests itself in a desperate embrace of any counter-political force that vows to eschew the political establishment and act for “the real people”.

Trump’s victory does serve as a salient reminder that the fast pace of economic change since the 1990s – which in the last half-dozen years has accelerated dramatically with the onset of the “digital economy” – has big losers as well as big winners. The conventional political messaging that change is good – a mantra repeated ad nauseam in shrinking workplaces – has tested the patience of people who far from sailing majestically in the sea of change are drowning in it. And they are angry that their cries for help have either been not heard, ignored, or worse, ridiculed.

The anger of Trump’s disaffected followers deserves respect, as it does a credible response from governments, legislators and policy makers.

It remains, however, difficult to forgive these disaffected Americans for entrusting Trump with their grievances.

Voters turned a blind eye to – or indeed welcomed – Trump’s bigotry, racism and sexism, if not outright misogyny. They overlooked his transparent ignorance on the economy, foreign policy and national security; they were unfazed by his instability, incoherence and infantilism; and perhaps most inexplicably they ignored the fact that Trump embodied everything he stood against: he (in the words of Hillary Clinton) “stiffed” contractors, employed illegal immigrants, used Chinese steel in his construction, rorted the tax system and outsourced manufacturing of his branded products overseas.

‘The biggest fuck-you in human history’

Basically, Trump’s supporters didn’t care, and the reasons are best summed up by documentary film-maker Michael Moore, who predicted Trump’s victory:

“Trump’s election is going to be the biggest ‘fuck you’ ever recorded in human history…Whether Trump means it or not is kind of irrelevant because he’s saying the things to people who are hurting, and that’s why every beaten-down, nameless, forgotten working stiff who used to be part of what was called the middle class loves Trump. He is the human Molotov cocktail that they’ve been waiting for, the human hand grenade that they can legally throw into the system that stole their lives from them.”

Australia is already familiar with the “fuck you” political phenomenon. It powered Pauline Hanson into federal parliament the first time around in 1996 and perhaps even more improbably Clive Palmer – Australia’s Trump – in 2013. In 1998, Queensland voters delivered their own giant fuck-you when they elected 11 One Nation MPs to state parliament – a short-lived primacy as it turned out. And, this year, voters returned Hanson to parliament with a Senate seat along with three of her, shall we say, eccentric One Nation cohorts.

Trump ascendency brings into focus the anger which has been building in the community – and left unattended – for a long time.

Many Australians, like their American counterparts, feel ignored, disenfranchised and disadvantaged by the new economic order. And their response is not only to look to the likes of One Nation, but to harden their intolerance of anyone or anything that they consider threatens their “way of life”.

The Trump victory has emboldened One Nation to be even more outrageous in their political quackery, and worse, xenophobia and bigotry. We are familiar with the news footage of One Nation senators ostentatiously toasting Trump’s success. At the time of writing, climate change denialist Senator Malcolm Roberts is on a cringeworthy visit to the US to fly the Trump-Downunder flag.

“Unlike many foreign leaders who have shied away from or tried to ignore Donald Trump, newly elected Australian Sen. Malcolm Roberts is proud of his early support for the maverick Republican candidate and now the president-elect,” the Washington Times reports, obviously none the wiser that Roberts is a political pipsqueak, albeit one who has successfully tapped into the same dissent that propelled Trump to the White House.

Roberts told the newspaper while in Washington for meetings with the Trump transition team (cue to roll eyes): “We’re the only party that actually came out and supported the Trump candidacy. We also celebrated his victory the moment it happened. We were very happy about that.” (Roll again; vomiting optional.)

The Washington Times report continues: “The appeal of Mr. Trump’s campaign, he said, was that ‘it seemed to be that the American people are at last waking up that there’s something wrong, and they’re saying to both main parties: You caused this. We don’t know what the problem is, but we know there’s a problem,’ he said.”

A Prime Minister who stands for nothing

At such a time, the need for strong political leadership is paramount, but Australia lacks anything remotely resembling leadership, so that nobodies like Roberts get to dance on the world stage in praise of Trump. But it’s not just the fringe players who are running loose. Mainstream conservatives are also lining up to declare their fealty to Trump and Trumpism.

Liberal senator Cory Bernardi, a Trump acolyte, right down to his red ‘Make Australia Great Again’ cap, warns that Australia must heed the lessons of the US presidential election. Bernardi says One Nation is a political force once more because Pauline Hanson and her colleagues are willing to talk about the things that “people are talking about in the pub”.

“If you have politicians who refuse to talk about immigration, for example, you’re going to get people like Pauline Hanson who will tap into that space,” he told the Sydney Morning Herald.

After lionising his hero, Bernardi added: “Hillary Clinton was the very worst candidate they could have put up. She’s working for the elites, she was crooked and the system was crooked and they [voters] wanted someone to fix it.”

Bernardi, of course, was addressing an audience of one: his leader and Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull. Turnbull, so lacking in authority within his own party, has made no attempt to slap down the outspoken Bernardi. Indeed, there is every chance that the South Australian senator will find himself promoted to the ministry, both as an offering to the right and in an attempt to keep him quiet.

There could not be a worse time for Australia to be saddled with a spineless PM who stands for nothing. When it became clear that Trump had won the election, Turnbull rushed to congratulate Trump and assured Australians that Trump the candidate and Trump the president would very likely be two very different things. Congratulating Trump is one thing, but Turnbull was remiss in not asserting Australia’s values and interests rather than being seen as all-in with the president-elect.

As the US swings to the right over the next four torrid years – and embarks on the Trump experiment of running a country like a business (headed by a CEO of dubious business acumen) – the onus is on Turnbull to provide the leadership that prevents Trump-style agendas from taking root in Australia.

Turnbull has made much of his government’s plan for the much-touted transitioning economy, but there is no such plan, save for Treasurer Scott Morrison’s budget, which is merely a short-term political document of dubious value. Australia needs root-and-branch economic reform – a bold blueprint that positions the nation for a new era of change and uncertainty, of stature akin to the reforms of the Hawke-Keating era. And both these Labor titans understood that with genuine reform must come the leadership that leaves no Australian feeling overlooked, unrepresented or disqualified.

Even with barely a skerrick of substantive reform under this government that’s how many Australians feel right now. At a time when many Australians feel like they’ve living through a recession, Turnbull, every bit as tin-eared as his predecessor, is still sloganeering about innovation, agility and exciting times.

Trump’s victory provides a valuable reminder about the importance of leadership. In its absence, the orange menace will beckon, whether it’s Trump or Hanson.

As 2016 draws to a close, there is no sign that Malcolm Turnbull has the courage or will to stamp his authority on the prime ministership. Instead, Australia seems destined for another year of diffident, ill-disciplined and pointless government. Surely this is not what Turnbull expected of his time as prime minister. It’s certainly not what the people of Australia expected.

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

Malcolm Turnbull, the incredible shrinking prime minister: what’s the point of being a do-nothing PM, Malcolm?

Despite the Coalition’s narrowest of election wins Malcolm Turnbull insists that his government has a mandate. Curiously, Turnbull claims no such mandate for his prime ministership. He remains as beholden to the right wing of his party as he was the day he wrested the prime ministership from Tony Abbott last year. He remains the incredible shrinking prime minister.

For those who believed that the “real Malcolm” would only emerge when he was returned to office in his own right, the upshot of the July 2 election has been a bitter disappointment. While full-throated in his claim of a mandate for his government, Turnbull is not so bullish when it comes to asserting his authority as prime minister. It is difficult to bring to mind a previous prime minister who has been so afraid to exercise power, who has had so little reason for being prime minister. Which begs the question: What’s the point of being prime minister, Malcolm?

Prior to pursuing his destiny in politics, Malcolm Turnbull had been a high achiever in every endeavour he applied himself to. His approach to journalism, the law, investment banking, business and advocacy for the republic was marked by self-confidence, courage and conviction. These are hallmarks noticeably absent from Turnbull’s prime ministership.

Malcolm Turnbull was the last person one would imagine as being content with being prime minister for its own sake, but that is precisely how his time as prime minister must be characterised.

There is no doubt Turnbull was personally crushed by the electorate’s lukewarm endorsement at the polls. Pride aside, Turnbull had hoped for a result that would have enabled him to break free from the hold of his party’s right wing. Instead he scraped in by the barest majority, a pointed public rebuke of his insipid prime ministership. Little did the electorate realise it had simply bought itself three more years of the same.

The initiative rests with Turnbull

Not only is Australia saddled with an impotent Prime Minister, but the Turnbull ministry is one of the weakest, least meritorious, most soul-sapping in living memory. The few individual exceptions don’t come close to tipping the balance. And while having Parliament’s resident goose as Deputy PM is not of Turnbull’s making, the National Party’s retrograde influence under Turnbull’s prime ministership has been allowed to flourish.

It’s hard to understand why Turnbull, presented with a one-seat majority, has not thrown his new-found pragmatism to the wind and adopted Gough Whitlam’s credo of “crash through or crash”. After all, if he feels emasculated by his government’s perilous hold on power, that situation is not going to change for the next three years. The initiative rests with Turnbull himself. He can either continue to tread water, or he can resolve to pursue the issues and causes that are dear to him and let the political cards fall where they may.

Turnbull’s abandonment of marriage equality, his silence on the republic, his refusal to face up to the human rights abuses of Australia’s asylum seeker regime, his disinterest in indigenous affairs, his championing of coal, his insensitivity to growing institutionalised poverty, his weakness in response to ministerial incompetence – how does he sleep at night?

Turnbull has become adept at not rocking the boat. The entirety of his prime ministership is dedicated to keeping himself in the job. In the past he has resolutely refused to accept that Australians have been disappointed in his lacklustre prime ministership – having expected so much more – but if the election result didn’t convince him, then the latest Newspoll should: voter satisfaction with Turnbull’s performance as Prime Minister has sunk below 30% for the first time.

It’s hard to reconcile today’s paper-tiger PM with the MP, narrowly defeated in the leadership ballot following the defeat of the Howard government in 2007, who stormed into the office of the newly installed Liberal leader, the tearful Brendan Nelson, yelling at him to man up. (Turnbull went on to topple Nelson for his first stint as opposition leader. Nelson has gone on to make notable contributions to the nation, first as Australian Ambassador to the European Union and NATO – appointed by the first Rudd government – and since 2012 as the visionary and indefatigable Director of the Australian War Memorial.)

It’s Malcolm…or who?

The answer for the Coalition government does not lie in a change of leader. Even if serious leadership manoeuvrings were to materialise, obvious leadership candidates are few and far between. Abbott’s return is possible, but highly improbable.

Unlike the Labor party which has several strong alternatives to Bill Shorten – and that is a space to watch – the Liberal party is a succession-free zone. The fact of the matter is that Malcolm Turnbull is the most qualified, most able person in the Liberal party to be leader. But his party won’t let him lead, and unlike his former self he lacks the courage to do so. A leader not permitted to lead, without a credible successor.

The Liberal party can thank its hero John Howard for the party’s leadership vacuum. He should have transitioned the party leadership and prime ministership to Peter Costello after winning the 2004 election. And there’s a very good chance that a Costello government would have been returned in 2007. Instead, through spite and obstinacy, Howard clung to office, unchallenged by his weak-kneed ministers who knew that Howard’s time had come.

Costello’s unexpected and not without spite decision to decline the Liberal leadership after the Kevin 07 rout threw the party into the turmoil from which it has not recovered.

While some may cling to the belief that there remains in Malcolm Turnbull the potential to be a great prime minister, it is hard to see Turnbull shaking himself from his self-induced torpor.

Australians deserve better than three more years of Turnbull’s timorous prime ministership. If those closest to Turnbull cannot inject in him the will to prove himself equal to the public’s expectations of him, the Liberal party could do considerably worse than to place itself on bended knee before Peter Costello and beg him to return to parliament to claim his crown.

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No prizes for almost winning

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘The Coalition must do better on health’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A contest of ideas and values

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pick your ‘defining moment’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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.

 

 

The Road to Ruin: Niki Savva is under fire for being sexist, but feminist critics should leave their agenda at home

Niki Savva’s book The Road to Ruin has proven a polarising chronicle of the destructive co-dependency between Tony Abbott and Peta Credlin and its role in the demise of Abbott’s prime ministership.

Some of the critics have aimed their wrath at Savva for daring to give currency to the long-circulating Canberra gossip that Abbott and Credlin were having an affair. Savva makes no effort to settle the veracity of that virulent rumour, nor does she offer any indication of her own view on the matter. The alleged affair, per se, is not the point of her book.

Her point was to illustrate the undisguised intensity and peculiar, not to say bizarre, characteristics of the relationship. It’s possible at a generous stretch that Abbott and Credlin were not aware of the rumours circulating through Canberra, but at times it certainly seemed that they were daring observers to come to that conclusion.

Frankly, the idea of a senior politician having an affair with a staffer is hardly breaking new ground. Mercifully, in Australia, what happens in the anteroom traditionally stays in the anteroom. Occasionally journalists push the envelope, but if journalists were to make a practice of gratuitously revealing every extramarital indiscretion involving politicians and staffers – not to mention the odd journalist – our media would be filled with nothing else.

Matters of public (as opposed to prurient) interest aside, affairs should be none of our affair. What is different about politicians behaving badly through the decades is that they and their paramours have behaved with discretion and secretiveness.

Affair or not, Abbott and Credlin were so bizarrely in-your-face and completely lacking in public decorum that of course they were going to be a talking point.

One MP recounted to Savva being present at a Melbourne restaurant when Credlin used her fork to feed Abbott from her plate. And after the meal “she put her head on his shoulder to complain about being tired”. On another occasion Abbott was spotted patting his chief of staff on the fundament.

There was nothing gratuitous about Savva’s detailed and richly sourced account, but there certainly have been some gratuitous insults hurled at her.

One commentator opined that Savva included rumours of the affair to boost sales of her book. Such a specious claim is an insult to Savva who is a well-connected, seasoned and fearless political journalist (as anyone who reads her columns in The Australian will know).

The intensity of the corrosive relationship between Abbott and Credlin and its toxic impact on Abbott’s private office and the governance of the country – and within two short years his prime ministership – was hardly a matter of Savva’s invention. But her book does break new ground in revealing just how obsessive and caustic this relationship was.

As Savva herself explained: “This was not meant to imply an affair; it was meant to describe the depth of the dependence, the consuming obsession, and what Abbott was prepared to sacrifice for it.”

Too much for a troubled government to bear

Far from being simply a matter of Canberra intrigue, Abbott’s closest colleagues were deeply concerned about Credlin’s micro-management – which extended to over-ruling ministers’ staff appointments and travel arrangements – and the extent of her influence on the Prime Minister and the workings of government.

On top of these deeply and widely held concerns about Credlin’s power lust, rumours about the nature of Abbott and Credlin’s relationship, and their seemingly wilful fanning of it with their outlandish behaviour, was simply too much for a troubled government to bear.

It was of such concern that NSW Liberal Senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells confronted Abbott about the rumours. As has been publicised, Fierravanti-Wells made this blunt assessment to her Prime Minister: “Politics is about perceptions. Rightly or wrongly, the perception is that you are sleeping with your chief of staff. That’s the perception, and you need to deal with it. I am here because I care about you, and I care about your family, and I feel I need to tell you the truth, the brutal truth. This is what your colleagues really think.”

It was a gutsy intervention, not one that would have been made lightly. Her counsel was of course ignored. Abbott did not sack Credlin; in fact nothing changed. Quite apart from the impact of this reckless relationship on his government, Abbott was also becoming a laughing stock in public over the relationship.

A widely circulated gif on social media in which Credlin could be seen making goo-goo eyes at her boss in the back seat of the prime ministerial car – and some none too subtle accompanying comments – would have confirmed Fierravanti-Wells’ worst fears.

Savva has been criticised for not putting these matters to Abbott and Credlin. But why would she? For the inevitable mealy-mouthed denials or explanations, or threats of legal action? Perhaps as a pro forma exercise she should have, but the book is no less revelatory or relevant for the lack of the protagonists’ input. In any case, it was well known for some time that Savva was writing the book; did they seek input? This was not an authorised account of the failed Abbott government. It was an exposé. And a well written, thoroughly researched one at that.

Of the many criticisms levelled at Savva, none has been about the accuracy of her account. It seems inconceivable that an account of the demise of the inept and dysfunctional Abbott government could have been written without delving into the principal architects of its disintegration; and when Savva delves, she delves.

The most fiery criticism of Savva has been over Credlin’s central role in the narrative. This was to be expected, although perhaps not its vehemence.

Previous media reports about Credlin’s divisive and destructive role as Abbott’s chief of staff also attracted the ire of feminists, so it’s not surprising that Savva’s book should come in for like condemnation. Throw in the matter of the alleged affair and Savva was guaranteed a hostile reaction from her sisters. Although she might not have anticipated the extent of the condemnation and accompanying accusations of betrayal of feminist ideals.

Fatuous feminism

But fiery feminism is not necessarily infallible feminism. In this case, fatuous comes closer to the mark (or marcia). One female critic, for example, sought to demonstrate that Savva was being sexist. She argued that despite the intense bond between former British Prime Minister Tony Blair and his spin doctor Alastair Campbell, nobody accused them of having sex. Ergo, the only reason people were speculating about an affair in Canberra is because Credlin was a woman.

Well, yes.

Where does one begin with such absurd logic? I’m not aware of any sightings of Campbell feeding his boss forkfuls of cake that might have set some people wondering. But as it happens, the Blair-Campbell alliance was very much the subject of heated discussion, criticism and condemnation.

Criticisms of Campbell mirrored the concerns expressed about Credlin. He was criticised for having too much influence on Blair and government policy, more so than ministers in some cases. He was condemned for bastardising Westminster politics. Campbell’s influence was all the more egregious, critics argued, given that he was not an elected official. These are familiar criticisms in the context of Credlin’s time as Abbott’s chief of staff.

Critics have variously argued that the book’s focus on Credlin is another example of Australian society’s problem with powerful women, is “insulting to women everywhere” and will dissuade girls and young women from seeking positions of power or influence because they’re only going to be dragged down by an unreconstructed patriarchy.

Which is tosh. Savva, to state the bleeding obvious, is a woman, clearly a powerful one, and as tough as nails. She also knows the turf; not only as a veteran political journalist and commentator but as a former staffer to Peter Costello and John Howard. Far from being a negative influence she may even inspire a new generation of female political and investigative journalists.

Society is the better for the gains that have only come through feminist agitation and insistence. And there are more battles to be fought and won. But using the simplistic rationale that an attack on Credlin is an attack on all women is simply another way of saying that women should be beyond judgment or criticism.

Savva’s book does not posit that the problem with Credlin was her gender; the problem with Credlin was Credlin; and the problem with Abbott was very much Abbott. Savva’s book is about the  poisonous combination of Abbott and Credlin and their dysfunctional approach to government.

The critics presumably must know that the behaviour of Abbott and Credlin would not be tolerated in any Australian workplace. A male CEO patting his female associate’s arse (or vice versa) in view of others would almost certainly only end one way. A CEO who lets himself be fed at a restaurant table, have his hair brushed or tie straightened by said female associate would presumably be sending one and only one signal to all those watching agog at the table.

Quite apart from the power and influence wielded by Credlin and the inadequacies of Abbott as Prime Minister, there are norms of behaviour that must be observed, if not for the sake of decency, for the sake of professionalism.

The Abbott-Credlin relationship was unprofessional, wilful, self-indulgent, selfish, narcissistic, provocative and inevitably destructive. Savva has nothing to apologise for; but Tony Abbott and Peta Credlin most certainly owe their party, if not the people of Australia, a very big one.

 

 

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.