‘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

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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.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Australia’s political system is working

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tin-eared and bone-headed to the last

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A serious blow to Shorten’s leadership

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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