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

 

Advertisements

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A contest of ideas and values

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pick your ‘defining moment’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Where’s Malcolm? The election is Turnbull’s last chance to be the PM everyone thought he was going to be

It’s the question on everyone’s lips: “Where’s Malcolm?” And it’s not a misplaced question. The Malcolm Turnbull who became Prime Minister on September 15 last year – to the palpable relief of a grateful nation – is not quite the man who occupies the office today.

There are occasional glimpses of the charming, eloquent and charismatic visionary whose elevation to the top job aroused much anticipation. Even the Labor opposition seemed quite giddy and star-struck in those first few heady days of Malcolm at the despatch box. At question time, even when he dared to helpfully suggest the question the Opposition should have asked, there was much fluttering delight on the Labor side.

“Early Malcolm” certainly set the scene for the post-Abbott era: soaring speeches, a mini-summit of diverse interests that heralded a new era of inclusion and consultation, a softer tone on terrorism, and of course the innovation statement.

But then, just as suddenly as he appeared, the urbane statesman who promised to usher in the glorious “Turnbull era” became just another politician – and not a very good one, with missteps galore, wasted opportunities, flights of policy fancy that came and went in the space of a news cycle, and a curious reluctance to give voice to those convictions he once proudly wore on his bespoke sleeve: the republic, same-sex marriage, climate change, [insert your own issue here].

Perhaps, opined those prepared to give Turnbull the benefit of the doubt, including this writer, he was silenced by whatever agreements he needed to strike with conservative elements within his party, not to mention his coalition partner, to secure the leadership. Once he has a mandate in his own right, the theory ran (runs), then the “real Malcolm” will re-emerge.

But Turnbull has given not so much as a hint that voters’ patience and understanding will be rewarded in due time. On the republic he has been especially disappointing, relegating it to a distant third-order issue, one to be revisited, maybe and perhaps, when the Queen dies (begging your pardon, Ma’am). On same-sex marriage, he has opted not to reverse the Coalition’s controversial commitment to a divisive and expensive plebiscite.

Who is this imposter claiming to be Malcolm Turnbull? Turnbull is Turnbull in much the same way that the waxen Shane Warne is who he says he is. Of the former spin king, once we get past the swallow’s nest on his bonce, we might agree that he sounds like Warnie and if you squint he even looks a bit like Warnie.

That goes for Turnbull too; if you squint, there is a passing resemblance to the old Malcolm.

Even if we can make allowances for Turnbull squibbing it on those cornerstone issues until after the election – and increasingly that now seems like a big if – it’s much harder to explain the past six months of stumbles, about-faces and inglorious defeats.

It’s even possible to pinpoint the very day when the Turnbull gloss turned to fluff.

That was October 9, less than a month after becoming PM, when Turnbull stupidly (no other word for it) told a Liberal Party state council in Sydney that their party was neither run by factions nor subject to “deals in back rooms”. For his trouble he was openly jeered and laughed at.

Who can say what possessed Turnbull on that day, but ever since Turnbull has been squandering the enormous political capital he initially enjoyed.

A PM who promised so much

The turning opinion polls tell the story of a public’s disappointment with a Prime Minister who explicitly and implicitly promised so much.

It had widely been assumed that Turnbull would be Keatingesque in his policy gravity and vision, but mostly he has just been Abbottesque.

Turnbull deliberately set high expectations on tax reform, promising an informed community debate on taxation, with all tax options to be considered, and a government tax reform blueprint to be presented to the nation in its aftermath. There was no blueprint and debate was pretty swiftly cut short when federal Labor successfully spooked Turnbull into taking any changes to the GST off the mostly bare table. Changes to negative gearing, also initially entertained by the government, had its sacred-cow status confirmed when it too was ruled out – all the better to hammer Labor at the election.

Turnbull, suddenly bereft of a tax reform centrepiece, much less a tax reform manifesto, came up with a proposal to return limited income tax powers to the states for the first time since World War II. It was, the PM boasted, the greatest reform to income tax and the federation in 70 years.

“What we are talking about is the most fundamental reform to the federation in generations, really since the income tax powers were ceded to the commonwealth in the Second World War. There is a failure at the heart of the federation and this is the failure: it is the failure of the states to have access to the revenue sources. This, we believe, is the only way that we can genuinely reform our federation.”

While the proposal – such as it was – was still alive, Turnbull actually did a good job explaining why giving states a share of the income tax base would be an important reform. But, on April 1, appropriately enough, the COAG meeting at which the proposal was formally raised, was informally buried.

Officially the communique stated: “COAG agreed…[to] work on broader opportunities for tax reform, including state tax reform…with a progress report to COAG at its next meeting.”

There’s been not a peep from Turnbull on his momentous state income tax reform since.

Given its significance, one would have thought the Turnbull government would fight harder for such a reform rather than meekly acquiesce to the predictable objections of the states and territories. Or indeed that such a seminal reform might even be an issue to take to the voters? Apparently not.

Wishy-washy brand of politics

Turnbull vowed in his first address to the nation as Prime Minister-elect that his government would be one of “engagement, of consultation, of collaboration”, respecting the intelligence of voters and explaining necessary policy changes.

There has been no such engagement, mainly because there has been no great policy shift which the government has had to explain. It certainly hasn’t been on tax reform, and most certainly not “the most fundamental reform to the federation in generations”. Turnbull has squandered much goodwill; in those first six months we can only speculate on how much he could have achieved in policy terms.

We know from the opinion polls that voters are not happy with Turnbull’s wishy-washy brand of politics – it’s the very opposite of what they expected from him and completely at odds with his take-no-prisoners approach in previous lives as a journalist, lawyer, businessman and investment banker.

Yet, every now and then Australians are treated to a glimpse of the Turnbull they thought they would see on a more regular basis: Turnbull’s prime ministerial Anzac Day address; or Malcolm in command as he announced the awarding of the $50 billion submarine contract to French company DCNS, which will build 12 submarines in Adelaide.

It may be that the Budget will make up for Turnbull’s disappointing start to his prime ministership. To do so it would have to be a budget for the ages, a cornucopia of vision, narrative and bold policy brilliance. It’s possible, but the hamfisted lead up to the Budget suggests nobody is expecting much at all. Except for cigarettes going up again.

And so to the election, which will be called just after the Budget formalities are over.

For jaded Australians who remain hopeful that a mandate will ensure the return of “real Malcolm”, it is no longer the certainty that it was seven months ago that Turnbull will be returned as Prime Minister.

Neither Turnbull nor Labor leader Bill Shorten have led an election campaign before. Neither man will ever face a more important contest.

Hopefully it will be a contest not just of endurance and theatrics, but a contest of ideas, a genuine choice between two plans for Australia. The fact that Shorten lives to tell the tale – not cut down by an all-conquering Turnbull as expected – is a plus for democracy.

Turnbull’s uneven start as PM has been cleverly exploited by Shorten who has for the first time cut through electoral indifference to point out chinks in the government’s armour. More than that, he has been more adventurous on the policy front. Even so, the polls suggest that, whatever gains Labor has made at the expense of the government, people still haven’t warmed to Shorten as the alternative PM and Turnbull comfortably remains the preferred PM.

Turnbull supporters will be hoping that on July 2 Malcolm Turnbull and his government will be returned, and the Turnbull era will at last begin in earnest.

However, Turnbull needs to be aware that thanks to his less than stellar debut as PM Bill Shorten is now very much in the race. Turnbull isn’t the only one hoping to kick off a new era in Australian politics.

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Australia’s political system is working

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tin-eared and bone-headed to the last

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A serious blow to Shorten’s leadership

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Treating voters like mugs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fixing Canberra

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Embattled Tony Abbott stakes his crumbling leadership on saying “I won’t” to same-sex marriage

Consider our most statesmanlike leaders in the post-Menzian era. Prime Ministers Whitlam, Fraser and Keating? Perhaps Hawke and Howard at their very best? It’s a subjective assessment, of course, but pit Tony Abbott against these formidable leaders and there is only once conclusion to be reached. Our current Prime Minister is no statesman.

By any objective measure, Abbott is the most inept, gaffe-prone and crisis-riddled Prime Minister since William McMahon.Unlike McMahon, Abbott won an election in his own right to become Prime Minister. It remains to be seen whether, like McMahon, he faces defeat at his first election as Prime Minister. If he lasts that long.

Tony Abbott poses a political conundrum for the Liberal party. He is deeply unpopular and political poison – the electorate knows it and the Liberals know it. But he remains doggedly opposed to same-sex marriage, which accords with the majority view of his party. Which means that Australia is stuck with a dud Prime Minister while conservative MPs fend off moves for change to our marriage laws.

Abbott’s muddled stance on same-sex marriage – as most of his “policy” positions tend to be – has confirmed yet again this tin-eared Prime Minister’s inability to hear what the electorate is saying to him loud and clear. And that message would go something like this:

“Some of us believe in same-sex marriage as a matter of equality and human rights, some of us don’t care but if same-sex couples want it let them bloody well have it, and for those who are against gay marriage – get over it: now for fuck’s sake, legalise same-sex marriage and let’s get on with the 21st Century!”

Abbott’s solution to the same-sex marriage issue is of course no solution at all. For Abbott, this is a personal crusade. No matter that the push for marriage equality is a world-wide, deeply felt cause, Abbott is depicting it as a niche issue, a fad of little moment or momentum.

By making this an issue to determine by popular vote – senior Ministers are quarrelling among themselves as to what this precisely will involve – after the next election Abbott believes he can place same-sex marriage in a state of suspended animation. Both his naivety and arrogance are breathtaking. This is not an issue that is going to go away.

Abbott does not believe in same-sex marriage; that is understood, and on a personal level he is entitled to that view. But he is not entitled to impose that view on the rest of the community, and most especially on those same-sex couples who wish to express their love for each other through marriage.

It’s not about you Prime Minister

As a leader, he must recognise that same-sex marriage is a much bigger issue than his personal preference, nor is it a matter of religious dogma.

Abbott seems more concerned with maintaining a stance that will win the favour of Cardinal George Pell than he is with keeping faith with the people of Australia and showing leadership on a vital reform whose time has come.

Abbott’s absence of leadership on this issue has given licence to the likes of Senator Eric Abetz to argue that if Asian countries in the Asian Century don’t favour same-sex marriage, why should Australia?

Abetz, who is a Cabinet Minister if you don’t mind, has also observed that “Not all homosexuals want to marry”, and gave as his example Italian fashion designers Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana. (Abetz denied the published quote of his party-room comment as “simply false”, but not the substance of his point, such as it was.)

It is a spurious objection to argue that not all homosexuals want or would enter into same-sex marriage. If traditional marriage was reliant on all heterosexual couples marrying before living together the institution would have long ago disappeared from the statute books.

Such arguments trivialise same-sex marriage in a way that is offensive and demeaning. It also implies that same-sex marriage is a fad of interest to a loud minority alone, not to “good gays” who are respectful of the traditional definition of marriage as being between a man and a woman.

More than implies, the Prime Minister has in previous statements made it plain that he considers that issues such as the economy, asylum seekers and the war on terror are far more pressing than same-sex marriage.

And so it has come to pass that this government does not intend to act on same-sex marriage until after the 2016 election – and even then without any firm plans on precisely what action the government, in the unlikely event that it is returned, would take. With good reason proponents of same-sex marriage feel they have been unceremoniously fobbed off.

The Prime Minister and fellow conservatives in his government portray demands for same-sex marriage as an aberration, an extravagance, an issue not to be taken seriously. They could not be more offensive, or wrong.

Australia stands isolated as nations around the world legalise same-sex marriage – through popular vote, through political leadership and through the courts: Britain, the United States, Canada, Ireland, the Netherlands, Sweden, France … and our neighbour and once mooted Federation partner New Zealand.

Quite apart from issues of equity, inclusiveness and respect it is preposterous that what is legal in a growing band of countries with which we would feel a political and cultural affinity is not just illegal in Australia, but dismissed as a second-order issue.

In multicultural Australia it is now the case that many citizens find themselves wondering why it is possible for marriage equality to apply in the countries of their origin but not in their own country.

‘Not on my watch’

Is Tony Abbott really suggesting that he would be prepared for Australia to stand alone on what is now widely considered a fundamental right around the world?

Rather than demonstrate leadership on same-sex marriage Abbott has made this a “not on my watch” issue.

Indeed, it is the unlikely issue which has come to define his leadership. And there’s the rub for Australia: the worst Prime Minister since Billy McMahon may well go to the next election as leader because to opt for Australians’ preferred Liberal leader Malcolm Turnbull would mean a surer path for same-sex marriage.

At this stage it seems that a majority of Liberals would rather have the bumbling Abbott if it means staving off same sex-marriage, than a commanding, competent and electorally appealing moderate leader who favours same-sex marriage. A dill rather than a statesman.

If Abbott thought he had put same-sex marriage to bed – as it were – he is sorely mistaken. Again.

As Turnbull was only too keen to point out, marriage equality will almost certainly dominate the political agenda until the 2016 election. And there will be consequences.

Abbott may relent and allow a conscience vote in this Parliament, which would place his rickety leadership at risk; he might tough it out and hang onto his leadership because he alone stands between traditional and same-sex marriage, only to face annihilation at the next election; or it all becomes too much for nervous Liberal MPs who buckle and opt for a new leader.

That’s not bad going for a second-order issue. And at the end of it all, however it ends, it will be Tony Abbott who will be standing alone and abandoned at the altar. Someone may even mutter as they leave the chapel: “I never liked him anyway.”

Tony Abbott and his hapless government would do well to heed the lessons of The Killing Season

If social media is anything to go by – and who am I to say it’s not? – Greg Combet’s potty mouth was the sensation of the ABC’s opening episode of the compelling political documentary series The Killing Season.

But I suspect it was much more than Combet’s robust language that made an impression. While former prime ministers Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard slogged it out for the moral high ground, that place was modestly occupied by the former ACTU leader and minister in the (first) Rudd and Gillard governments.

The subjects of Combet’s measured but rustically expressed wrath were the leadership changes in the Labor party. The first was in relation to the Rudd-Gillard coup against Kim Beazley, telling reporter Sarah Ferguson that the machinations against the leader caused him “the shits big time”. The second denunciation was saved for the elevation of Mark Latham, which proved politically disastrous for Labor at the 2004 election: “I thought, ‘fuck this’, to be frank about it, ‘I’m sick of it’.”

Many voters will share Combet’s outrage, and very likely his vocabulary, because they, too, are fed up with the machinations of Canberra politics. Already from the first episode of Ferguson’s masterful three-part series it is clear that Rudd and Gillard have a differing recollection of events. And if we thought the first episode was gripping, we best wear a seat belt for the remaining two episodes.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott is wrong when he says “voterland” is not interested in what our political leaders are up to in Canberra’s corridors of power. He should not confuse disaffection with disinterest. The fact that the ABC hit the ratings jackpot with The Killing Season should disabuse Abbott of that patronising assertion. Rather, voters, like Combet, despair at what constitutes “leadership” in Canberra. Indeed, Combet might reasonably have prefaced his invective with: “Let me quote the people of Australia…”

The recent outpouring of grief over the death of Malcolm Fraser – with moving tributes from the most unexpected quarters, including Paul Keating and Bob Hawke – was as much a lament for what passes for leadership in Canberra today as it was recognition for a life of public service built on compassion, integrity and rectitude. Many who might have been expected to hold a political grudge, including the aforementioned former prime ministers, instead focused on Fraser’s abiding contribution to the nation built on a clear moral (as distinct from religious) framework.

Keating, like Fraser a leader of conviction and consequence, said in his official statement of condolence:

“The great pity for him of the budget crisis of 1975 was that it de-legitimised his government, at its inception, and with it, much of the value he otherwise brought to public life.

“Nevertheless, many will appreciate the gestures which came rather nobly from his political spirit – the passage of the Northern Territory Land Rights Act, his compassion for refugees, the creation of SBS, along with many other clear-sighted reforms. He was particularly committed to the rights and freedom of individuals – un-suborned by the power of the state.

“His public life also enshrined other important principles: no truck with race or colour and no tolerance for whispered notions of exclusivity tinged by race. These principles applied throughout his political life.”

Leadership changes a feature of Australia’s robust democracy

The Killing Season should not be seen as a case against leadership challenges and the instability inevitably surrounding such challenges.

Party leadership manoeuvrings have always been a feature of Australia’s robust parliamentary democracy; leadership “coups” have occurred in opposition and in government.

After John Gorton (PM from 1968-71), every prime minister, with the exception of Gough Whitlam, became PM as a result of wresting the party leadership from the incumbent, either as opposition leader or prime minister.

There is no reason to be squeamish about prime ministers being toppled by their own. The Westminster system allows for it, and we should embrace it as a safety valve to be activated by government party members in the event of incompetent, corrupt or otherwise flawed leadership.

The process should have been applied in the final years of the Howard government when it became clear that John Howard was past his prime. Had Peter Costello taken his chance, and had not Cabinet squibbed it when Howard refused to blink, a much stronger Coalition would have gone to the 2007 election won by Kevin Rudd’s Labor.

Equally, had Malcolm Turnbull not been so circumspect in February, when a leadership spill motion failed in the Liberal party room, the better man might have been Prime Minister today.

One reason Turnbull did not declare himself – on the calculation that he would get his chance when Abbott inevitably returned to form – was the subject matter being played out in The Killing Season. Turnbull and his supporters did not want to be seen to be “doing a Julia” and deposing a sitting Prime Minister mid-first term.

It is to be regretted that Turnbull and his Cabinet colleagues lacked the courage to play by the Westminster rules. More importantly, they failed in their duty to the people of Australia by not acting to remove a flawed leader. Their missed opportunity means that they are now placed in the position of having to destabilise their leader internally, which places them precisely in the realm of The Killing Season, making a bad government even more dysfunctional.

Turnbull and his supporters missed one of the key lessons of Julia Gillard’s “political assassination” of Kevin Rudd.

If Gillard and her senior ministers had been more candid about why they felt compelled to move against Rudd – his chaotic and erratic management style, his insularity and refusal to consult with ministers, the growing dysfunction of his private office, the policy on the run, his contempt for anyone he did not consider his equal – her prime ministership might have had the legitimacy it lacked going into the 2010 election.

Had Gillard taken Australians into her confidence she may well have gone on to secure majority government which would have put an entirely different complexion on her government and subsequent events. Gillard failed many leadership tests in office, but it’s also true that we did not get to see the best of Julia Gillard.

Rudd not without triumphs

There are no “ifs” in history, true enough, but Gillard’s miscalculation was that in exercising her entitlement under our system of government to challenge Rudd for the prime ministership, she did not fulfill her obligation to unambiguously explain to voters why she did so.

As the first episode of The Killing Season made clear, a truncated Rudd prime ministership would not have been without its triumphs: the ratification of the Kyoto Protocol, the seminal apology to the Stolen Generation, and the historic counter-attack against the threat of deep recession following the Global Financial Crisis.

Clearly these achievements were not enough to dissuade Gillard and her supporters from the conviction that a continued Rudd prime ministership was not in Australia’s interests. This should have been fully explained to the people – with due homage paid to Rudd for those achievements.

If Turnbull, like Gillard, believed that a continued Abbott government was not in Australia’s best interests, he should have pressed his case for the leadership and challenged Abbott in February. If he lost, just as Keating resigned to the backbench having failed in his first attempt to topple Hawke, Turnbull could have taken his place on the backbench.

It’s bloody and Darwinian, but the system for the most part works and results in strong and vibrant leadership. When Fraser toppled the affable but ineffective Billy Snedden in 1975 it saved Australia from the near certainty of a haphazard Snedden government in 1977. When Keating took over from Hawke in 1991, who by this stage was past his best, it meant another five years of strong and defining government.

Peter Costello let down his supporters and the people of Australia by not staring down Howard and re-energising the faltering Coalition government. Malcolm Turnbull may well have squandered his opportunity to remove arguably the worst Liberal Prime Minister since the feckless William McMahon.

The Killing Season is not a case against leadership challenges. While it is a gripping piece of political drama presented in the finest traditions of the ABC and Australian political journalism, it is to sell it well short to see it simply through the prism of political ambition.

At its most fundamental, The Killing Season is a case for good government, which ultimately the first Rudd government was not. It makes clear what can go wrong in the absence of openness, probity and accountability. It is a call for a return to the best traditions of leadership, public service and parliamentary democracy. It should serve as a reminder of why voters feel let down by modern politics and the rise of the “political class”, and underlines how little has changed even with the defeat of Labor in 2013.

For Tony Abbott and his ramshackle government, The Killing Season serves due notice that the killing season is not over yet. Indeed, given recent missteps, there is every chance that it’s well and truly Abbott Season.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One day Australians will scratch their heads in disbelief

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There is no turning back

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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