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.

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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”.

The media’s role in driving workplace diversity: the risks and rewards of a sometimes rocky road

We’ve heard about the role of diversity in business, why it’s important and the strategies and challenges involved in seeking and managing a diverse workplace. But how well is that diversity reflected in the media? And what role does the media play – and what role should it play – in promoting and shedding light on the diversity agenda?

As journalists, it’s our job to hold a mirror to the business community and the nation’s workplaces. Our role is to challenge, to champion change – to act as a medium through which change is championed by others – to moderate and filter.

The media has been an agent of change for diversity. If you have any doubts about that, compare any of the daily newspapers through the decades and the differences will be stark – both in editorial and advertising content.

From the media’s perspective, however, seeking to reflect diversity can be fraught with unexpected pitfalls.

There are some senior women in business, for example, who flatly refuse to be interviewed about gender issues. They argue that there is more to being a successful woman in business than simply talking about women in business. They do not want to be seen through the prism of gender activism.

Diversity can be a sensitive topic, and occasionally in the eye of the beholder. One manager of Asian heritage told me of his annoyance at being asked by his company’s in-house communications team to be featured in a story about diversity. This man was a fourth-generation Australian and he resented being seen in that light.

In 1998, I was a staff writer with The Bulletin magazine and I covered what was dubbed “the Gutnick tapes” affair. The story involved the disclosure of taped telephone conversations in which employees of Melbourne stockbroking firm JB Were were heard to make anti-Semitic comments about businessman Joseph Gutnick and other Jewish investors.

My story examined the question: is there an undercurrent of anti-Semitism in Melbourne’s business community? I spoke to and featured comments from several Jewish community leaders and businessmen, and Gutnick himself.

The story won praise for shedding light on the contentious and uncomfortable issue of anti-Semitism; but it also attracted criticism, from members of the Jewish community, that the story might potentially fan anti-Semitic sentiment. These critics were basically arguing against rocking the boat. One Jewish leader who had become aware that I was writing the story contacted my editor to express his concern.

It’s important to write such stories, even when they may cause discomfort to some. Experience shows that lasting and substantive change doesn’t just happen. Discredited attitudes take root in silence and indifference.

Recently on my site I revisited the subject of anti-Semitism, which in recent years has assumed a much higher and more disturbing profile. To eradicate anti-Semitism it must be confronted, but it’s a subject that still causes great discomfort, within the Jewish community, and within the media itself.

When ‘the right thing’ is not so obvious

Sometimes the media can tie itself in knots in attempting to do the right thing.

A few years ago, an internal debate raged at a Fairfax magazine when it was proposed that magazine run a list of Asian directors on the boards of ASX 200 companies. The story was framed in the context of the Gillard government’s Asian Century whitepaper and its call for more Asian experience on company boards. Internal critics of the list argued that such a list was racist.

In the end a list was run, but it was limited to Asian-born directors on the top 100 boards – that is, not the original list which would have also included Australian-born Asians. This distinction, it was felt, removed any racist overtones.

BRW magazine used to run several very popular lists throughout the year: the top entrepreneurs, the fastest 100 growing companies, the leading franchises, the best companies to work for… and so on.

With each ranking came the usual complaints: why aren’t there more women on these lists? The answer was simple: these lists were dependent on individuals and businesses nominating themselves: but relatively few women did, even when they received a prod from us to do so.

In 2012, I wrote a cover story for BRW about Carolyn Creswell, the woman behind the hugely successful Carman’s range of muesli products. Carolyn is a very warm, very successful entrepreneur who many women – men and women, but certainly women – find inspirational. Even so, I wasn’t really surprised when we started receiving letters from readers complaining that it was typical that a “male-centric magazine” like BRW should feature an attractive woman on the cover. (At the time, the editor of this “male-centric” magazine was Kate Mills.)

It’s just a fact of life that you can’t please all of the readers all of the time. Editorial judgment doesn’t get side-tracked by that kind of criticism. But it can be tricky terrain.

Most prominent women in business would assert that the business media is sexist.

Melbourne company director Carol Schwartz is perhaps the most vocal critic of the business media for being dominated by male editors, male journalists and male businessmen. I just don’t think that’s true anymore.

Overall, I believe we are seeing more female bylines and more ethnically diverse bylines, and we are seeing more women and non-Anglo people in the business media.

But it does raise the question: How far should the media go in ensuring diversity is well represented in its content?

When I write a feature on a particular topic I will start by working on a list of sources. Some will come from my own network or knowledge of the subject matter, but in many cases I will also cast the net with PR contacts for someone or some business that may fit the bill.

Thinking outside the diversity square

My priority here is to find a relevant contact, but it’s also a way of ensuring that my stories don’t comprise the usual suspects. When I send out the call for potential contacts, I don’t stipulate that diversity be a consideration: my interest is in finding the most appropriate contacts. But the PRs I approach are free to think a little bit outside the diversity square in who they nominate.

In most cases, that contact list will be a diverse grouping, reflective of the wider community. But it won’t always be the case; and even so it may well transpire that the women or non-Anglos on the list may not be available, or interested or necessarily be right for the story.

The view that there is an institutional gender or cultural bias in the media is wrong. Editors, by and large, are very much attuned to the issue. Diversity is something that most editors are conscious of – as one of the many aspects of a publication that must be considered in producing the best possible product.

At BRW, in recent years, there were conscious efforts to get more women in the magazine. A couple of years ago, BRW editor James Thomson – now companies editor at the Financial Review – dedicated an entire issue of the magazine to women to coincide with International Women’s Day. It was a landmark issue.

Also at BRW, to overcome the male-dominated, self-nominated lists, we introduced lists such as the ’30 richest self-made women’, which was based on our research, rather than relying on self-nominees.

But how far should the media go in ensuring diversity in their publications? In the United States in November last year, Bloomberg took the radical step of introducing a “quota for quotes”. Now retired editor-in-chief Matthew Winkler issued this directive: “All Bloomberg News [stories] must include at least one woman’s voice, and preferably a balance of men and women. Women are engaged in every topic we cover. Our journalism should reflect that variety.”

I can’t see it working, nor do I think such hard and fast rules are desirable. Journalistic red tape is not the answer. And if a quota for female voices is desirable, why not for other groups? That said, I certainly understand the motivation.

Journalists have a critical role in promoting diversity – in many respects simply by doing their jobs professionally rather than taking on the mantle of social activists. Communication practitioners, too, can promote diversity in and through the media.

Most journalists are interested in writing stories that are relevant, accurate and engaging, which necessarily means reflecting their audience and the wider community; and most journalists, I believe, are interested in being socially responsible.

How corporate comms can promote diversity

Communication professionals – whether in-house or external media advisers – can play an active part in advancing the diversity agenda:

01 For communications professionals who want to promote diversity in the media: I will start with this very basic but fundamental advice – understand the media, understand the role of the journalist, understand what is news and what is newsworthy, and always consider your pitch not simply in terms of what’s ideal coverage for your organisation, but what fits the interests and audience of a particular journalist and his or her publication.

02 When pitching a diversity-based story – for example, how a company has implemented diversity management targets – think beyond the HR director as the media contact, avoid diversity jargon, and try not to take the high moral ground. Provide meaningful data, illustrate how the program has worked, provide names and details of people who have benefited from the program, and convince your CEO to be prepared to talk about the program and the value of diversity to his or her organisation.

03 When issuing media releases, provide alternate contacts, even if they don’t feature in the body of the release, to provide journalists with optional contacts that reflect the diversity of your organisation.

04 When arranging speakers for your own conferences, or providing speakers for external conferences, be mindful of the opportunity to promote diversity through your choice of speaker.

05 Compile contact lists for journalists that reflect the diversity of your organisation. A directory is one option, but also consider tailoring a less expansive list to the particular interests of a journalist, with maybe half a dozen contacts. If you’re targeting a writer who specialises in workplace issues, tailor a list accordingly – it may be the chairs of in-house diversity, cultural or LGBT committees, for example, or a list of employees who have won awards or have some special achievement. You can issue a fresh list every month or quarter. Journalists will keep the names they want for their own contact books.

06 Various organisations compile media contact or speaker lists; these are usually for women in business, such as the Women’s Leadership Institute which compiles a Women for Media Database. Encourage notable women in your organisation to be on those lists. If your organisation is part of an industry association, consider the creation of an industry-wide database of contacts.

07 If you’re not already part of the content marketing revolution, becoming your own publisher is an ideal way to promote the diversity of your organisation with key stakeholders, including the media. ANZ BlueNotes is a perfect example.

This is an edited transcript of a presentation to the International Association of Business Communicators (Vic) forum, ‘Driving the Diversity Agenda’, Melbourne, 18 March 2015.

Whoever leads the government at the next election, it’s time for Bill Shorten to show he has what it takes to be PM

Bill Shorten has been wise to stay clear of the Abbott government’s leadership agonies. Tony Abbott, often derided for behaving as if he is still Opposition Leader, seems to be doing Shorten’s job as well. But Shorten cannot continue to rely on the imploding Abbott government.

Abbott survived this week’s leadership spill motion 61-39: that’s hardly a rousing victory. Ministerial solidarity saved the Prime Minister – which makes you wonder just what level of ineptitude it would take for Ministers to be guided by the national interest. Even so, Tony Abbott will not be able to rely on that solidarity a second time. He is now on notice that Malcolm Turnbull is waiting in the wings.

For Bill Shorten, it’s time to move from the sidelines and get back into the fray. It’s time – well time – for Shorten to demonstrate his credentials as Australia’s alternative Prime Minister.

He is almost certainly right to believe that facing Abbott at the 2016 election is the best chance he has of leading Labor back to power and securing for himself the prime ministership. But winning by default, as Tony Abbott did in 2013, is neither the key to good government nor to restoring Australians’ eroded trust in the institutions of power.

Bill Shorten owes Australians a blueprint for the nation in these critical times of post-GFC economic volatility. Many families are concerned about their financial wellbeing; many Australians are concerned about job security, and for too many unemployed, of ever working again; consumers are nervous and business is increasingly pessimistic about future prospects.

Shorten has made statements about what he will not do: he won’t place added pressures on the weakest and most disadvantaged in the community; he won’t deregulate the university sector; he won’t dismantle Australia’s universal healthcare system. These are welcome commitments, but now Australians need to hear what Shorten would do as Prime Minister.

Australia needs solutions to many fundamental problems, problems which are clearly beyond the wit of the current government.

There is a long list of serious challenges which require vision, a coherent strategy and public policy sophistication, none of which has been present in this government. Nor do the previous Rudd-Gillard-Rudd governments, of which Shorten was a member, stand close scrutiny on many of these challenges.

A long list of serious challenges

Australia faces many problems; let’s go through some of them.

An ageing population for which little provision has been made, and for that matter a rising population for which there has been even less planning.

Our health system is rightly the envy of the world, but it requires resetting for the challenges ahead. So does our education system, from schools, to higher education to vocational education and training.

The Australian economy is vastly changed, and faces even more profound change in the years ahead as whole industries restructure and even disappear under the weight of global competitive pressures, rapid advances in technology and shifting consumer behaviour. Labor squibbed reform of Australia’s ramshackle taxation system when it was last in power; Australia cannot afford not to undertake such vital and long overdue reform.

The depletion of vital funding that will keep Australian scientific research and innovation at the forefront of the world’s best is at crisis point and a national disgrace.

Australia needs to regain its place as a valued and respected member of the international community. Turning the global refugee crisis into a zero sum game for domestic political gain has dehumanised us as much as it degrades those stateless men, women and children who are fleeing oppression, torture and in many cases certain death. We cannot take all who would seek a place in this country, but that is no excuse for Australia to turn its back on these people and to place unreasonable pressure on inadequately resourced regional neighbours to shoulder a burden that is ours to bear.

Climate change, “the great moral challenge of our generation”, has all but become a political no-go zone – can there be a greater abrogation of leadership than reducing this crisis unfolding before our eyes to a matter of seats won and lost?

The fabric of the nation also needs urgent attention; whether it’s cultural diversity, religious and racial cohesion, women’s rights and inclusion, government has a critical, and under this government mostly neglected, role to play.

Bill Shorten, and Labor under his leadership, must confront these and many other issues. It seems an inexhaustible list of issues awaiting attention in very great part because of political inaction by both major parties.

Some issues cannot wait: true and proper reconciliation with the First Australians. Others must at least be put on the political agenda, such as reform of Australia’s creaking federation and system of government, including further consideration of the Republic.

It is simply not acceptable for Shorten to give himself the added insurance of not upsetting the prospect of certain victory by withholding a detailed plan to voters well ahead of the next election.

A generation of mediocre government

The blight of “small target” election campaigns has condemned Australia to a generation of mediocre government and mealy-mouthed sloganeering that masquerades as political leadership.

Shorten must repudiate the debased and deeply flawed modern political wisdom that being honest with the voters is a sure route to political oblivion.

Australia needs a plan, and Australians sorely want their trust in political leaders restored. Tony Abbott promised he was going to do just that. Instead, Abbott is a politician clearly out of his depth, as is his government, the most flawed, inept and duplicitous in the post-Menzies era.

If the challenges facing Australia were not so serious, it might well be enough that Bill Shorten is not Tony Abbott. But that is not the case.

Shorten needs to convince Australians now that not only is he committed to good government, but he has a gameplan that will drive his government. It is essential that he produce such a manifesto even if he is to face Abbott at the next election, and doubly so if, as is more likely, Malcolm Turnbull, in which case a one-term Coalition government is not such a certainty.

When Tony Abbott won office in 2013 it was despite Australians not being convinced that he was PM material. Which is why from the first opinion poll after winning office, voters expressed their remorse with an unprecedented repudiation of their choice. Voter dissatisfaction with Abbott and his government has been the one constant of this most chaotic, dysfunctional and arrogant of governments – as writ large in Victorian and Queensland state elections.

At this stage, voters are no more convinced that Shorten is PM material. The task of convincing voters that he is deserving of the highest elected office in the land, whether he is assured of it or not, must start now.

Shorten’s parliamentary performance during the Opposition’s no confidence motion in the Prime Minister immediately following the aborted leadership spill was a masterful and too rare performance. It was a speech coherent, articulate and withering, highlighting with pinpoint accuracy the government’s flaws, setting clear points of difference between Labor and the Coalition, and for once, none of his trademark lead-weighted zingers. Instead, humorous and well phrased barbs found their mark and energised the Labor benches. Tellingly, Shorten also had Turnbull in his sights, letting it be known that he was ready to face him if that’s where the political cards should fall.

Parliament still matters – and should matter. It’s the forum that provides the best insight into the men and women who would govern the nation.

From Shorten we need to see more such performances. A strong Opposition holds governments to account, and provides voters with a viable alternative come election time.

But more than performances, we need from Shorten his plan, his party’s plan, for Australia. A plan not just for the next three years, but for the next 30 years.

Let’s hear about the Australia that a would-be Shorten government believes in and will work towards. Let’s hear how a Shorten government will restore Australia’s shaken faith in Canberra. Let’s see more of the men and women on Shorten’s frontbench that would form government in 2016.

It’s time for Shorten to start thinking and behaving like the alternative Prime Minister. No silly zingers (Shaun Micallef won’t like it, but he’ll move on), no dad jokes, no unconvincing theatrics.

The government will sooner or later sort out its leadership issues. That’s none of Shorten’s concern. Whether it’s Abbott, Turnbull or anyone else, Bill Shorten has one life-defining task before him: to convince the people of Australia that he deserves to be the next Prime Minister. To date, voters have been given very little reason for believing that is the case.

Whether he does become the next PM is, of course, up to voters. But what voters want, more than anything, is to go to the polls in 2016 with two worthy alternatives to choose from. That’s one immediate contribution that Shorten can make to public life.

Bill Shorten: your time starts now.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Voter are angry and less forgiving

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A ‘ragged week’ is a long time in politics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Honeymoon over before it started

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tony Abbott is no John Howard

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The same old political solutions won’t fix Tasmania’s economic woes: what Tassie needs is a Gail Kelly

Tasmanians must be sick of hearing about their state being an “economy in decline”, a “basket case economy”, the “nation’s worst” economy and other choice epithets that leave little to the imagination.

Professor Jonathan West, founding Director of the Australian Innovation Research Centre at the University of Tasmania wrote a searing analysis of the state for Griffith Review:

“Tasmania ranks at the bottom among Australian states on virtually every dimension of economic, social, and cultural performance: highest unemployment, lowest incomes, languishing investment, lowest home prices, least educated, lowest literacy, most chronic disease, poorest longevity, most likely to smoke, greatest obesity, highest teenage pregnancy, highest petty crime, worst domestic violence. It seems not to matter which measure is chosen, Tasmania will likely finish last.”

That article was published in January 2013. Optimists might argue that Tasmania has since elected a Liberal government – Will Hodgman became Premier in March this year, ending 16 years of Labor government – a “pro-business” government, and a majority government at that.

The business community seems much happier with the Hodgman government than the previous government of Labor Premier Lara Giddings, and they certainly won’t miss the Labor-Green minority government.

And the Hodgman government seems to be sympathetic to the long-time and oft-expressed view of respected economist Saul Eslake that Tasmania’s economic salvation does not lie in a single “mega-project” – such as the aborted pulp mill project.

“A cargo cult mentality is not an economic development policy. And if Tasmanians can come to terms with that, there will be far fewer shattered hopes and dreams than there have been as a result of the economic development failures of the past three decades,” Eslake wrote in the Tasmanian Times.

(Eslake, chief economist at Bank of America Merrill Lynch Australia, has a particular interest in Tasmania. He was born in England in 1958 to Australian parents, originally from Sydney. The family settled in Tasmania when they returned to Australia in the 1960s. Eslake is an economics graduate from the University of Tasmania and was awarded an honorary doctor of laws degree by the university in 2012.)

But all this pre-supposes that Tasmania’s entrenched economic woes – which stem from its unique situation as an island state with a population of just 513,000 people – can be solved politically.

Barriers to change

The reality is that even a shiny new Liberal government with solid business credentials is going to find it hard going to solve Tasmania’s seemingly intractable problems.

Professor West argues that Tasmanians have grown so dependent on mainland financing that that the deep structural change that is required presents governments of any persuasion with barriers to change.

“Tasmania has developed a way of life, a mode of doing things, a demographic, a culture and associated economy, that reproduces underachievement generation after generation. …The reality is that Tasmania has bred a dominant social coalition that blocks most proposals to improve. Problems and challenges are debated endlessly, with no resolution. …Ultimately, Tasmania doesn’t change because its people don’t really want to.”

What is striking about this critique is that it could not be written about any other state. It is because Tasmania is so small – “both a region and a state”, writes West – that it is even possible to speak in such sweeping terms.

Political parties can promise to attract investment, create jobs and build a modern economy when in government – as the Liberals did in this year’s state election – but Tasmania’s issues don’t change, the challenges don’t change and the inadequacy of political solutions don’t change.

The mainland states have the critical mass, economic diversity and financial resources that provide governments with powerful levers to influence the course of economies.

The Hodgman government, like its predecessors, is limited in its options to revitalise the economy. Its “Change for a Brighter Future” economic blueprint was by and large more of the same.

In that document, the Liberals offered predictable platitudes – “growing our tourism industry”, “tackling Tasmania’s unemployment rate”, “backing small business”. Sometimes they were aspirational (if vague) – “building a stronger West Coast”, “looking to the future with energy”. But very often, with limited options, even the all-conquering Hodgman government has to make do with bland and piecemeal policy tidbits: “more tourists on TT-Line”, “unlocking the potential in our parks”, “growing jobs in the creative industries”.

Such a predictable laundry list of promises underlines the difficulties Tasmania has when it relies on political solutions: electorates to please, favours to curry, competing interests to balance.

Good public policy, democratic principles and pragmatic politics are as relevant in Tasmania as they are in any state, but given the depth of Tasmania’s economic malaise and the uniqueness of the region-state’s circumstances, an out-of-the-ordinary solution is essential.

This is a job for a CEO

On Twitter recently I made this suggestion: “An idea to toss around: Tasmania should appoint a bluechip CEO, responsible to the govt and the Plmt, with a 3/5yr brief to ‘grow Tasmania’.”

By “blue chip” I mean a CEO of, say, Gail Kelly’s ilk. Not a senior bureaucrat, not a businessman with an impressive LinkedIn profile, not an association executive or former politician, but the real deal. It wouldn’t be someone on $300,000 a year, it would more likely be someone on $3 million a year (which rules out Kelly, who is more than three times that, but you know what I mean).

This CEO would head an autonomous authority that operates within a democratic framework. The CEO would have a mandate that codifies powers and specifies objectives, budgets and community and environmental safeguards.

Within a defined mandate, the CEO would have the authority to pursue growth and development. (The CEO wouldn’t be the “CEO of Tasmania” – that remains the Premier; he or she would, for example, be the CEO of the Tasmanian Development Corporation.)

The Australian Innovation Research Centre recently identified six critical areas of economic opportunity for Tasmania: wine, dairy, aquaculture, horticulture, mining, and tourism. The CEO’s brief might specifically encompass some or all of these areas in fulfilment of the mandate for growth. Within a broad strategic framework set out by the government, the CEO would make the decisions required to make these profitable and sustainable sectors of the economy.

Former Victorian Premier Jeff Kennett, with characteristic immodesty, has offered his economic-revival services to Tasmania, but Kennett, not famous for his deft touch, is not the solution.

The Hodgman government has gone some way towards the CEO concept when it announced the creation of the Office of the Coordinator-General. The office, according to the Department of State Growth, is “responsible for attracting and securing investment in major development projects in Tasmania that maximises their contribution to Tasmania’s economic growth”.

“The Coordinator-General will help streamline the Tasmanian business environment, promote competitiveness and assist with the assessment and approval of investment opportunities.”

However, in what is a perfect illustration of the inadequacy of government and political processes to solve Tasmania’s economic troubles, eight months after being elected, the Hodgeman government has yet to appoint a Coordinator-General.

In anycase, the CEO would have more substantial responsibilities and would not be a glorified public servant. The CEO’s role would not be to act a conduit or to streamline processes, but to make decisions – to build the infrastructure required, to forge commercial relationships, to hire the people needed for the job, to implement plans: to achieve agreed outcomes.

This remains an idea to “kick around”. But the salient point is that innovative thinking is required to solve Tasmania’s problems. More of the same – the same ideas, the same political foibles, the same bureaucracies – will not work. The longer Tasmania’s depression continues, the harder it will be to build a sustainable future.

Tasmania’s unique beauty and magnificent natural wonders deserve to be recognised as a great national (and international) asset. Dishing up tired clichés and discredited ideas, however well intentioned, again and again, will be to squander Tasmania’s – and Tasmanians’ – potential. Tasmania deserves and requires a solution that is as unique as the state itself.

The MH17 tragedy has put Australian politics on hold and could prove Tony Abbott’s seminal moment

Democratic leaders don’t will wars, terrorist atrocities or natural disasters to strike. But they know that when they do, particularly when they pose a real or symbolic threat on the home front, political climates can change dramatically, and very often to their advantage. Domestic politics go into abeyance; political scandals, disputes and rivalries disappear from sight; and a sense of community unity springs from seemingly nowhere.

For some leaders, tragedy or threat can be the making of their time in office, the anvil on which their leadership is forged. It can be the seminal moment they rise to; the defining event that tests their mettle; the time in which they shine; the opportunity they seize with cold calculation.

It can give strong leaders the impetus from which there is no turning back, weak leaders their rescue from ignominy.

The global communist threat and Vietnam War helped cement the Menzies era, the Falklands War recast Margaret Thatcher as the Iron Lady, September 11 and the “war on terror” gave George W. Bush an unlikely second term, and Tampa and 9/11 marked the rebirth of John Howard’s prime ministership.

For Tony Abbott, his seminal moment has come in the form of the horrific, surreal tragedy of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 shot down over Ukraine by Russian-backed separatists.

That disaster in a faraway land, unspeakable as it was, was initially the kind of incident that might have merited a single statement of sympathy from the Prime Minister of Australia. But when it emerged that Australians died in this wanton act of mass murder – at latest count 37 – the tragedy in the distant wheat fields of Ukraine became our tragedy too.

In that instant, as Abbott spoke for all Australians in condemning the crime and its perpetrators, the chaotic, unseemly, inelegant, furiously fought politics of the past few weeks shrank from view, as if it had never been. As the first memorials and community vigils were held for those who perished, Australia was a hotbed of politics no more.

The travails of a deeply unpopular first-term government, Joe Hockey’s ruinous first budget, the circus surrounding the repeal of the carbon tax, the dysfunctional new Senate, the unruly and almost unworkable lower house under Speaker Bronwyn Bishop, the unpredictability of Clive Palmer, the mystery of the missing asylum seeker boat, foreign policy missteps, the Japanese military of WWII being lauded by our PM, a slew of under-performing ministers – all gone. In an instant. All that was missing was the puff of smoke and the magician’s curvaceous assistant.

MH17: the making of Tony Abbott?

Now it remains to be seen whether the downing of MH17 is the making – and possibly the remaking – of Tony Abbott. Or will it just be a suspension of the political soap opera which has sapped the forbearance of most Australians for almost a year.

It is right and proper at this time of tragedy that Abbott is not simply the leader of a political party. He is the Prime Minister who must speak for the nation, at home and on the world stage, at this time of sorrow. When he embraces the families of the victims and offers words of comfort, he does so for all of us.

But Abbott’s political problems have not gone away; they have just been put on hold.

What we see from Abbott, over the months ahead as the aftermath of the MH17 disaster unfolds, and beyond, will shape the rest of his term.

It will be interesting to see whether the tragedy in Ukraine gives him a different perspective as Prime Minister, as a leader.

As he berates the rebels and Russian President Vladimir Putin for their lack of humanity – for the murderous action itself and for the obstruction of the investigation – will it make him reflect on the charges of those who accuse him and his government of inhumane treatment of asylum seekers – especially the children? Or will it stiffen his resolve to maintain a hard line?

Will the emotionally charged experience of dealing with the MH17 horror and its aftermath cause Abbott to re-evaluate those domestic policies that hurt the poorest and most disadvantaged in our community?

Will it change his head-kicker approach to politics, will it prompt him to conduct himself more openly and honestly with the people, will it be taken as a personal opportunity to take stock?

Abbott has never been known for his self-awareness, but if he does possess any, he will recognise this moment of tragedy as an opportunity to rebuild his beleaguered prime ministership and the fortunes of his government – and one hopes the trust of the people who could not possibly hold government and politicians in lower esteem.

At some point, domestic politics will reassert itself and Abbott will once more be seen in the context of those politics.

Whether people come to see him in a new and more positive light – and indeed whether he sees himself in a new light – in the wake of the MH17 disaster may well determine whether “one-term-Tony” lives to fight another term after 2016.