We need to talk about Bill: Shorten’s unpopularity could still lose Labor the unlosable election

Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Treasurer Josh Frydenberg opened the federal election campaign proudly spruiking Frydenberg’s “back in the black” Budget. It was a disingenuous start to the campaign.

There is nothing in the black about Frydenberg’s first and very possibly last budget. More murky grey. The much vaunted surplus – intended to reinforce the mythology of the Liberals’ superiority over Labor as economic managers – is in fact a predicted surplus of $7 billion in 2019-20, which means it is not a fact at all.

The intention of the Government’s sophistry is to ensure that the binary of Liberal/surplus dominates the campaign.

The bogus nature of the Coalition’s budget was implicitly understood by the electorate. One powerful reason for this – something either not understood or simply ignored by the Government – is that despite giddy claims of a strong economy most Australians feel as if they are in the middle of a recession.

Negligible wages growth, job insecurity, underemployment, the rising cost of living at odds with official inflation data, crippling household debt, looming mortgage shock, a discernible gap between the richest and poorest and lacklustre consumer confidence combine to create a bleak reality far removed from the Government’s upbeat “back in the black” mantra.

In his Budget reply, Opposition leader Bill Shorten, delivering one of his best parliamentary performances, forcefully challenged the Government’s rosy view of the economy. He questioned the Budget’s optimistic assumptions, he identified some of Frydenberg’s conjuring tricks (most notably the sleight of hand involved in using the $3.4 billion underspend in the National Disability Insurance Scheme in the current financial year and a $3 billion reduction in NDIS spending for 2019-20 to pump up the projected surplus. This despite the fact that there is broad stakeholder agreement that the NDIS is dangerously underfunded.

Shorten was also effective in making his case that the Government’s regime of tax-cuts was in the face of a worsening global economic outlook.

“This isn’t a tax plan, it’s a ticking debt bomb,” Shorten said in one of his most devastating pronouncements. Another was: “What we need is a fighting fund for the country, a strong surplus to protect us from international shocks.”

The Budget was designed to put a spring in the Government’s step as it entered the election campaign. Instead, the Budget revealed its feet of clay. No wonder Morrison put off announcing the election for as long as possible.

Labor returns to its roots

Labor entered the campaign not only buoyed by the Budget’s manifest inadequacies but also Shorten’s Budget reply, which delivered an election manifesto unequalled since the Hawke-Keating years.

While the Liberal party can’t get past the nonsense of “if you have a go, you get a go”, Labor returned to its roots in setting out a vision for Australia that struck a chord with Australians no longer content with having their destinies decided by market.

The Liberal party promise of small government is ideological deadwood.

Australia has never had small government, nor has there ever been a genuine clamour for it. But it has been a clarion call that has historically served the Liberals well. Whatever “small government” has meant to Australians, it seems to have pressed the right buttons.

Labor goes into the election not with the promise of big government – no one would dare – but with a commitment to a big agenda: the revitalisation of TAFE, vocational education and training and apprenticeships; a voice for Indigenous Australians in policy-making (including the promise that the “Father of Reconciliation”, Senator Pat Dodson, will be Minister for Indigenous Affairs in a Shorten government); the ceasing of hostilities between Canberra and the ABC, including a commitment to boost regional broadcasting; and funding boosts for the NDIS, health (including the $2.3 billion expansion of bulk billing and the “biggest cancer-care package in Australian history”), education (including pre-school education) and infrastructure; and renewed commitments to addressing climate change, the introduction of a “living wage” and restoration of penalty rates.

Labor’s agenda is not just about economic management, but about values and a vision for Australia, long missing in Australian public discourse.

After six years of a Coalition government that has never been comfortable with the mantle of government (despite its belief that it is the natural party of government), which has found itself hostage to ideological warfare between the moderate and conservative wings of the party (resulting in three prime ministers in six years), and which has given every appearance – exhausted, frayed and erratic – of a government that has been in power not six years but 16. Add to that one of the weakest ministries since Federation, and a coalition partner comprising an assortment of village idiots, and the Morrison government’s “pro” column is looking pretty depleted.

Not surprisingly, the opinion polls could hardly spell better news for Labor and one does not have to be a one-eyed leftie to judge Scott Morrison a bumbling, inept and shallow prime minister of caricature proportions.

Voters wary of the Bill factor

And yet, with the election in full swing, there is noticeably little appetite for declaring Labor the sure winner. The reason for that reticence can be summed up in two words: Bill Shorten.

The same opinion polls that have consistently put Labor ahead of the Coalition also highlight Shorten’s unpopularity with voters. It’s true that disliking a leader generally does not dissuade Australians from voting for the leader’s party. And yet, Bill Shorten seems to be in a league of his own when it comes to unpopularity. One does not need the pollster’s statistics to know that most Australians have a visceral dislike of Shorten.

It’s difficult to pinpoint why that is, mainly because there are so many possibilities. Bill Shorten is the Charlie Brown of Australian politics: wishy-washy, indecisive, bland, with a penchant for saying the wrong thing. Yet most of us love Charlie Brown – as long as he doesn’t ask us to vote for him – so what is it over and above Shorten’s wishy-washiness that repels voters?

Most Australians cannot move beyond Shorten’s role in the unseating of Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard as prime minister. Shorten has made some capital from the inability of Scott Morrison to explain why Malcolm Turnbull is no longer prime minister. Yet Shorten has never explained why he was moved to orchestrate the demise of Rudd and Gillard, let alone why, having deemed Rudd unelectable and/or unworthy of high office mid-way through his first term as prime minister, engineered his triumphant return.

Not to be unkind, but there is a lot more to dislike about Shorten.

His ambivalence on contentious policy issues (Adani, asylum seekers, taxation, Christmas Island) is grating, particularly when taken against his commendable readiness to release contentious policies such as the abolition of negative gearing and franking credits.

His wooden unease in public despite a lifetime in the public eye (“What’s your favourite type of lettuce?”), his inability to think quickly on his feet (from “I don’t know what PM Julia Gillard said, but I agree with her” to this week’s yes/no gaffe on superannuation taxation), his peculiar speechcraft (in which he experiments with various speaking techniques and intonations in a single speech), his tendency to speak to the media in over-rehearsed soundbites (and stumbling when speaking off the cuff) and his ill-advised jogging in the (presumably pre-arranged) media glare, complete with goofy grin, arms in the air triumphantly on crossing the non-existent finish line, and his bouncy exuberance.

Who is Bill Shorten?

Not unreasonably, voters like to think they have a handle on their political leaders when it comes to voting time. After six years as Opposition leader voters think they have at least a partial fix on Shorten: untrustworthy, inauthentic, evasive, awkward and perhaps a little strange. More frustrating, one suspects, is the feeling that if there is more to Shorten it’s many layers below the surface.

After his impressive Budget-reply speech Shorten seems to have reverted to his unpopular self.

Defenders of Bill Shorten point out that Shorten came within one seat of winning government. Others, including this writer, would argue that the 2016 election was Labor’s to win.

Australia cannot afford the return of the Morrison government. It is tired, incompetent and spent, has no long-term vision for Australia, nor a short-term understanding of the economic and social changes facing Australia. It’s also very likely that Morrison will find his leadership challenged, despite claims that the Liberal party has introduced a system to ensure it is more difficult to unseat a prime minister.

But Labor should be under no false illusions; a disaffected electorate will return the Coalition – very possibly as a minority government – if “the Shorten factor” proves too big an obstacle to overcome.

Labor has the agenda and a powerful line-up of shadow ministers to implement it. Australians need to hear more about the former and see more of the latter. As for Bill Shorten: just settle down. This is your race to win. Or lose.

Leo D’Angelo Fisher is a Melbourne journalist, writer and commentator. He is a former columnist with BRW and the Australian Financial Review and was a senior writer at The Bulletin magazine. He is on Twitter @DAngeloFisher

Christopher Pyne has announced his retirement from Parliament. Has ‘the fixer’ washed his hands of the broken Liberal party?

In a vapid parliament of mediocre cut-out MPs, Christopher Pyne is one of the few genuine characters in Australian politics. He is not to everyone’s taste. Pyne is “very Adelaide”, in the mould of fellow Liberal Alexander Downer, and is a polarising figure with it: people either love him or loathe him. Julia Gillard famously denounced him as a mincing poodle.

Canberra observer and columnist with The Age and Sydney Morning Herald Tony Wright is already feeling nostalgic: “It is all but impossible to imagine Australia’s Parliament without a Christopher Pyne: if he didn’t exist, you’d have to invent him, but you’d need an uncommon imagination.”

It has been observed that the departing Defence Minister and Leader of the House is sparkling good company, a bon vivant and raconteur par excellence.

And yet, apart from enlivening Canberra and Adelaide dinner parties, and despite having one of the most prominent profiles in Australian politics, Pyne doesn’t have much to show for his 26 years in federal parliament.

His retirement from parliament – which he entered in 1993 as the member for Sturt as a 25-year-old – is significant not because it brings a glittering career to a close, but because it signals the crushing rout that awaits the shambolic Morrison government, very possibly the worst government in modern Australian politics.

Pyne and Defence Industries Minister Steve Ciobo add to the tally of ministers that won’t be contesting the next election, including Minister for Women, Jobs and Industrial Relations Kelly O’Dwyer, Human Services Minister Michael Keenan, Indigenous Affairs Minister Nigel Scullion and former Foreign Minister Julie Bishop. Foreign Minister Marise Payne and former small business minister Craig Laundy are also tipped to quit parliament.

Liberal leadership? No thanks

Whatever the reasons given by the ministers for their imminent retirement from parliament – and despite their loyal if meaningless assurances that the Morrison government will win the next election – each departing minister will have concluded that the prospect of at least six years in opposition was too much to stomach. Not even the prospect of leading what’s left of the parliamentary Liberal party after the next election was enough to stem the flow of departures.

Whoever takes on the Liberal leadership in the first instance will have the important job of steadying and rebuilding what is likely to be a shattered rump. Peter Costello, the loyal deputy leader bitter at being denied the prime ministership by the faltering John Howard, opted not to take on that healing role after the 2007 Ruddslide, instead choosing to quit parliament. The spluttering cascade of leaders began with the hapless Brendan Nelson.

Twelve years later, Julie Bishop has been cast in the Peter Costello role. The time will come when Bishop, the ever-loyal deputy whose one shot at the Lodge was stymied to make way for the bumbling Scott Morrison, will be decried by some, as Costello was, for putting her own disappointment before the wellbeing of the Liberal party. Costello left a leadership vacuum in his wake, as will Bishop.

Christopher Pyne could have filled that vacuum but plainly he has no leadership ambitions. (He ran for the deputy leadership in 2007 in a ballot easily won by Julie Bishop.) But his decision to leave parliament at a time when the Liberal party is facing an existential crisis could deprive him of his most substantial contribution to his party. How the “broad church” responds to the challenge of opposition, particularly in that crucial first term, could well decide the future of the Liberal party.

Return to the centre

The party’s shift to the right has been disastrous. It resulted in six lost years of unstable, indecisive, incoherent and barren government.

Whoever leads the parliamentary Liberal party after May cannot do so on the basis of business-as-usual. He or she has to start the process of reinvigorating the Liberal party, bringing it back to the centre ground and preparing it for government.

The indefatigable Pyne would have been ideal for such a role. As opposition leader he would be relentless – more terrier than poodle – doggedly nipping at the heels of Prime Minister Bill Shorten (get used to it). No one in the Coalition thinks faster on their feet, no one speaks with greater confidence. If Pyne was born to fill one role in federal politics, surely it would be that of an opposition leader nursing a shattered party back to health and holding a government with a thumping majority to account.

Pyne considers himself a leading moderate in the Liberal party but as a self-described “fixer” and an acknowledged tactician of considerable acumen, he has spent the past six years enabling a government beholden to the party’s right wing.

In the course of a 26-year career Pyne meandered his way through a succession of shadow portfolios, parliamentary secretary roles, a stint as Assistant Minister for Health and Ageing in the dying days of the Howard government, and several ministerial portfolios including Minister for Ageing, Minister for Education and Training, Minister for Industry, Innovation and Science, Minister for Defence Industry and his current portfolio Minister for Defence.

For an MP who has so little to show for his 26 years in Parliament saving his beloved Liberal party – “I believe in the party and always will” – might have been the challenge of a lifetime.

In choosing to retire Pyne has deliberately absented himself from the question of who will lead the party after May. (For the record, Pyne has stated that he believes the Morrison government will be returned.) His departure, he says, marks a “time to renew” for the Liberal party. It says “not my problem” even more stridently.

The Liberals can look forward to six more years of leadership instability after the May election.

Leo D’Angelo Fisher is a Melbourne journalist, writer and commentator. He is a former columnist with BRW and the Australian Financial Review and was a senior writer at The Bulletin magazine. He is on Twitter @DAngeloFisher

Scott Morrison may be a dud PM but the job has done wonders for his CV

If Scott Morrison is the best the Liberal party can offer the people of Australia perhaps it has simply lost interest and run out of puff as it awaits its looming spell on the opposition benches. More bored church than broad church.

Morrison’s accidental prime-ministership is not entirely without merit. Among the positives for which he deserves kudos: he is no longer Treasurer, he doesn’t wear Speedos to work and, with abundant Christian charity, he brought his predecessor’s death by a thousand cuts to an early close.

While it is true that these highlights have been obscured by the daily spectacle of exploding thought bubbles it is important to see the nascent Morrison government in its proper context: if you think things are bad now…well, they are.

Morrison has approached his prime-ministership with missionary zeal, and history tells us that never ends well.

Still, there is something about Morrison’s unfailingly happy disposition that inspires us all to seek the spirit. Grappa, for example.

Morrison’s career before he entered parliament was not exactly top-shelf – an executive role with the Property Council and various executive positions in tourism-industry bodies culminating in the managing director’s role at Tourism Australia for a couple of years. And yet, here he is, Prime Minister of Australia.

Morrison is Old Testament to the lofty ideal that anyone can aspire to the nation’s leadership.

But did he aspire to the very top job? There have been no playground recollections of Morrison vowing to his schoolmates that one day he would be PM. More is the pity as that may explain why he is so clearly unprepared for the job now that he has it. Never has a new prime minister hit the ground with such a splatt. Even Tony Abbott, demonstrably a woeful prime minister, had things he wanted to do once he got the top job. Mainly breaking promises, but at least he had an agenda.

It’s very possible that Morrison’s first prayer on becoming prime minister was something along the lines of, “Jesus! Now what?”

While policy on the run may complement Morrison’s sporting mien it does not instil confidence in the policy directions being set for the country. There are many examples of Morrison government intemperance: from the half-baked decision to appoint Barnaby Joyce and Tony Abbott as special envoys (for drought and indigenous affairs respectively) to flagging the relocation of Australia’s Tel Aviv embassy to Jerusalem.

‘Bible bashers make the best bastards’

When Morrison decided to enter politics he no doubt did so with ambition to achieve high office…perhaps just not that high. One suspects that being Sports Minister would have been a more than adequate attainment for the Sharks super-fan. It certainly would have been more closely aligned with Morrison’s ministerial and intellectual comfort zones.

His stints as Immigration and Border Protection Minister and Social Services Minister gave rise to speculation that Morrison was a future leader. And so he was, but that doesn’t make the speculation well informed. When all is said and done these ministerial roles basically confirmed two well tested verities: that bible bashers make the best bastards, and that bastards make the best conservative leaders – at least in the eyes of fellow conservatives.

But Morrison is not proving a leader at all. His game plan, such as it is, offers no vision for Australia, nor does his lacklustre ministry (in which Turnbull plotters were, if not rewarded, left unpunished) evoke confidence in its ability to organise a chook raffle much less a vision were one to exist. Instead, his focus has been on perfecting his persona, and even then he can’t decide if he wants to be the nation’s daggy dad or avuncular everyman. More thought has gone into his headwear – baseball cap in, Akubra out – than what’s going on beneath it.

Not since Jim Hacker has someone become prime minister with so little idea of what comes next.

Australians have a right to expect that with high office comes high principle and high aspiration for the greater good. Instead, Australian governance has been reduced to high farce.

The coup against Malcolm Turnbull and the installation of Morrison as his successor has been about power: the exercise of naked power by vengeful forces within the Liberal party to topple a sitting leader with little regard for consequences let alone care for who might assume the mantle of the vanquished. If the best interests of Australia figured at all in these machinations they remain closely guarded.

Scott Morrison is unable to articulate why Turnbull was deposed as prime minister so perhaps it stands to reason that neither is he able to explain why he is prime minister, or even what we can expect from his government now that he is.

Perhaps the joke is on us. It is London to a brick that the Coalition is headed for certain defeat at next year’s federal election – Turnbull was at least a chance – and it may well be that Morrison considers it a sufficient achievement to top his CV with the office of prime minister.

Much more impressive than Managing Director of Tourism Australia.

Leo D’Angelo Fisher is a Melbourne journalist, writer and commentator. He is a former columnist with BRW and the Australian Financial Review. He was also a senior writer at The Bulletin magazine. Twitter @DAngeloFisher

 

 

No time for silence: there is everything to fear in the Liberal proposal to sell the ABC

Some believe that the recent call by the Liberal Party’s Federal Council to privatise the ABC provides no cause for alarm because the policy directive is not binding on the Government.

That’s true; it’s not binding. But there is cause for concern if for no other reason than the privatisation of the ABC has now been placed on the political agenda.

Many of the conservative council delegates – many of them self-regarding Young Liberal blowhards whose conservative fervour has an evangelical absolutism that considers compromise a political weakness – aspire to careers as MPs and some of them will realise that ambition. Today’s soap-box pretenders are tomorrow’s lawmakers.

In the meantime it should not be taken for granted that the machinations of a policy forum such as the Federal Council are without consequence. Ordinarily that may well be the case, but the call to sell the ABC – and likewise the council’s adoption of a motion demanding the relocation of Australia’s Israeli embassy to Jerusalem – reflects the struggle within the Liberal party to reposition the party as a hard-C conservative party.

The so-called broad church is increasingly polarised between two congregations: the moderates and the conservatives, with very little room in between for those who might wish no label at all. Although it is comforting that the Turnbull Government has rejected the council’s call to privatise the ABC (as it has the Trumpian wet-dream of relocating Australia’s embassy to Jerusalem) it is dangerously optimistic to conclude that that is the end of the matter.

The conservative bloodlust for extreme policy outcomes will continue to cast a shadow over the Turnbull Government while it remains in power. While the conservative wing of the Liberal party finds no succour in compromise the “pragmatic” Turnbull Government is not so wedded to policy principle.

We have seen time and again the Government fall into line in the face of conservative recalcitrance on such policy issues as climate change, the Uluru Statement, asylum seeker and immigration policy and same-sex marriage (the battle for which was lost by the conservatives, but now comes the war for “religious freedom”).

Can Australians trust the Turnbull Govt to protect the ABC?

While unlikely to bend on the conservatives’ call to privatise the ABC we cannot dismiss the possibility of the Turnbull Government moving to assuage ABC-haters by instituting further funding cuts or indeed selling off parts of the ABC. A re-elected Turnbull government – no small possibility while the unpopular Bill Shorten remains the alternative PM – will likely have a small majority and therefore be just as beholden to the Liberal party’s conservatives both within the parliamentary party and organisationally.

In the event of a Labor victory it is likely that a Coalition opposition will lurch unblushingly to the right in order to more robustly distinguish itself from a “socialist” Labor government and in repudiation of the “Labor-lite” Turnbull Government.

All of which is to say that the Federal Council’s call to sell the ABC has not fallen on deaf ears and we can expect these calls to grow louder and more unrelenting.

It is reassuring, in the short-term at least, that the Turnbull Government was so swift in dismissing calls for the privatisation of the ABC. But the Government needs to go further. It must take a principled and unambiguous stand on defending the role of public broadcasting, including a statutory framework that places the ABC above the political whims of the government of the day.

With friends like Communications Minister Mitch Fifield the ABC might see little difference between enemies in the Young Liberal movement and the current government. Is it too much to expect that if there must be a minister responsible for the ABC that he or she be a defender of public broadcasting?

It has been disappointing that ABC Managing Director Michelle Guthrie has been so relatively silent in the face of the relentless attacks on the ABC – including more budget cuts and politically charged “efficiency reviews” – by the current government. Criticism of the ABC is not new, and it has come from both sides of the political aisle, but ABC leaders in the past have been more forthright in defending the values and function of the nation’s public broadcaster.

ABC’s ‘strategic silence’ isn’t working

Melbourne ABC broadcaster Jon Faine, who might reasonably be said to embody the values and independence of a model public broadcaster, has been typically outspoken in criticising Guthrie and ABC chairman Justin Milne for not defending the ABC.

Guthrie, he said on his morning program recently, has been “remarkably quiet and reluctant” to take on the government.

“She says, ‘No, the best way to protect the ABC is to work quietly behind the scenes’. And that’s obviously delivered a terrible outcome in the last budget round,” Faine said.

“We [the ABC] are hopeless at telling our own story as an organisation and we have a managing director who has been deliberately and, she says, strategically silent. Well, that’s not worked. We have a chairman of the board who…also thinks it’s strategic to be silent [and] that hasn’t worked.”

The risk of “strategic silence” runs to much more than making the ABC an easy target for budget cuts; it also feeds into the canard that Australia does not need a public broadcaster. In a political environment which has become extremely malleable and open to mistruths that if repeated often enough unchallenged take on the lustre of truth the ABC’s future becomes more than a little problematic.

If ABC-haters are not challenged Australians may simply shrug that maybe there is something to the view that the ABC is bloated and irrelevant. In such a vacuum the time may come when it is not such a stretch to successfully mount the case for selling the ABC or just closing it down.

The journalists’ union, the MEAA, is to be commended for mounting a public case for the ABC and the role of public broadcasting. But it cannot take on this battle alone.

The ABC’s silence is playing into the hands of its most bitter critics. It is time for the ABC, its managing director and its board to gird their loins and speak up for the future of the ABC before it’s too late.

Leo D’Angelo Fisher is a Melbourne journalist and commentator. He is a former columnist with BRW and the Australian Financial Review and was a senior writer at The Bulletin magazine. He is on Twitter: @DAngeloFisher

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

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

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

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

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

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

The initiative rests with Turnbull

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

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

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

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

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

It’s Malcolm…or who?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No prizes for almost winning

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘The Coalition must do better on health’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Making his presence felt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Practising what he preached

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A PM who promised so much

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wishy-washy brand of politics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Too much for a troubled government to bear

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fatuous feminism

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

Well, yes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Why Malcolm Turnbull must call an election now

It was refreshing to hear Malcolm Turnbull late last year, while still newly ascended to the prime ministership and enjoying towering prominence in the polls, to put early election speculation to rest by declaring that the Coalition government would go full term. Rather than take advantage of his popularity, Turnbull said he was “expecting” to call an election “around September, October” this year.

This undertaking seemed to confirm the measure of the man; here was a Prime Minister who was clearly determined to retire the naked politics of his predecessor. Malcolm Turnbull was living up to voters’ expectations of their new Prime Minister being more statesman than politician.

Turnbull’s immediate appeal to the electorate was the fact that he was the antithesis of Tony Abbott: urbane, charismatic, articulate, thoughtful – prime ministerial. And perhaps most importantly he was perceived as a moderate and a modernist whose eye was on 2050 rather than 1950. Among his many faults, Abbott was embarrassingly stuck in a past that was no longer relevant to most Australians. The Prince Phillip knighthood fiasco was not of itself the reason to draw a line under Abbott’s cringeworthy prime ministership, it was simply one reflection too many of a tin-eared Prime Minister who was irretrievably out of sync with the Australian people.

Turnbull’s demeanour, reputation and public utterances on a range of hot-button issues suggested a Prime Minister in whom Australians could place their trust to be a leader for the 21st century.

But many voters of late have wondered what became of that idealistic figure, a doubt which has been reflected in recent opinion polls. Turnbull and the Coalition remain well ahead of Bill Shorten and Labor respectively, but there’s been a noticeable wobble in the polls recently which suggests voters fear that Turnbull is after all just another politician, albeit a charming one.

Turnbull has changed; he’s more of a politician than he used to be, and perhaps he needs to be to keep in check the febrile Abbott-right conservatives who are suspicious of his progressive inclinations.

Malcolm Turnbull is well aware, perhaps too aware, that he lost leadership of the Liberal Party to Tony Abbott in 2009, albeit narrowly, because he stood on principle rather than political opportunism in his support for the Rudd government’s emissions trading scheme.

The disappointing upshot of that experience is that Turnbull has gagged himself from speaking out on the issues that call for Keatingesque leadership and resolve: asylum seekers, same-sex marriage, the republic, climate change, et al.

Turnbull the heart-breaker

To hear a mealy-mouthed Turnbull casually dismiss the republic as a second-order issue is almost as heart-breaking as the republic referendum sabotaged by proto-monarchist John Howard. Turnbull’s insistence on a plebiscite, rather than a vote of Parliament, on same-sex marriage, is contrary to his earlier stated position and an abrogation of leadership on what is an essential reform. Turnbull turning a blind eye to the unspeakable suffering of asylum seekers in off-shore detention centres is another heart-breaker. On climate change – Greg Hunt’s Coco Pops award as Best Minister in the Known Universe notwithstanding – world leaders must be wondering if Australia has the same understanding of the threat posed by climate change as the rest of the world.

Even Turnbull’s broad-shouldered commitment that all tax matters would be up for debate as part of an open process to arrive at necessary tax reform has proven short-lived. Turnbull’s premature decision to rule out changes to the GST – despite his commitment to bring “rule in/rule out” politics to an end – revealed a Prime Minister who did not have the stomach for genuine consideration of the GST option.

Turnbull buckled under the pressure of Labor’s scare campaign against a “15% GST”, a rare win for Opposition Leader Bill Shorten. Yet there was every indication that the electorate was open to an increase in the GST from 10% to 12.5% as being in the national interest. Paul Keating, Australia’s most influential and unflinching economic reformer, while implacably opposed to a 15% GST as a general revenue raiser, did see merit in a GST increase of “one or two percent” if the extra revenue was earmarked for health spending.

But with Labor’s scare campaign starting to bite, Turnbull decided that discretion was the better part of valour and closed down the debate, leaving two State Premiers – Jay Weatherill in South Australia and Mike Baird in NSW – high and dry. They had taken Turnbull at his word and bought into the GST debate (supporting an increase) at considerable political risk to themselves. The backdown also caught short Treasurer Scott Morrison who was up for the fight and left him in a position not dissimilar to Paul Keating in 1985 when Bob Hawke reversed his support for then Treasurer Keating’s consumption tax – and we all know how that ended.

Seeking a mandate

So what’s going on? For those prepared to Turnbull the benefit of the doubt – including this writer – the forgiving interpretation is that he is unwilling to act on matters of policy principle until he can be sure of having a mandate that can only come with an election win in his own right. On this reading, Turnbull, his prime ministership “legitimised” through the ballot box, will have political license to unveil the “real Malcolm” without reference to his lunar-right colleagues.

On his recent performance, however, we are left to wonder whether even a mandate will embolden Turnbull. On the key policy areas outlined above, Turnbull has not even seen fit to drop any clues, subtle or otherwise, that change may come with a returned Turnbull government. But perhaps he is playing it extra careful.

If so, the time for an election is sooner rather than later. If Turnbull feels that he requires a win – and presumably a decisive win – before he can take on the conservative elements within his party, and indeed his Coalition partner, then he must attain that mandate at the nearest opportunity.

Labor is gaining traction when it accuses Turnbull of being Abbott in Italian suits; it is not a charge that Turnbull can allow to take root if we are to see the best of the Turnbull government.

Malcolm Turnbull will stand condemned if he squanders the opportunity that he has worked a lifetime towards.

Perhaps this is not lost on Turnbull. In recent weeks Turnbull has, despite his early assurance, hinted that an early election, and possibly a double dissolution, is on the cards.

According to some pundits, a double dissolution would give a returned Turnbull government rare control of both houses. That would be an even better outcome for Turnbull and indeed for Australia. Although there is some democratic merit in the government of the day not controlling the upper house, Australia is at risk of languishing as a middling back-water nation of no account. Or in the call-to-arms warning of Paul Keating, a banana republic.

Australia needs principled and decisive government. It is still within Malcolm Turnbull’s grasp to go down as one of our great Prime Ministers. There is no doubt that Turnbull has returned gravitas to the office of Prime Minister. But he must go much further if he and his government are to leave an indelible imprint on Australia in the way that the Hawke-Keating governments did.

There is no doubting the vision, intellect and stamina that Turnbull brings to government. But it is leadership that Australians call for; leadership that will herald Australia’s arrival as a 21st century nation.

This can be Australia’s century, and Turnbull is the man most likely to usher Australia well and truly into the new century. That includes decisive action not just on the economic front, but on touchstone issues such as the just and long overdue constitutional reconciliation with the First Australians, the republic, same-sex marriage, the environment, energy reform, asylum seekers, federation reform, population policy and no doubt much for.

It’s a tall agenda and it’s an agenda that the Turnbull government must address without impediment, compromise or political reservation. If an early election means that we get to see an untrammelled Turnbull government, then most Australians would welcome such an election. Bring it on, Malcolm.