WITH THE ABBOTT GOVERNMENT solidifying its position in some respects with room to improve in others, chatter that Malcolm Turnbull could be moved to Treasury is not the divisive prospect it may have once been; flaws in the 2014 budget strategy mean another tough budget in May, and this column has already advocated for Treasurer Joe Hockey to be shifted sideways. With budget preparations set to begin in earnest, the time is right to act.
It has happened again: with the best of intentions I have been a little preoccupied in the past couple of days, which means the kick-off for the series of articles canvassing various reform opportunities has been delayed; there is a certain timeliness in that regard, however, with structural reform also now finding its way more prominently into public debate, and we will move onto these subjects as soon as I can get to them (read: shortly).
But I want to talk today about an article carried in yesterday’s editions of the Fairfax mastheads, which details the suggestion — apparently gaining currency in government circles — that Communications minister (and former Liberal leader) Malcolm Turnbull should be moved into the Treasury portfolio, replacing hapless incumbent Joe Hockey.
It may surprise readers to know that I am very cautiously — but enthusiastically — interested in this idea.
This column has had ample reason to be critical of Turnbull over the years and, indeed, has at times been scathing; his performance as Liberal leader was lacklustre, gaffe-prone, and lost the Coalition an enormous tract of electoral ground relative to the then Rudd government. Any election at that time fought by the Coalition with Turnbull as its leader would have ended in tears, and I am no more convinced of his status as an election-winning leader now as I was then.
Subsequently, of course, Turnbull strayed too often from established Liberal policy for my blood, as the pursuit of various positions on policy at odds with both the official party position and the innate setting of the Coalition base sprang from the Turnbull quarter too many times.
But the article by Peter Hartcher correctly notes that Turnbull has been working as a committed, collegial part of the government, and I agree, and if the sources for Hartcher’s piece are correct in noting that Malcolm has now accepted that he is not going to be Prime Minister (and we will come back to that shortly) then it makes sense for him to be used in the most effective role into which the government can deploy him.
Not that Turnbull has been ineffective as Communications minister: far from it. In fact, his performance in that role partially justifies the call, in effect, to promote him.
Irrespective of some of the trendy ideas in social and environmental policy that form a large part of my historic opposition to Turnbull’s position as a (recycled) leadership prospect, nobody — not within nor outside the Liberal Party, Parliament, or the community generally — can dispute that when it comes to business and the making and managing of money, Turnbull has few peers in the Liberal Party.
In a more benign climate of Coalition leadership stability and in the face of real problems with the government’s programme of restoring the budget mess it inherited from the ALP to a sound footing, the sensible option is to harness those talents, not leave them languishing in a lesser (but nonetheless important) area of policy.
The problems with the government’s current budget strategy are not going to go away. Hartcher is right to highlight the fact that the various national security challenges that have been confronted by the government have enabled it to again become competitive in, but not lead, published opinion polling, and the thesis that economic management is responsible for this is completely accurate.
He is also right to note that almost three-quarters of Hockey’s budgeted spending savings are stalled in the Senate, and most of that — given the intransigence of Labor, the Greens, and often the Palmer Senators — seems destined to remain thus marooned.
With no disrespect to Hockey, the 2014 budget (warts and all) was framed with the objective of stopping the accrual of further government debt — “saving $350 billion in debt over ten years” — rather than working to eliminate the $350 billion already racked up over the last seven as a result of ALP incompetence and mismanagement; to compound the problem, many of the initiatives contained in it appear designed to wilfully target and antagonise floating voters in marginal Coalition electorates: a wanton act of political stupidity indeed.
Furthermore, Hockey has proven incapable of selling them.
With the heat now gone from the relationship between Abbott and Turnbull (who, now 60 and 62 by the time of the next election, also faces age as a barrier to any prospect of a return to the Liberal leadership*) it makes sense for the government to utilise Malcolm where he can best contribute to its fortunes: and that is as Treasurer.
Hartcher notes that Hockey elicits little sympathy from his ministerial colleagues, and that the Liberal backbench is extremely frustrated; this is perfectly understandable, given one of the primary points of difference with the ALP the Coalition has always enjoyed has been its reputation for sound, competent economic stewardship. There is no “air of Costello” about the Abbott government, or even a sense that it is heir to Costello’s unimpeachable record of economic management at all, and this is something for which Hockey bears responsibility.
There are three points Hartcher lists as reasons moving Turnbull to the Treasury is unlikely to happen.
One, that it would involve dumping Hockey, of whom Abbott is said to be protective. As we have noted in this column in the past, loyalty in politics is a noble thing, and in many respects there is far too little of it across the board. But loyalty is fine only until it begins to impede the overall performance of any party or government, and Hockey’s execution of his duties as Treasurer, in a role that is almost the flagship of any Liberal government, has hardly been convincing. His budget was and is a political disaster. And in the sense the 2015 budget will substantially need to do the same job this year’s was meant to do in slashing expenditure and waste, the current effort may as well have not occurred at all — which is an indictment.
Two, it is understandable Abbott is reticent about conducting a reshuffle of his ministry; after all, such endeavours are often painted as a sign of weakness or instability by political opponents. Yet this government boasts an obscenity of under-utilised (or yet to be promoted) talent that a compelling political narrative could easily be wound around the need to ensure the best possible people hold down every ministerial post at all times, and in this sense there would be a couple of Hockey’s colleagues also facing “movement” too. Let us not forget that Abbott himself recently conducted performance reviews on his ministers. It would be an entirely logical next step — and bolster the usefulness of such reviews — to then perform a modest rearrangement of the overall team.
And three, whether the promotion of an ostensible leadership rival would be too much of a risk for Abbott to be able to safely countenance. As we discussed not so long ago, I think Julie Bishop has earned the right to be considered the next in line if Abbott should fall under the proverbial bus; and even if Turnbull as Treasurer were to effect a turnaround in the Coalition’s fortunes on the budget that compared well with the record of Costello, his past record as leader would still count heavily against him.
And on that point, it remains the fact that any return to the leadership by Turnbull would instantly haemorrhage a big chunk of the Coalition’s support base, making it an electoral liability that, in likelihood, will never be seriously entertained by the government party room. Turnbull’s big poll numbers as the publicly preferred Liberal leader are generated overwhelmingly by respondents aligned with the ALP and the
Communist Party Greens. Among Liberal voters, Turnbull still finishes second to Abbott (and is now all but outpolled by Bishop, too).
A year into the job and with the dreadful specimen that is the 2014 budget under his belt, Hockey can hardly be said not to have been given a fair shot at the job; as I have suggested many times in discussing this subject, he shouldn’t be sacked — he’s still far too good for that — but he should be moved sideways into another senior portfolio not based on frontline economic management, such as Defence.
To be sure, Hockey is a vast improvement on Wayne Swan, the Treasurer mostly responsible for the debacle of Labor’s misadventures in economic incompetence until he quit over the return of Kevin Rudd as Prime Minister ten weeks out from last year’s election. But virtually every Coalition MP could realise a vast improvement on such an abominable performance as Swan’s if all given time as Treasurer, so bad is the record of the self-important member for Lilley, and is not enough to justify leaving Hockey where he is when others boast far stronger credentials for the job.
I have opined in this column previously that former WA Treasurer Christian Porter (now a federal government backbencher) would make an excellent ready-made, walk-up replacement for Hockey: he would. So, however, would Turnbull. The fact there are at least two candidates in the Liberal party room with arguably stronger claims on the Treasurer’s job than the Treasurer himself simply underlines the point.
Politics is like life; when opportunities come along, “this is it:” there’s no second chance if you bugger it up, waste it, or don’t make the most of it when it’s within your grasp.
The Abbott government’s time is now, and to ensure it is as successful and as durable as possible, having the best people in the most important roles is absolutely paramount.
To this end, the Prime Minister should rethink his aversion to a reshuffle, or to loyalty that has perhaps become less than astutely placed, and take the bold option where the utilisation of a past rival for his own job is concerned.
Many readers will find it surprising, but I agree that Malcolm Turnbull should be made Treasurer. Abbott could do much, much worse. And with the coming 2015 budget necessitating almost a completely fresh assault on the problem the 2014 effort was supposed to remedy, it would be best if someone other than Joe Hockey were to be driving it.
*I know some — Turnbull adherents in particular — will argue in response that Turnbull is not an old man, and that Howard left office at 68 and Menzies at 71. Both points are correct. But the last first-time Prime Minister aged over 60 on entering the office was Sir William McMahon at 63 in 1971; the only other Prime Minister in the category was Labor’s Ben Chifley, who was 60 in 1945 on taking over from the deceased John Curtin. No party leader in Australia over 60 has ever become Prime Minister for the first time by being elected to the role. Whilst it is not conclusive, it is clear that the Prime Ministership in this country — rightly or wrongly — is a job given to younger candidates.