IF YOU DO the same things the same way, the same result is inevitable; yet this truism of life, love, politics (and virtually anything else) seems too complicated for the parliamentary class — and, topically, Malcolm Turnbull and his government — to comprehend. The current PM is the latest in a long line of leaders who will fall on the sword of abject stupidity this year. More will follow. But an agenda, not slogans and hubris, could be his salvation.
Is it too late for Malcolm Turnbull to “remake” his government, salvage his Prime Ministership, provide leadership to his country, and forge a meaningful, valuable legacy by which future generations might regard his tenure with a bit of respect?
I think it is; others will disagree. But since publication yesterday of the piece I promised last week — a stocktake at the top of the year of how it is likely to unfold, and what it holds in store for Turnbull — there are a couple of items that have appeared in the media that fit the theme, and this morning I want to make some remarks about them.
An article by Peter van Onselen — which, admittedly, I have sat on for a few days — makes the cogent case about policy that could almost have been penned as a parallel piece to the political analysis offered in this column yesterday, for the itinerary of policy abrogation van Onselen offers is deadly in its clarity, and galling in scope.
If you are a liberal or a conservative, there is nothing for you at the Turnbull government, as things stand.
Economic reform, smaller government, industrial relations reform, tax reform, budget repair, education reform, media law reform…this list, by no means extreme or (to use the ridiculous taunt of the Left, eagerly parroted by the left-leaning press pack) “far Right,” reads like some line-by-line itemisation of the Howard government. Until Howard inadvisedly sprang WorkChoices on the Australian public without taking the package to the 2004 election, and doubled down on that folly by placing serial bungler and conservative disappointment Kevin Andrews in charge of implementing it, the Howard government derived vast electoral and political success from its stature as a reformist administration of the mainstream Right.
Readers well know I am far less a liberal than a conservative, despite a sprinkling of liberal positions across an otherwise rational conservative outlook, so when van Onselen nominates things like reform to asylum seeker policies — which I take implies some watering down of policies that have been abandoned once before, by Labor (in cahoots with the
Communist Party Greens) in 2008, to disastrous effect and at the cost of well over a thousand lives — I bristle.
But let’s take the suggestion at its word: this is exactly the kind of issue the fawning elites of the liberal Left, who adored Malcolm but were never going to vote for him, nonetheless believed he would champion if elevated to the Prime Ministership in Tony Abbott’s stead; it isn’t just the conservative flank of the Liberal Party Turnbull has thumbed his nose at (or more precisely, extended the metaphorical one-fingered salute to wherever practicable), but the left wing contingent in the inner cities whose social agenda has always — whether he likes it or not — been Malcolm’s natural constituency.
A free vote on marriage equality? Even this issue, historically beloved of Turnbull (even if not on my own wish list), is a nugget of classical liberalism that the Prime Minister is too timid to countenance. The notion of being “hamstrung” by the conservative flank of the Liberal Party be damned: such alleged constraints didn’t stop him from signing the Paris Agreement on climate change — vehemently opposed by conservative liberals, and by anyone in the Australian community with any brains at all — and the truth is that he simply doesn’t have the bottle (or actual leadership skills) to act.
The fiction that Turnbull is a hostage to the conservative wing of the Liberal Party is just that — a fiction — and the notion that allegedly draconian policies like the current arrangements for processing asylum seekers has been maintained because Turnbull “dare not” overturn them somehow derives from the threat of leadership destruction doesn’t hold water. These policies work (like it or not) and even were Turnbull inclined to be rid of them, he has failed to articulate any alternative vision whatsoever let alone attempt to implement one.
And in any case, Turnbull has had no qualms over almost 18 months about ignoring everything else the conservative flank of the party is interested in; the list of areas that are ripe for reform presented by van Onselen (and lamented in this column regularly) is proof of it.
The fact, as van Onselen notes with deadly accuracy, is that “Do-nothing Turnbull” now rules for the sake of retaining power: it is not satisfactory, it will achieve nothing, and it will almost certainly lead to electoral defeat whenever the next election occurs unless a drastic recalibration of the government takes place.
The practice of government by spin, slogans, stunts, “smart answers,” and smug hubris has worn more than a little thin in the decade since Kevin Rudd pioneered it as a nihilistic strategy to win power for the ALP after almost 12 years in the political wilderness.
In the years since, both parties (and incorporating a slew of governments across the states, as well as at the federal level) have increasingly perpetuated the same narrow agenda whose key pillars are political correctness, risk aversion, facile rhetoric, and a slavering pursuit of policies to “deal with” climate change (about which Australia, with less than 1% of world emissions, can make exactly no difference to global outcomes whatsoever — and even that is if you accept climate change is man-made, rather than part of a natural long-term cycle).
Those critical of this view from the harder Right will counter that the Abbott government tried, and failed, to implement a substantive policy agenda.
But even that was hard to describe as “liberal” or “conservative,” beyond stopping the flow of asylum seeker boats and getting rid of the carbon tax; those items aside, the Abbott government was a big-spending, big-taxing outfit whose program of budget repair was predicated on steep tax hikes aimed at its own natural constituency rather than slashing the unaffordable spending on expensive social measures and thousands of unnecessary bureaucrats gleefully locked into place by the Gillard government.
The Abbott government abolished the carbon tax, but left the compensation measures in place. It agitated, vainly, for more expensive social spending in the form of its paid parental leave scheme, funded by more tax hikes on the business community. It sought to get rid of the mining tax (which raised virtually no money) but through timidity and appalling tactical ineptitude did a deal with Clive Palmer that left billions of dollars in related spending in place to get the measure through the Senate.
Many times, I was asked by people why I supported the “far Right” Abbott government: in all cases, I responded (correctly) that it wasn’t “far Right” — but it wasn’t liberal, it wasn’t conservative, it was simply an assortment of disparate measures that defied classification at all. And once the agenda was largely abandoned, Abbott became yet another proponent of the same mishmash of prevailing left-leaning rubbish that all the other governments around the country have been guilty of pursuing.
Unaware that there is a rock band (or a rock song? I’m showing my age 🙂 ) by the same name, I have referred to this as a “turgid miasma:” and such a confluence of political posturing isn’t a substitute for a proper suite of policy objectives either.
There are some who watch former Abbott Chief of Staff Peta Credlin on Sky News, or read her missives in the Daily Telegraph, and who have started to lament that Credlin should be “our first female Liberal Prime Minister.” These people have absolutely no insight whatsoever into the role Credlin played in the dysfunction of the Abbott government or its avoidable downfall, and have been hoodwinked by the exercise in image rehabilitation her media activities constitute. They can’t be told about her appalling management style, or the fact that she had oversight and final veto over everything Abbott’s government did, or that she was the “mastermind” (for want of any more suitable term) of its parliamentary tactics, which were abjectly pathetic and ran completely counter to delivering outcomes based on sound governance.
This is why I cannot support a return to the Liberal leadership by Tony Abbott, despite my well-known view that Malcolm Turnbull’s position as PM is untenable (not that it should ever have commenced in the first place): you get Abbott, you get Credlin. If she is not restored to her old office in Parliament House, you get her at the end of a phone line. It is, not to put too fine a point on it, pointless making Abbott PM again, for not only was the agenda he pursued questionable, but the strategies and tactics used to prosecute it — Credlin’s department — were utterly useless.
With all this in mind, it came as some surprise this morning to see Mark Kenny — writing in the Fairfax press — arguing (with an apparent straight face) that a forthcoming speech by Malcolm Turnbull to the National Press Club offers an opportunity to reassert “his brand, his authority.”
Through his own actions (and it has been a case of action, not inaction: witness the farce of the embarrassing tax reform “debate” he allowed to play out last year ago, crippling the authority of his Treasurer in the process as a case in point), Turnbull has already comprehensively trashed his own brand — be it with liberals, conservatives, or the socialists who once noisily barracked for him) and squandered whatever authority he might have wielded.
The string of botched reshuffles, promoting leadership adherents ahead of any rational political judgement. The failure to call an election late in 2015 — on the thoroughly erroneous strategic miscalculation that he was “new” — that he would have romped home at. The said tax reform “debate.” The appalling election campaign over which he presided, and which arguably reaped a greater return than it deserved. The triumphant taunting of the Liberals’ conservatives, some of whom look likely to be silly enough to stomp out of the party, too incensed at being goaded to contemplate the damage they will do to the conservative polity in this country. On and on and on it goes. The list of examples is endless.
Can Malcolm retrieve himself? I doubt it. Yet in a surprising piece of insight, and speaking of mid-term leadership changes (with a comparative look at Gladys Berejiklian in NSW), Kenny writes that
“If there is a lesson for the incoming Gladys Berejiklian, it is to govern outwardly, rather than for cackling mob of insatiable media reactionaries and internal malcontents. Do that, and the opposition will be hemmed in – not the other way around.
“For Turnbull, who took the alternative, futile, path of appeasement, there has been compound failure: vastly lower standing with voters but with even more dissent from within – witness the outpourings of Abbott, George Christensen, and now the emergent threat of a breakaway party led by Cory Bernardi.”
In other words, not even the forthcoming National Press Club speech he trumpets so loudly is likely to resuscitate Turnbull’s fortunes.
To be sure, Turnbull isn’t the first leader to fall into the trap of the turgid miasma, and in this era of “modern” politics, he isn’t likely to be the last; the ALP and the Greens in particular, whose historic positioning on the spectrum at least mark out that awful mishmash as something they can own, will keep on playing the same game — sometimes they will fall into office for a while, and when the damage they inflict on the country becomes impossible to deny, they will get thrown back out again.
But on the conservative side of politics, where finger-shaking political correctness and “compassion” predicated on bottomless buckets of money that don’t actually exist are out of place as a one-legged man at an arse-kicking competition, talk — and the wanton flinging of money — simply won’t cut it.
If Turnbull is remotely serious about salvaging his Prime Ministership and his government, the only way forward is a comprehensive program of legislative reform designed to fundamentally overhaul all the areas of governance in which responsible and properly calibrated mainstream right-wing ideas can extract improvements in the national interest; the list of areas at the top of this article, whilst obvious places to begin, is by no means exhaustive.
At the very least, it would give the troops something to fight for — and a platform on which to fight any early election, in sharp contrast to the vacuous compassion and “fairness” blather Bill Shorten will deploy, as sure as night follows day, to win votes without actually being responsible for all that much afterwards.
“Jobs and Growth” doesn’t cut it: and in any case, six months after an election and nothing to show for it, this nauseating slogan has already been exposed as just another tired piece of rhetoric.
The Prime Minister — like the rest of Australia’s elected representatives — can talk until the cows come home, and ever weary, people will listen.
But if all the talk in the world adds up to nothing more than smug hubris and empty declarations of competence that are completely contradicted by a lack of tangible outcomes, voters are not going to be impressed.
The electorate has just about had enough. Turnbull will probably be its next victim. Many more will follow until the penny drops, whenever that might be.