Turnbull all talk, no action
Since his corporate-style takeover of the Liberal Party in September, Malcolm Turnbull has had a charmed run.
He’s doing well in the polls. Progressives in the media see him as one of their own and those on the Right regard him as better than the Labor alternative. Hence, up to now, there’s been little scrutiny of what his government says or does.
All the pundits agree that Turnbull’s rise has lifted the government’s fortunes ahead of the next federal election and it’s tempting to see this as proof that the Coalition is travelling well.
But the government’s success will depend upon what it does; not on the polls. And all the government actually does, right now, is talk.
The more Turnbull talks, the more he reminds me of another prime minister with strong polls, a huge ego, and a tendency to talk, and talk, and talk: Kevin Rudd.
Although he does not appear prone to temper tantrums, Turnbull is similar to Rudd in that he tends to talk a lot without saying very much at all.
Smooth talking may be good at temporarily disarming the electorate but it’s no substitute for governing the country.
As Prime Minister, Turnbull talks and talks about everything — from disruptive technology to the threat of Islamic State. In doing so, he regularly repeats three terms: “versatile, “agile and “dynamic.
These might be buzz words but what do they actually mean? Little other than that their user is not Tony Abbott — whose three-word slogans such as “stop the boats actually had some content.
Ultimately, words have to mean something and governments have to actually achieve something — if they are to last.
So far, the Turnbull government has stopped awarding knighthoods; allowed wind farms to be subsidised by taxpayers as well as by consumers; opened the door to international carbon credits (a kind of backdoor ETS); and refused the AmericansÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ request for modest numbers of special operations troops on the ground in Iraq.
Although the rhetoric is different, currently all of Abbott’s main policies remain in place — even the plebiscite on same sex marriage. However, if Turnbull really wanted to, he could take a strong stand supporting gay marriage. Similarly, now that he has assumed the prime ministership, Australia’s leading republican has gone lukewarm on the republic as well.
The PM is obviously concerned about appearing soft on terrorism after he described the Islamist murder of a police employee at Parramatta as “politically motivated violence. But his demand in the US for “more boots on the ground in the fight against Islamic State had the extraordinary proviso “but not ours.
While he was in America a widely reported media blunder revealed deep anxiety in the PM’s office that Turnbull was soft on terrorism. The PMO published a photo of Turnbull meeting with the US Defence Secretary — with a note from a member of the PM’s media team to another saying: “How can we be against the fight against isil??? How about this — With Secretary of Defence Ash Carter at the Pentagon today where we discussed our coalition against ISIL in support of the Government of Iraq. Unsurprisingly, the offending Instagram post, including the photograph, was swiftly deleted.
In terms of domestic policy, one alleged innovation of the Turnbull government is that there has been an Innovation Statement.
But as Judith Sloan — keen to identify cant, regardless of who’s in power — predicted ahead of its release, it is full of waffle and waste.
After the statement’s release, Sloane pointed out in this newspaper that Australia had seen most of it before. She wrote: “There have been multiple government innovation statements through the years, from federal and state governments. In fact, some of Turnbull’s offerings were strikingly similar to the “agreed positions emanating from Rudd’s 2020 Summit. Indeed, as Sloan noted, one supposedly “new policy was remarkably like “the old managed investment schemes in agriculture. Investors were driven by the tax advantages and most of the schemes went belly-up: think dying trees on leased land. At a billion dollars, the scale was not quite that of Rudd. But bad policy is bad policy even if it’s not of epic proportions.
So far, there have also been thought bubbles from Turnbull and Treasurer Scott Morrison on cutting government spending and “seeking a mandate for reforming the tax system. But up to now we have witnessed little evidence of serious thinking, and no actual policy announcements.
Following the Heydon royal commission, there has also been much talk of weeding out union corruption but little sign of passionate commitment to taking deep remedial action.
Using 100 words when 10 will do and falling back on rhetoric to paper over deficiencies in policy invites further comparison with Rudd — who eventually floundered under the weight of dashed hopes and high-flown promises.
There are already signs that, in time, Turnbull could turn into a figure of fun — a kind of marshmallow mouth who is increasingly perceived as someone who will say virtually anything to stay in power and gild most of his utterances with a saccharine touch.
As Prime Minister, Turnbull likes to appear erudite and highly knowledgeable.
Recently, Sydney’s Daily Telegraph’s “They said it column produced eight instances of Turnbull quoting Thucydides! Appropriately the Tele described him as “Australia’s leading Thucydiot.
The more wordy and “intellectual our PM sounds, the less he proves how smart he is. That is why calling an early federal election might prove to be a clever strategy on the part of Liberal Party hardheads.
This is because it is likely that, sooner rather than later, more and more ordinary punters will start becoming tired of Turnbull’s increasing wordy repetitions that so often lack any substance.
Emeritus Professor of history and politics at Griffith University, Ross Fitzgerald has published 38 books — most recently the co-authored political satire ‘GOING OUT BACKWARDS.’
The Weekend Australian, February 6-7, 2016, p.24