Malcolm Turnbull’s government has started as it seems doomed to continue
There were three items for the first meeting of the new Turnbull cabinet: the cliff-hanger federal election, the response to Four Corners’ teenage detention revelations, and Kevin Rudd. And so the Coalition government has started as it seems doomed to continue: reacting badly to events and to other people’s agendas.
It’s increasingly obvious that Malcolm Turnbull’s desperation to be prime minister was not matched by any particular vision for the country. After deposing his predecessor, he spent nine months raising subjects before ruling them out; and the “economic plan” he referred to incessantly during the election was merely a company tax cut in some years’ time paid for by superannuation tax increases now. It boiled down to “trust me, I’ve made a lot of money” , and the result is a smashed majority, an even more hostile Senate, and a bitterly resentful and deeply divided Liberal Party.
Turnbull’s backers hope that now he’s prime minister in his own right, he’ll feel less constrained by Tony Abbott’s record and continued presence in the Parliament. The Prime Minister has certainly demonstrated that he’s different to our 28th prime minister but the comparison is looking less and less to his advantage.
Plainly, Turnbull is uncomfortable with Abbott’s border protection policies, shuns Abbott’s national security rhetoric and seems to have no stomach for budget repair. Despite high expectations, Turnbull didn’t campaign with Abbott’s clarity of message and certainly not with his energy and stamina. What’s also becoming clearer is that he lacks Abbott’s ability to focus on key objectives.
Good taste in clothes and art, a beautiful speaking voice, a stellar resume, connections everywhere, and politically correct opinions on almost everything made him Abbott’s perfect foil but, so far at least, these qualities have not been enough to make Turnbull a good prime minister.
The appalling images of hooded adolescents shackled to chairs in the Northern Territory’s juvenile jail needed a strong prime ministerial reaction. “Like every other viewer, I was revolted by what I saw on TV last night”, should have been his initial response, before adding the vital rider, “and I’ll be seeking assurances from the Chief Minister that it’s not just business-as-usual in the Territory’s jails”.
Instead, based on what was inevitably just one side of a difficult and complex story, he announced peremptorily a royal commission on the ABC’s AM program.
There was no attempt to seek context to the material aired on Four Corners, no interrogation of ministers or officials before coming to a decision, no consideration of alternatives, no meeting with indigenous representatives and not even a proper media conference to make the royal commission announcement. More importantly the PM appointed a royal commissioner who prima facie had several conflicts of interest and without understanding that at the very least there should be an Aboriginal co-commissioner. Instead Turnbull’s hasty decision echoed the instant overreaction to a TV program of Julia Gillard’s panicky suspension of the live cattle trade to Indonesia.
It might be useful to have another inquiry to tell us that Aboriginal youths have sky-high incarceration rates and it’s possible that the commission could uncover evidence against prison officers that previous inquiries have missed. What it’s unlikely to do, though, is highlight the Aboriginal truancy crisis and unemployment pandemic that, coupled with chronic substance abuse and domestic violence, are what mostly puts black youngsters into jail.
Turnbull told reporters that Rudd’s bid to become UN secretary-general was far from the most important item before cabinet, but it was his own actions that had turned it into a test of his leadership. Of course, former prime ministers should be treated with respect even by their political opponents. But that doesn’t mean that they can demand support for positions for which they might not be the best candidate.
Initially, Turnbull couldn’t say “no” to Rudd and he couldn’t say “no” to the Rudd-barracking Foreign Minister Julie Bishop but, in the end, neither could he say “no” to the cabinet majority who thought Rudd was far from the best Australian to aspire to lead the UN.
By re-opening Abbott’s previous decision to back former New Zealand PM Helen Clark for the top job, Turnbull ended up handing Bishop a loss and Treasurer Scott Morrison and other anti-Rudd ministers a win while confirming that Abbott’s pro-Clark position had been right all along.
Regrettably for our country, this is likely to be the pattern for the next three years: confused signals, no clear decisions, and messy drawn-out processes that leave no one very satisfied.
Meanwhile, without a cabinet position, Abbott can think, write, and speak with the freedom of a backbencher and the authority of a former prime minister. For what it’s worth, my tip is that the longer the Turnbull prime ministership lasts, the better the Abbott prime ministership might seem.
Emeritus Professor of History and Politics at Griffith University, Ross Fitzgerald is the author of 39 books, including the political satire ‘Going Out Backwards: A Grafton Everest Adventure’.
The Canberra Times, August 2, 2016