The trouble with Malcolm Turnbull
Malcolm Turnbull’s friends and supporters thought that once he was prime minister in his own right, all would be well. The dithering and the waffling would stop and he’d be the leader everyone hoped for when he seized the prime ministership from Tony Abbott.
Maybe the narrowest of wins has shattered Turnbull’s self-confidence. One Liberal campaign insider is now describing him to confidants as a “broken man”. Effective leaders learn from setbacks; they’re not overwhelmed by them. But, on the evidence so far, our country is in for three years of poor and indecisive government.
Turnbull’s critique of Abbott, among other matters, was that his government lacked proper process. Yet since the recent federal election, in regard to all the Coalition’s decisions, there has either been grievously inadequate process or no process at all.
The latest example of how-not-to-do-things was Turnbull’s attempt to reach out to Bill Shorten for a measure of bipartisanship on budget repair. If this was meant as anything other than a self-serving gesture, the PM would have spoken to the Opposition Leader before he publicly demanded that he back the government’s omnibus savings bill.
Abbott often talked to Shorten privately and well in advance of any announcement about national security and largely achieved bipartisanship on the first responsibility of government. By going public first and being rejected, Turnbull yet again managed to make Shorten seem to be in charge.
It’s hard to credit how someone who’d spent his whole life planning to be prime minister could be so clueless. Even at this relatively early stage, he’s obviously been much better at running down his predecessor than at running a government. For Australia’s sake, let’s hope he learns and learns quickly on the job, but the signs are not good.
Turnbull managed to humiliate Kevin Rudd, undermine his own deputy and embarrass himself in the way he handled the former prime minister’s bid for the UN secretary-generalship. More than a year ago, while Rudd was still being coy, the matter had already been settled via Abbott’s letter to New Zealand Prime Minister John Key pledging our support for Helen Clark. “It’s Abbott’s stuff-up,” Turnbull should have told Rudd, “but there’s nothing I can do.” Presumably because of commitments he’d made to Rudd before he grabbed the top job, this became an early test of his leadership.
Then there was the royal commission into child detention in the Northern Territory announced in panic the morning after a TV show and without any discussion with relevant officials or any attempt to hear the other side of the story.
Then followed the attempt to gain cred in Western Australia by supporting a GST distribution floor , again, not discussed beforehand with any of the other premiers. As a result, Turnbull earned a fusillade of criticism from the other states.
There was the move to make bank chief executives appear annually before a parliamentary committee, when no other business leaders are required to do so, which just seemed a lame response to Shorten’s call for a royal commission.
There’s the continuing anxiety inside the parliamentary Liberal and National parties over the ill-conceived attack on better-off retirees’ superannuation. By floating possible concessions, Turnbull and his increasingly hapless treasurer are admitting that there’s a problem without actually solving it.
And finally, there’s his refusal to countenance any change to the now notorious section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act under which students at a Queensland university face possible damages awards of $250,000 for criticising reverse discrimination on social media. Pre-coup, this was one of the issues Turnbull used with disgruntled backbenchers to undermine Abbott.
The census debacle is hardly his fault, but it’s not a good look for a prime minister committed to online government. Governments have managed to successfully run the census for decades and even Julia Gillard managed to get that one right!
Everyone but Turnbull is driving the agenda: depending on the issue, it’s Shorten, Rudd, Four Corners or his own colleagues making the running. And all the Prime Minister’s responses are the sorts of concessions that a middle-of-the-road Labor leader would make. This, above all, is fuelling disquiet with Turnbull: the sense that he’s a centre-left politician (and not a very deft one) trying to lead a centre-right government.
It will be a sullen, unhappy Coalition party room that assembles in Canberra next week, fearing that they haven’t won another term of government so much as three years of misery.
Although I don’t expect any early move against Turnbull, it’s an unstable situation that’s unlikely to last.
Turnbull has never liked the commitment to a plebiscite on same-sex marriage , even though it came from an exhaustive party room meeting where nearly every MP spoke and even though he’s publicly supported it.
The PM could be hoping that the plebiscite machinery bill is defeated in the Senate. That way, he could declare that the only way to resolve the issue is a free vote in the Parliament and at least have one achievement to his credit about something in which he actually believes.
Ross Fitzgerald is emeritus professor of history and politics at Griffith University and the author of 39 books, including his memoir ‘My Name Is Ross: An Alcoholic’s Journey.’
The Canberra Times, August 24, 2016. Also The Age & The Sydney Morning Herald online.