Careful what you wish for. I wonder if anyone ever said this to Turnbull while he scurried around courting leadership votes from his Liberal and National colleagues? There are lots of metaphors you can throw at his current predicament. He’s sipped on Abbott’s poison chalice. His Teflon glean is sticky. His shine has worn off. Voters thought a Turnbull government would look like the cake on the left, but in reality, it’s just the Abbott cake with different colour icing – underneath it still tastes exactly the same.
Reality not meeting expectations is usually disappointing rather than pleasantly surprising. I’m not sure I’ll ever really understand why on earth voters chose Abbott in the first place since I spent years advising against this terrible decision and was completely unsurprised when PM Abbott turned out to be just as big a disaster as I predicted he would be. But presumably Abbott won the last election because voters thought he would do a better job of running the country than the Labor government. It only took a few months for them to realise their terrible mistake. This realisation and corresponding dissatisfaction with Abbott gave Turnbull his chance to pounce. And pounce he did.
In the blink of an eye, Turnbull became Prime Minister of Australia, a job he was never elected for, which, as Gillard proved, had he been a woman and a Labor MP he would have paid dearly for with the label of back-stabbing-illegitimate-swine. But Turnbull slid in scot-free, proclaiming there was never a more exciting time to be an Australian voter who hadn’t voted for him to be PM.
There are good arguments to say Turnbull got away with his coup because voters hated Abbott and were pleased to see him go. It makes sense they were willing to accept whatever had to happen to remove the most embarrassing, incompetent Prime Minister Australia has ever had. But I think there’s more to Turnbull’s free ride and corresponding honey-moon popularity in the polls than meets the eye. I think it’s possible that voters’ acceptance of Turnbull is their silent, shameful, never-to-be-admitted relief that their Abbott mistake went away without them having to admit this mistake was their doing in the first place.
There’s a theory in marketing called Post-Purchase Dissonance which describes the tensions a consumer feels after buying something which they invested time and energy choosing, when they’re not 100% sure they’ve made the right decision. Usually attributed to making large purchases such as a house or a car, buyers apparently often go out of their way to justify their purchases in order to calm their Post-Purchase Dissonance, even when there is rational evidence in front of them that their decision was a poor one. For instance, if the car they bought was a lemon.
You see the same irrational behaviour when people make all sorts of huge life decisions which turn out to be bad ones; it is very rare that the decision maker ever publically admits their mistake. Have you ever met someone who has been through a messy divorce from a man who was clearly a terrible choice for a husband, who everyone always knew was a dickhead, but the best his ex-wife can do to explain why she married him in the first place is to say ‘he changed after we got married’. The divorcee will very rarely say ‘I was a fool for marrying him’ because it’s human nature to justify important decisions in our life as good ones, even when all evidence contradicts this.
For most voters, the decision of who to vote for is not one they invest much time in, but nevertheless, there must be tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of Australian voters who, while watching Abbott swing a wrecking ball through Australian culture, society and economy had a little voice in the back of their mind saying ‘you chose this outcome… oops’. Imagine their relief when Turnbull erased this mistake?
But this isn’t where the story ends. No, Turnbull really should have been careful what he wished for, and what deals he made with the devil to get what he wanted. All those relieved Abbott-mistake-makers who wanted Turnbull to undo their guilt are now slowly, yet surely, coming to the even more disappointing realisation that Turnbull hasn’t actually undone anything. Because nothing has substantially changed since Abbott was deposed. The car is still a lemon. The husband is still a dickhead. The budget is still a disaster. The NBN has been ruined. The ABC gagged. There is no legitimate climate policy. Social security is still on the chopping block. Gonski is a goner. There’s a risk of a GST rise. Super contributions might be frozen where they are. Australian born babies are being sent to a concentration camp on Nauru. Penalty rates could be a thing of the past. Unions are being bashed. Turnbull is willing to fight an election on zombie-like WorkChoices industrial relations policies. States are being bullied to raise taxes. There will be no Australian Republic under a PM who led the Republic movement. Marriage equality won’t happen. Therefore the decision Abbott voters made at the 2014 election is still haunting them.
These are the sort of emotions that don’t show up in polls. These are the sort of thought processes that people don’t speak out loud. Labor would do well to understand the voices-in-the-heads of the ashamed Abbott voters. The 2016 election is Labor’s best chance to give these voters an opportunity to properly reverse their mistakes and to get it right once and for all.