How indecently fortuitous has the Coalition been? It has purged itself of an incompetent leader seen domestically and internationally as a belligerent confrontational fool. Its reward for disposing of him, even after governing so ineffectually, in all probability will be victory at the next election.
The emergence of the new leader has done three things. Firstly, it has gotten rid of a grossly unpopular leader. Secondly, it has enabled a popular, charming man with an engaging smile, on the surface at least, who preaches fairness, optimism and all things foreign to conservatism, to become Prime Minister and in doing so annulled two years of atrocious government as though it were some sort of political illusion and not reality at all. How ironic it is that a government that has performed so abysmally is now in the box seat to win another term. Thirdly, is has dramatically empathised the short comings of Labor and Bill Shorten.
Malcolm Turnbull, for ridding his party of the combatant pugilist Abbott has been rewarded for his efforts with election winning polls and a personal popularity rating the envy of any celebrity. To date, with charismatic personality, he has seduced and beguiled his way into the hearts of those who wanted nothing more than to see the back of Abbott and some who didn’t.
The oddity is that whilst the punters welcome, for the time being at least, his sense of reason, fairness, discretion and natural charm, these characteristics seem out of place in a party so demonstrably right wing. He has even managed to converse with world leaders without wanting to shirtfront anyone.
He is a Republican leading a party of Royalists. A Prime Minister of Australia in which all state Premiers and Opposition Leaders are Republicans makes it more absurd. He is, despite his current utterings, a believer in doing something about climate change but the leader of a party that has many influential climate deniers in its ranks who think more about capitalist greed than the future of our children.
He is a committed believer in marriage equality leading a coalition of homophobes. He also leads a government intent on imposing its own religious values on a society rapidly backing away from religiosity.
Malcolm Turnbull is in effect an enormous contradiction that raises the question: How can you lead a party that has views so diagonally opposed to your own? And how can you preach fairness and reason when those you lead aren’t?
When your voice speaks of these values, how are people expected to accept the unreasonable voices of Dutton, Morrison and others?
It can work if hypocrisy prevails and thus far Turnbull has used every ounce of it and is being given the benefit of the doubt by an electorate looking for the political stability of years past. All things being equal, voters will not be inclined to change leaders yet again. The slate has been wiped clean. All has been forgiven. Performance doesn’t matter. Or does it?
With soft eloquent dulcet voice and pleasing smile Turnbull has shown a capacity for enthusiasm, seeing possibilities, spruiking innovation, even being inspirational. He has a way of putting calm into discussion. People feel relaxed with him. The very opposite to Abbott’s pugilist “no, no, no” negativity.
By not ruling anything in or out, particularly in economics, he has managed to convince people that he genuinely believes things have been done wrong, unfairly wrong, but given the chance he can put matters right.
Is it all that simple? No, it isn’t.
After two unacceptable budgets, Turnbull will have to deliver a third while monetary measures from the previous two are still waiting to be passed by the Senate. In total it is a monumental task in light of promised tax revisions to be put to the people before the next election. In addition, all these decisions will be overshadowed by a mid-year economic statement before Christmas that is sure to show a monumental blowout in the deficit. The tax Green Paper was due out this year; now it has been pushed to next year, assuming the Government doesn’t decide to skip straight to the White Paper.
There seems to be a public debate about the merits of increasing the GST, superannuation, subsidies etc – nothing has been ruled out, but Morrison refuses to participate.
It is unclear whether there are differences between senior ministers over tax – for example about whether there is a revenue problem (denied by Morrison) as well as a spending problem and whether the states have a case for extra funding.
At some stage the Government will finally have to rule in and rule out measures. That’s when the winners and losers will be declared. Someone has to be worse off.
Who will it be?
Another hangover the Government faces is the fact that they have asked the states to consider their own tax bases (as part of a Federal Sate relations review) in looking for ways to fund their future spending needs. The fact that the two are interwoven makes the task somewhat harder.
Besides economics the Government has an abundance of policy matters hanging over it.
Everyone knows the Government’s Direct Action Plan is dreadful and is likely to be called out as such in Paris. Greg Hunt continues to lie about its benefits.
Then there is the plebiscite on marriage equality. The public are dubious about its real intentions. Is it just a blind to give the Cabinet homophobes free rein to mount a negative campaign? Otherwise at $150 million it is a very expensive way to ascertain what is already known.
The Defence White Paper was delayed under Abbott and is now in limbo under Turnbull who wants it given further attention. Defence Minister Marise Payne has to do a lot of preparation for the public and diplomatic discussion that will come after its release. And of course the university deregulation plan put aside by Turnbull needs an alternative proposal.
On the treatment of asylum seekers Turnbull, amid international human rights condemnation, vacillates between appeasing the hard right wing and what his Christian conscience tells him. Or ‘intellectual compassion’ as he puts it. On the field of war you cannot always expect people to act rationally. The same applies to incarcerated innocent people. They don’t, however, deserve life sentences when innocent of any crime.
And health policy has become a mess and both parties will need to address it in the near future.
Thus it is that Bill Shorten has gone from short odds to win the next election to rank outsider. He doesn’t have the charisma of Turnbull and although the Royal Commission has found him innocent of any wrongdoing, some mud has stuck. The recent revelation of branch stacking simply underscores the negative view people have of him.
On the brighter side, whatever tax package Turnbull takes to the election will be a hard sell and it will give Labor a decent campaign pitch. Notwithstanding the importance of economics, Shorten must come up with a narrative that grabs the attention of the community.
How should he go about it?
A starting point would be a narrative about the decline in our democracy and the conservative’s participation in it. He could take the moral high ground, even acknowledge the faults, the corruption on both sides together with the destruction of our parliamentary conventions and institutions. Shout the need for a new truly representative democracy as often as Abbott said; “Stop the Boats”.
In every utterance, good democracies can only deliver good government and outcomes if the electorate demands it. Differentiate and deliver a campaign message that speaks to young and old alike by appealing to people to participate in this new democracy where all policy is centered on the common good. I can hear the first sentence of his first speech:
“I speak to all who have a common interest in renewing our democracy regardless of ideological association”.
Besides internal reform that engages its members, Labor needs to look at ways of opening our democracy to new ways of doing politics: ways that engage those that are in a political malaise so that they feel part of the decision-making process again.
Some examples of this are fixed terms, and the genuine reform of Question Time with an independent Speaker. Mark Latham even advocates (among other things) its elimination in a new book. In fact, regardless of what you may think of him, he has many suggestions of considerable merit.
Among many other things Shorten needs to promote the principle of transparency by advocating things like no advertising in the final month of an election campaign, and policies and costing submitted in the same time frame. You can add reform of the Senate into this mix, and perhaps some form of citizen initiated referendum. Also things like implementing marriage equality and a form of a National ICAC. Perhaps even a 10 point common good caveat on all legalisation.
He needs to convince people of a collective democracy that involves the people. A creative and exciting one.
In a future world dependent on innovation it will be ideas that determine government, and not the pursuit of power for power’s sake.
His narrative must convince the lost voters who have left our democracy to return. (and I am assuming that most would be Labor). He has to turn Labor’s ideology on its head, re-examine it, and then reintroduce it as an enlightened opposite to the Tea Party politics that conservatism has descended into.
Uppermost in his mind should be the “say it like it is” rhetoric of Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn.
He must promote and vigorously argue the case for action against growing inequality in all its nefarious guises, cast off its socialist tag and replace it with a simple proposition of the common good versus elitism. The same fight must also be had for the future of the planet.
He must turn his attention to the young, and have the courage to ask of them that they should go beyond personal selfish desire and aspiration and accomplish not the trivial, but greatness. That they should not allow the morality they have inherited from good folk to be corrupted by the immorality of right-wing political indoctrination.
He might even make it Labor policy to lower the voting age to sixteen (16 year olds are given that right in the Scottish referendum). An article I read recently suggested the teaching of politics from Year 8, with eligibility to vote being automatic if you were on the school roll. Debates would be part of the curriculum and voting would be supervised on the school grounds. With an aging population the young would then not feel disenfranchised.
Now that’s radical thinking; the sort of thing that commands respect. It might also ensure voters for life.
Perhaps the first thing he should do is employ a stylist. He always looks like he’s had a night on the town, worn the suit to bed and has never learnt to tie a knot. That aside Labor has its back to the wall.
The ALP’s chance of winning the election has likely evaporated with the fall of Abbott. It has no choice but to go with Shorten.
Whether he has the ideas to match Turnbull is unknown. What is known is that he certainly doesn’t have the charisma.