Sometimes for our political leaders, hard work and good judgement can only do so much. In the wrong circumstances virtually any politician is doomed to fail. Poor Brendan Nelson was a fool for running for the leadership when he did, but once he got the job he wasn’t actually too bad. Had he taken on the Liberal leadership two years later he, instead of Tony Abbott would likely have led the Liberals out of the wilderness.
Malcolm Turnbull on the other hand whose political capital it seems shrinks hourly is not simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. For a man whose actual political beliefs seem to be conveniently aligned almost at the absolute centre he makes an astonishing number of decisions which harms him politically. Since the July 2 election a month ago he has lurched from controversy to controversy in a fashion entirely consistent with Australian governments since 2010 and yet with a few select different decisions Turnbull could be enjoying a Ruddlike post-election honeymoon.
One of Turnbull’s biggest mistakes has been to create room in the centre with which Bill Shorten and Labor can attack. This is not simply a matter of moving to the left but often merely a matter of presentation and framing.
Nominate Kevin Rudd
The first instance was the decision not to appoint Rudd as UN secretary general. An entirely benign decision given Rudd had next to no chance of getting the job in the end, a more astute political tactician would have milked the event for all it’s worth. Turnbull should have nominated Rudd, he should have made the announcement in a joint press conference with Rudd at his side. He should have lavished praise on a select few uncontroversial elements of Rudd’s public record: Namely the apology to the stolen generation and Rudd’s extensive knowledge of foreign affairs in particular China. He should have sermonised embarrassingly on the importance of rising above partisanship in the name of good government. He should have choreographed for Rudd to do the same thing. The visuals of Turnbull standing side by side with Shorten’s old boss as the two oozed Prime Ministerial gravitas would have shrunken Shorten’s stature and then some, and best of all poor Bill would have had no choice but to applaud the decision, through gritted teeth no doubt.
The night of his announcement Turnbull should have had his foreign affairs minister on 7:30 telling the world how generous and magnanimous Turnbull was for nominating Rudd and how Labor ought to reciprocate the spirit of bipartisanship with which Turnbull had begun his new government. The next morning another senior minister, perhaps the deputy Prime Minister should have been on Fran Kelly doing the same thing. One can almost imagine the words dripping from the pen of a certain Newscorp columnist. “In nominating Rudd Turnbull has demonstrated the temperament and the judgement to be a great Prime Minister. The contrast between him and Bill Shorten could not be more stark: Shorten is a politician while Turnbull is a statesman.” The nomination of Rudd if well spun in the media could have meant a week of gushing press for the government and friendly media coverage means breathing space. It means the government isn’t placed under a hostile media siege environment for a week. They can get on with actual good government because they aren’t in a state of anxiety about haemorrhaging votes.
Consult Shorten over Don Dale
Turnbull repeated this error of giving Bill Shorten room with which to attack him with the revelations over the Don Dale detention centre. Turnbull was quick to bring Jillian Triggs and George Brandis in for consultation but the person he really ought to have brought in was Shorten. Making a sincere and heartfelt appeal to Shorten that the response to Don Dale needed to be bipartisan and cooperative would have boxed Shorten in. Turnbull’s race to do Fran Kelly the first thing the next morning and announce a Royal Commission was foolish. True the government needed a quick response to Don Dale but they didn’t need an instantaneous one. Turnbull should have convened a phone hook-up cabinet meeting the next day to discuss the issue. The heat the government was getting from Don Dale was so great that nobody in cabinet would seriously have opposed a Royal Commission and it would have allowed Turnbull to be able to announce that cabinet had voted unanimously to hold a Royal Commission. Now he stands accused of making a captains pick, which in the context of recent history could prove to be a damaging accusation in the long term.
His next move should have been to liase with Shorten to hammer out some broad terms of reference and establish as much common ground as the pair could before announcing it at, yes, another join press conference. With Shorten over his should as the co-author of the Royal Commission there could have been little scope for Labor to attack the Coalition and Turnbull could once again tell the world that he was putting good government ahead of partisan politics. Shorten would have received some credit for his bipartisanship but ultimately it was the government who was initiating the Royal Commission, they would get the lion’s share of the praise. Once again, that evening a well briefed minister, perhaps Brandis, should have been on 7:30 spinning Turnbull and yet another minister should have been on breakfast radio following up. That is how Rudd dominated the news cycle when he was at his most popular and whatever his faults, Rudd’s success in cultivating good press cannot be denied.
As for Nigel Scullion the Minister whose interest wasn’t piqued, alas, he should have gone. Those comments were beyond damaging to Turnbull. Scullion is a moderate in the National Party so his loss would not have enraged Turnbull’s conservative detractors within the Coalition and to the average voter it would have emphasised how seriously he was taking Don Dale. Very harsh on Scullion to be sure, but ultimately Scullion had himself to blame.
Keep the deficit levy
The deficit levy has now been “built in” to the economy. Nobody much notices it. And nobody much will notice it getting scrapped. And those who do notice it getting scrapped will not remember it at the next election. Come budget time however people do look at the budget bottom line and by scrapping the deficit levy, Malcolm Turnbull and Scott Morrison have just made the budget bottom line $1 billion worse each year. When the deficit hovers around the 40 billion mark the 1 billion probably doesn’t make too much difference, but given this government does seem determined to make economies where possible, the extra 1 billion they will probably try and squeeze out of the budget to make up for the lost deficit levy will hurt them politically.
Scrap the Same Sex Marriage Plebiscite
Next Malcolm Turnbull should scrap the Same sex marriage plebiscite. I was initially sympathetic to the plebiscite. For both Tony Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull caught between public opinion which supports same sex marriage by around a 2:1 ratio and an intractable bloc of Coalition MPs and Senators who threaten to tear down the whole shop if the leadership tries to force the issue, the plebiscite seemed like a handy way of kicking it out of the parliamentary circles. Letting the voters decide would allow the Liberal leadership to clear away the issue once and for all without antagonising the Bernardi conservatives. But now Bernardi, among others, is saying that they will defy the results of the plebiscite it just serves to weaken Turnbull’s authority and stature in the eyes of the electorate. The longer same sex marriage lingers as an issue the more it hurts Turnbull.
The best thing Turnbull can do is grit his teeth, bring on a conscience vote, enrage the hard right for a few weeks but six months from now everyone will have gotten used to it and another issue with which the left revel in attacking the coalition will be neutralised.
Adopting a different posture on these four issues would have little tangible impact from an ideological point of view: Rudd would still miss out on the UN gig, there would still be a Royal Commission into Don Dale and we will still have Same-Sex Marriage by the end of 2017. The deficit levy would be a small ideological shift, but one that most people wouldn’t even have noticed. Where their big impact would be however is in Turnbull’s political standing. They would accrue Turnbull political capital which in turn would provide him with breathing space to pursue some semblance of a reform agenda instead of remaining constantly in survival mode.