Day zero and Turnbull’s descent into the maelstrom
It’s quite obvious that I’m not of those people that thinks too highly of the Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, and certainly not as highly as many other journalists in the mainstream media. As I’ve reported elsewhere, there is nothing in Turnbull’s political record of note but he continues to be egged on and promoted in the mainstream media, more in the hope that he will do something that justifies his promoted star rating (the latest in this offering is Peter Hartcher’s belief that Turnbull’s inaction over the past six months has been a cunning plan – Turnbull has been biding his time, not wasting it – and more of the same from Annabel Crabb – The Turnbull of old returns with a DD showdown).
Yesterday (on what considered the first day of the election campaign), Turnbull announced he will recall Parliament for three weeks from 18 April, for the Senate to pass the Government’s contentious legislation to re-introduce the Australian Building and Construction Commission (the Commission that was initiated by the Howard Government in 2005, as a gift to future Liberal–National Governments to create havoc for the Labor Party and ramp up anti-Union rhetoric, with a side-benefit of slightly reducing a small amount of corruption in the building and construction industry). A greater benefit to the community would be the creating a national corruption commission, which could look at not only corruption in the building and construction industry, but also look into all types of white collar crime, such as Comminsure, financial planning, as well as investigating corruption within politics. Aside from the possibility of sweeping up many politicians from all sides of politics, it’s difficult to see why a national corruption commission hasn’t been floated by either of the main parties, as it’s sure to be a favourite with the electorate.
Strictly speaking, Turnbull’s plan to recall parliament is not a ‘decision’ but more like the start of a campaign to set up a process to commence the pathway to an election on 2 July. It’s not a decision, in the true sense of the word, but that hasn’t stopped the lathering up in the media – Turnbull’s leadership has been so weak since he became Prime Minister in September 2015 that any microscopic evidence of decisiveness is lauded as a major achievement, and a true sign that the anointed leader has arrived.
This weakness has been evident in Turnbull completely reneging his stance on the Australian Republic, same-sex marriage, climate change (issues which, as far as the public are concerned, are those that define Turnbull), more recently, the campaign by the extreme right of the Liberal–National Party to remove the federally funded Safe Schools program (which, incidentally was funded by Tony Abbott when he was Prime Minister, and receives as small amount of $8 million).
But the prime evidence of his weakness has been a lack of action over the past six months.
If Turnbull was a strong leader, minutes after attaining the prime ministership, he would have double-crossed those in the party that supported him, create a reign of terror in the party and threaten the preselection of anyone that spoke out against him or any of his policies, implemented a timetable for the republic, cancelled the Direct Action program and created an emissions trading scheme, and bring on a bill to enact same-sex marriage legislation. Why? Because that’s what the public expected him to get on with, and that’s why his popularity rocketed when he became Prime Minister.
A strong leader would have then talked about the broad brushes of economic reform and tax policy throughout the rest of September and early October, and then, capitalising on his stratospheric popularity at the time, called a lower-house election in late October and held the election on 28 November 2015. A mandate, new-found authority, government guaranteed for another three years and any complicated separate Senate elections dealt with in the future.
But Malcolm Turnbull is not a strong political leader. What might have worked for him in business, is not working politically – the electorate is many steps ahead of the mainstream media and have worked this out for themselves, as can be seen with Turnbull’s drop in approval ratings to negative territory, and the latest Morgan Poll showing a LNP 49.5%/ALP 51.5% split.
Instead of strong leadership, we’ve had waffling and dithering leadership, confusion over tax policy and financial matters from Treasurer Scott Morrison (who, surely, must be the weakest Treasurer since John Kerrin in 1991), little policy announcements (aside from the ‘Welcome to the Ideas Boom‘, which is more of an ‘agenda’ than a policy of substance, brought to you courtesy of a $28 million government advertising campaign).
Instead of the supposed ‘respecting the intelligence of the electorate’ and debating in the contest of economic ideas, Turnbull slid into the mud ring with a hysterical and unhinged attack on Labor’s negative gearing policy announcement (joined in by Immigration Minister Peter Dutton, claiming “the economy will come to a shuddering halt and … the stock market will crash“). So, no one’s intelligence ended up being respected and we ended up back in the first day of Politics 101 on campus.
And here is Turnbull’s greatest problem. Although he didn’t specifically announce it, there was an expectation that Malcolm Turnbull, in the electorate’s eye, would be different, almost like the ‘non-politician’ politician, someone who could be different, and move the country to a new place after the dark and disastrous days of Tony Abbott.
His rhetoric is right – talk about innovation, agility was hitting the right tone and chords – but there’s a dissonance between expectations (mainly heightened by the media) and reality. And now the Government has been caught up with the esoteric issues of Senate reform, speculation about double dissolution elections, and trying to explain intricate issues contained in Section 57 of the Constitution. Insider rubbish.
I really dislike the idea of the ‘pub test’ but you wouldn’t even need to go to the pub to realise very few people are seriously interested in Senate reform legislation and even less concerned about what a double dissolution is. But the more the speculation goes on (as well as the schisms within the Liberal–National Party between the Turnbull and Abbott camps), it keeps on sending out the message that the Government is purely concerned about its own interests and not those of the electorate. And nobody in the Labor Party would need to be reminded about what the disastrous electorate consequences of this can be (well, I’ll remind them again – it results in a loss of 17 seats, a loss of government and at least two terms on the Opposition benches).
Turnbull can turn this around – although the Turnbull Government has done very little in six months, the fact that the polls are showing that we’re in hung-parliament territory is is not disastrous for him. But the strategy all seems so wrong. It seems that there won’t be any tax policy announcement until the Budget is announced on 3 May – giving Labor about five weeks of time to make grand policy announcements, while Turnbull and Morrison can only keep suggesting that people should wait until 3 May before they hear any major announcements from the Liberals.
And then what happens? What will happen after 3 May? The level of expectation will be dramatic – what if the Budget is poorly received? Or if the tax policy is not perceived to be a tax policy at all? A Budget reply by Bill Shorten on 5 May, and then the announcement on 6 May that a double dissolution election will be held on 2 July? Shorten will start the campaign with all the momentum.
And, of top of this, an eight-week campaign! Turnbull’s leadership is on the verge of the downward death spiral, where leadership perceptions become fixed and, irrespective of how many supporters in the media the Prime Minister might have, become too difficult to budge (as John Howard discovered during 2007).
What will Turnbull talk about between now and the Budget on 3 May? What can he do to reverse the downward trend in his leadership and party numbers? For Turnbull’s sake, and the Liberals, it will need to be an excellent Budget. And an even better election campaign, that is, if anyone is left standing or listening.
12–13, 19–20 Mar 2016
17–20 Mar 2016
10–12 Mar 2016
3–6 Mar 2016
2–6 Mar 2016
Too close to call, although other more learned pundits such as Peter Brent are suggesting a strong Coalition victory, holding onto 85 seats out of 150 seats (or a loss of five seats). I assume one of those seats would be New England.