What joy! An era of Abbott-free governance 29. September 2015 Ad astra Opinion pieces/current affairs (4) What a collective sigh of relief resonated all around Australia as our 28th Prime Minister went on his way after his own Liberal Party ejected him emphatically, despite him imploring it not to be like the dreaded Labor Party. I have looked for honest appraisals of his prime ministership, but few commentators seem prepared to write them. I suspect those who supported him so consistently despite his multiple missteps, his ill-advised captain’s picks, his poor decisions, his inept public utterances, and his deeply flawed legislative agenda, are still struggling to write anything approaching a complimentary assessment. What good things can they say and still retain their own integrity? The only ones who have gone public to express their disapproval of his abrupt removal have been Murdoch shock jocks. It seems that very few voters are shedding tears; most are exhilarated. They are looking forward to a new era free of Abbott’s pernicious influence, free of his repetitive slogans, free of his attack-dog approach, free of his vindictiveness, free of his sheer incompetence as a leader of our nation. They look to Malcolm Turnbull, our latest Prime Minister, to elevate the tone of Federal politics, lift the quality of political discourse, get on with the job of governing Australia, and abandon the combative approach that was Abbott’s stock in trade, every day in every way. But is he the man to do this? Who could disagree that Turnbull is highly intelligent, articulate, cultured, urbane, sophisticated, even suave? Who can ignore his academic and professional achievements? Educated at Sydney Grammar School and the University of Sydney, he has qualifications in arts, the law, and a postgraduate qualification in civil law. He was awarded a Rhodes scholarship and attended Oxford University. After graduation he became an able journalist, an accomplished barrister who defeated the British government in the ‘Spycatcher case’, a skilled businessman with technical expertise in communications who was once chairman of Internet Service Provider OzEmail, who purchased a stake in the company for half a million that he later sold for $57 million. He was also an investment banker with Goldman Sachs rising to managing director and partner, and a venture capitalist. He was chairman of the Republican Movement before entering federal politics in 2004. He served as the Minister for the Environment and Water Resources in the Howard government and in September 2008 became Opposition Leader until late 2009, when he was toppled by one vote by Tony Abbott, who then appointed him shadow Minister for Communications, a position he held subsequently in the Abbott government. You all know that part of his history well. He is married to the very impressive Lucy Turnbull who is a prominent businesswoman and former Lord Mayor of Sydney. He seeks and takes her counsel. On the face of it Malcolm Bligh Turnbull has virtually all the attributes he would need to equip him for prime ministership. His current personal popularity suggests that at least for now a clear majority of the electorate agree. So what might we expect, or at least what might we hope for from this impressive man and his accomplished wife? Already we have seen how Turnbull has changed the tenor of federal politics. He has introduced an era of calm, reasoned discourse. By his own words he will eschew ‘slogans that insult the intelligence of the electorate’, and will substitute a process of explaining his intentions to the electorate that he anticipates will ‘bring them along with him’; his early embrace of action on domestic violence is an example. He has brought more women into his cabinet, and has stopped wearing the once-obligatory blue tie. Turnbull certainly has the oratory skills; all he needs is plausible, credible and fair policies to promulgate. His colleagues, even Abbott’s previous supporters, are now talking of the ‘new government’; they too yearn for a government that is not continually in conflict with those outside its ranks, a government that gets things done by taking a conciliatory approach, by ruffling fewer feathers. Labor was slow to respond to Turnbull’s new tone. In a dismal start, it tried to use the remaining week of Question Time to attack Turnbull’s inconsistency on policy positions, but found its questions deftly brushed aside barrister-style, leaving it looking inept and embarrassed. How Labor imagined it could outwit Turnbull with such pitiable questions remains a mystery. But the Turnbull effect soon permeated the Labor Party. Labor has now channeled Turnbull via sensible dialogue, offers of collaboration on matters where there is agreement, and initiatives of its own. Bill Shorten’s solo performance on Q&A, scheduled prior to Abbott’s departure, was a turn about that pleased Labor supporters, and drew praise even from opponents such a John Roskam from the IPA. In outlining his vision for the nation, he was positive, forthright and articulate. He answered questions with candor and authority. Shorten’s presentation was a vivid example of how political dialogue is enhanced when the pattern of discourse is elevated from gutter brawling to dignified debate. There is now the real possibility of a genuine ‘contest of ideas’ replacing the combative street fighting of the past. In just a few days it has become apparent how counterproductive was Abbott’s jarring approach. The electorate, commentators and politicians themselves increasingly realize how poorly he served sensible political debate. This part of his legacy will linger long in the minds of the people. The initial gloss of Turnbull’s ascension will soon dull though when the electorate realizes that many, if not all of the policies he has outlined are the same as Abbott’s, the very same ones the electorate dislikes. Indeed Abbott, in the few interviews he has given since his removal, has rather triumphantly pointed this out. Why has Turnbull not struck out with his own policies, ones that we know about from his past? His approach to global warming is one example. It seems that in order to gain the necessary support of the big C conservatives, who reportedly dislike him intensely, many of whom vowed to never let him come back as leader, he had to guarantee that he would carry forward Abbott policies on a suite of issues; emissions reduction and same sex marriage are but two examples. The question in many minds now is whether he will stick to the assurances he gave to get enough votes, or whether he will slowly and subtly change the government’s approach to such contentious issues to bring them in line with his own. For example, having argued that since the object of emissions reduction is to actually reduce emissions, he insists many approaches are acceptable, including the motherless Direct Action Plan, which he claims is working although evidence is lacking. Will he now argue that since China has joined other countries in introducing an emissions trading scheme, Australia ought to follow by adding that to its suite of climate change actions? With same sex marriage, will he now argue that the promised plebiscite should sensibly be held at the time of the next election at a fraction of the estimated cost of almost $160 million for a separate event? Time will tell. We know from his previous endeavours that Turnbull is a risk-taker. Risk takers need to be adept at risk minimization. His risky Godwin Grech adventure turned out very badly, exposing as it did his impetuosity and lack of due diligence. But being an intelligent person he has learned from that embarrassment, and is bound to now take more care. Turnbull has taken a substantial risk to his reputation in seeming to embrace Abbott’s policies, ones that we know he either opposes or to which he has a quite different approach. Does his risk minimization strategy include slow, steady and subtle changes to Abbott’s policies, changes that he believes he can convince the public and his colleagues are logical, sensible and practical? If he sticks rigidly to Abbotts’ policies, which by the way are government policies, he runs the risk of being seen simply as ‘Abbott-lite’, a smooth-tongued advocate, or even more damaging, a cunning man who conned his way into leadership, and who is now prepared to do Abbott’s dirty work, but in clean clothes. Although it was Abbott’s persona and operating style that brought him undone in the eyes of the electorate and eventually his colleagues, it was also his policies that evoked the ire of the electorate. If Turnbull is seen as advancing them without regard to public opinion, he puts his prime ministership and his government at risk of rejection at the next election. Clearly Labor strategists are on to this already. Once his honeymoon is over, Turnbull will not have many months to convince the electorate that he is not simply Abbott’s policy handmaiden, using his suave persona to do what Abbott could not. Unless he can stamp his authority on Abbott’s policies, take off their sharp and nasty edges, and inject his own rational modifications, he may find himself occupying an even shorter period as prime minister than Abbott. My impression is that his sagacity will be in full display. He is a shrewd operator. He now knows much more about how politics works than when he was Leader of the Opposition. Having audaciously grasped the prize of prime ministership he has sought for so long, he will not carelessly let it go. He will put a new face, a more benign countenance on government policies and will attempt to persuade the electorate to his point of view. Should he take this approach, the task for Bill Shorten will be arduous. Overturning a smooth operator with credible, appealing policies is a formidable undertaking. Those of us who embrace Labor values fervently hope Shorten is up to the task of lucidly explaining them to the electorate, formulating policies that encapsulate those values, and convincing the voters that these point the way forward to an opportunity-rich, prosperous, harmonious and fairer society that cares for all its members ‘for better or for worse’. That is what Labor supporters want. In the meantime, let’s all hope that Federal politics, now free of Abbott’s destructive, malicious influence, will enter a new era of considered, honest, polite and helpful dialogue among politicians, stakeholders, commentators and the people, one that brings about betterment for us all. The title of John ‘Jonnikhan’ King’s poignantly worded song: Wouldn’t It Be Wonderful says it all. What do you think?