Not so exciting times
Malcolm Turnbull needs to make some tough decisions before 2016 gets away from him

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Few would blame Malcolm Turnbull for wanting to extend his first prime ministerial visit to the United States. The odd Instagram malfunction aside, Turnbull enjoyed something of a political love-in with US President Barack Obama, the duo amiably discussing the threat posed by Islamic State, the rise of China and passage of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).

The prime minister returns home to a growing number of political spot fires and important, career-defining decisions which cannot be solved by spouting fancy slogans.

Most prominently, there is the round of NSW Liberal Party pre-selections now under way. Factional bovver-boys are girding their loins for a showdown over plans to remove up to half a dozen sitting members, including septuagenarians Philip Ruddock, Bronwyn Bishop and Bill Heffernan, in defiance of Turnbull’s call for stability. (This is a clear contradiction of Turnbull’s dubious claim that his party was “not run by factions”.) Turnbull will find it almost impossible to avoid a so-called “civil war” between “moderates” and “conservatives” in his home state. The PM has made much of Labor’s alleged control by union-backed factional warlords. Such claims will ring hollow should he not exert his authority over the Liberals in an election year. And if popular local MPs are rolled in order to satisfy ideological bloodlust, electors may punish the Liberals. A loss of a seat here or there may be crucial to the outcome of the 2016 election, which will prove a closer-run thing than many pundits expect.

This is to say nothing of escalating tensions that would re-emerge should Turnbull’s predecessor announce his intention to recontest the blue-ribbon seat of Warringah in the hope of one day seizing back the prime-ministership, as a Daily Telegraph story yesterday suggested. No one believes that Tony Abbott “can do a Menzies or a Howard” and reclaim the nation’s top job – except Tom Switzer or Peta Credlin – but the prospect of continued mischief-making cannot be discounted. It beggars belief that Turnbull might allow Abbott the indulgence of leaving a decision until April. Who knows what Eric Abetz, Kevin Andrews and Jamie Briggs might get up to in the meantime?

That decision may be expedited by the timing of the next election. A confident Turnbull seems to be resisting calls from party figures to call an early ballot. The more prime-ministerial gravitas that can be acquired the better, Turnbull’s apparent logic goes, rather than the sugar-hit mandate that might accompany the calling and winning of a snap election.

Yet there are clear signs that Turnbull’s honeymoon is coming to an end, compounded by growing worries about the global economy, especially China’s prospects. (In 2015 Chinese steel output declined for the first time in a quarter of a century and its economic growth figures, dubious as they are, have fallen to their lowest levels since 1990.) An election held in the shadow of a stock market crash is not improbable. The Coalition’s advantage over Labor on the key battleground of the economy could quickly evaporate, something made more likely by the underwhelming performance of Turnbull’s treasurer Scott Morrison.

At some point, too, Turnbull will need to decide how he handles the political atmospherics of the May budget. Should Turnbull call an election that takes place prior to May, he will be accused of dodging hard decisions and lacking a mandate for spending decisions made afterwards. Revealing the state of the nation’s finances could, by contrast, potentially weaken the government’s debt-and-deficit credentials. Whatever Turnbull’s deliberations, the outcome of the election is unlikely to grant either side of politics a majority in the senate, bedevilling the passage of future legislation.

In a similar vein, team Turnbull cannot indefinitely delay a decision on whether to take an increase in the rate of the GST to the next election. Either way will mean a Labor victory of sorts (something concrete to campaign against, versus evidence that Turnbull lacks political “ticker”). It may also derail Morrison’s repeated claim that Australia’s fiscal struggles are the result of a spending, rather than a revenue, problem.

And despite the government’s repeated claims that it does not have the legislative powers to prevent the Fair Work Commission from enshrining a cut to weekend penalty rates, the longer Turnbull allows freelancing backbenchers to pontificate on the issue, the more the Opposition will make political mileage in uncertain economic times. Pessimism about the digital economy and future job prospects is emerging from unlikely sources, namely young Australians who are the targets of Turnbull’s “agility” mantra (an international survey shows that fewer than 4% of Australian respondents want to work for start-ups).

Most observers believe that Turnbull has learnt from his inglorious stint as opposition leader between 2008 and 2009. There will be no reprise of the Godwin Gretch adventure, nor will the PM repeat Abbott’s legion of tactical and strategic missteps. Writing here on Tuesday, Sean Kelly made the good point that Turnbull is increasingly “content to let his own gestures tell the story, rather than hammering us all over the head with unnecessary exposition of his not-Tony-Abbott-ness”. There is an argument, however, that the comparison Turnbull really ought to fear is with Kevin Rudd. Rudd returned deflated from the ill-fated Copenhagen climate talks of late 2009 and was urged to head to a double-dissolution election early in 2010. He blinked. Public anxiety grew over unauthorised boat arrivals while Abbott’s mining tax and ETS scare campaigns gained traction. Rudd’s indecisiveness persisted, but that of the federal Labor caucus did not: on 24 June 2010, Rudd’s colleagues terminated his prime ministership. Like Rudd, Turnbull is something of an outsider in his party, no matter his present popularity, and thus vulnerable to subterfuge. And just as Abbott acquired a reputation for poor and erratic decision-making, Turnbull is vulnerable to charges that he is a dithering dilettante. The decisions, or lack thereof, the prime minister makes in coming weeks may not presage exciting times after all.

Nick Dyrenfurth

Nick Dyrenfurth is the executive director of the John Curtin Research Centre. He is the author or editor of seven books, including A Little History of the Australian Labor Party, Mateship: A Very Australian History, A New History of the AWU and All That’s Left. Nick is an adjunct research fellow in the National Centre for Australian Studies at Monash University.

@dyrenfurth

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