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Wicked problems

What are the real reasons behind the rise and stall of Malcolm Turnbull?

Image of Malcolm Turnbull

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. © Jason Edwards / Newspix

CoverMay 2017Long read
 

He has aged ten years in less than two. As prime ministers tend to do. He looks like he wears the job heavily, though he insists that he loves it. Those close to him observe that he feels the weight of the entire government’s fortunes upon him. He doesn’t get enough sleep.

Here is the first remarkable, yet almost completely unremarked upon, thing about our prime minister: despite these pressures, you never hear about “bad” Malcolm anymore.

The Malcolm Turnbull who exploded at people and brought to bear his sharp intellect, sharp tongue and limited store of patience on someone felt to be of inferior intellect or capacity – and there were lots of them – is a figure of the past.

Yes, we have seen what seems almost a caricature of angry Malcolm in recent months, unleashed against Bill Shorten. But there are no tales circulating in Parliament House – as they inevitably do – of Turnbull explosions. I can think of just one story since he became prime minister: of him towelling up a state premier on the phone.

Turnbull has given up temper, and a belligerent refusal to consult, in the way Curtin and Hawke gave up the drink.

The second remarkable thing about Malcolm Turnbull and his prime ministership is that, in an age of lightweight journalism under the pressures of a collapsing media model, where federal politics is reported almost exclusively as a matter of prime ministerial fortunes, there has been so little attention paid to the mechanics of how Turnbull runs his government or how he does his job.

The headline in the Australian on 13 March, for example, blared over the front page in a font size usually reserved for declaration of war or national emergency: ‘WA election: fallout threat for Malcolm Turnbull’.

The article was a classic newspaper construction designed to give a national angle to a local or state story. We journalists have all had to do this at times – but usually there is a legitimate link between the event and the construction.

From the first paragraph of this story, it was clear that the “fallout” from the WA poll was not, as a reader might think, a threat to the prime minister’s leadership. Instead we were told that “recriminations over the West Australian Liberal Party’s One Nation preference deal, which contributed to the Barnett government’s historic election defeat”, were “threatening to spill over into Malcolm Turnbull’s party-room, as the Prime Minister refuses to rule out a similar deal for the next federal election”.

Yet, even more than is usual for state election results, the defeat of the Barnett government (past its use-by date and presiding over a sad economy) or even the results for One Nation (an own goal on anti-vaccinations, Vladimir Putin and a preference deal with the state Liberals) had nothing to do with Malcolm Turnbull.

You could find similar examples of this personalisation of the news any day of the week, in almost any media outlet; it is part of the trend in which everything that happens in politics is somehow the work, or the fault, or the cunning plan, of the prime minister. (It just happens to be Malcolm Turnbull at the moment.)

But we don’t really know much about how Turnbull’s cabinet works or how his office works, though these were both subjects of obsessive interest in past governments. Despite all the mischief and malevolence within the Coalition, we have seen little revealed publicly about these crucial relationships.

We have also jumped, in the past decade, from the presumption that voters would give governments at least two terms to establish themselves, straight over the idea that we might have one-term governments, to the expectation that a prime minister (rather than a government) who is not performing will be immediately dispatched. The question is not “How is the government faring and does it have a chance of winning the next election?” but “How is the prime minister faring and does he have a chance of surviving until the next election?”

This question frames our thinking about politics even when the government of the day has no alternative candidate who can fulfil the ultimate criterion for a leadership change: that they offer the prospect of winning more seats than the incumbent.

It frames our thinking even when the stumbles of the government are not the prime minister’s stumbles, but those of his colleagues.

We have lost a time frame within which to judge whether a prime minister is growing in the job. Do we start the clock from the day he takes over a government whose agenda he can’t just drop overnight? Or from when he wins an election in his own right?

The limited focus also seems to blind the troublemakers and bomb-throwers in the Coalition to the reality that, in their efforts to destroy the prime minister, they are destroying the government of the day and, for that matter, their own party. They are enabling the minor parties that so unnerve them by “stealing” their votes.

People don’t hate the way Malcolm Turnbull walks, or feel mortified on behalf of the country when he travels overseas. He is not subject to sexist attacks or spoofed for the way he talks. He has neither Julia Gillard’s nasal Australianness nor the programmatic specificity of Kevin Rudd. Yet Turnbull, approaching two years in the job, has seemingly utterly failed to find favour with the Australian public.

His major crimes? He isn’t who we thought he was. He runs a do-nothing government. It is a shambles.

There are considerable substantive criticisms that can be made of his government’s policies. But most voters’ reflections on the government are dominated by opinions of Turnbull’s personality weaknesses – not whether an outcome is, pragmatically, the best anyone can get in the circumstances, or whether the outcome is good in itself, whatever its political implications.

The consensus view of the prime minister is that he is leading – if this is not a contradiction in terms – a rudderless government, lacking any strategy or purpose, and forever at the mercy of the whims of the right of his own party room, or One Nation, or a difficult Senate crossbench.

But the problems of the government are more than the work of one man. In what follows, I want to pull out two strands that highlight, and seek to go beyond, the soap opera view that the entire country is run by one man or woman, and that its fortunes rise and fall, from day to day, with the fortunes of one human being.

One strand concerns the style of Malcolm Turnbull’s prime ministership, and considers just what it was that we were expecting from him in the first place, and why.

The other strand concerns the existential fog in which politics today is conducted, and why, over a decade and four prime ministers, whatever the approach, prime ministers have been unable to guide us through it for any lasting time. It ponders whether anyone can find a way through this fog when all the orthodoxies about how we run our politics and our economy seem open to challenge.

Malcolm Turnbull seems to spend his life negotiating or defusing landmines laid for him by his colleagues. So many of those mines were laid by his predecessor (not to mention the grenades Tony Abbott has lobbed since the change of leadership). Others were planted by those who brokered the agreements he had to make to become prime minister. We resent Turnbull’s resulting vulnerability, are contemptuous of him for making the deals. We blame blind ambition for his woes. Yet at the same time we forget how desperate we were for him to strike against Tony Abbott.


“Our big mistake,” one seasoned Coalition politician reflected recently, “was that we thought we won the 2013 election. We really didn’t understand, or want to acknowledge, that the voters were just wanting to get rid of Labor. We thought they were embracing what we were saying. And they weren’t. We have been living with the consequences of that ever since.”

Tony Abbott launched himself into the prime ministership with ideological gusto in the second half of 2013. His was a government of the negative. It was a rejection of Kevin Rudd’s renewed assertion that government could do stuff for you. It was built on a grand circle of negative expectations – of not being Labor, of not being Julia Gillard, of not being minority government.

There was a breathtaking machismo to its language in those early days. Remember how Joe Hockey effectively dared General Motors Holden to leave the country? All the talk about corporate welfare?

Remember the malicious, deliberate and inflexible institutional destruction encapsulated in the determination to get rid of anyone – including anyone in the business community – who might have been appointed by, associated with or tainted by Labor?

That institutional destruction said much about Tony Abbott: the so-called keeper of the conservative flame was burning and pillaging Australia’s institutions of governance.

The government rapidly imploded when the electorate found that there wasn’t anything there other than a mishmash: a delusion that the country could simply shift back to the good old days of John Howard, an alarming swing to the right that was beyond where most voters were happy to be, and a Neanderthal idiocy best illustrated by the extraordinary spectacle of Australia giving a knighthood to the husband of the English Queen.

The Coalition was also only too happy to demonstrate that it wasn’t very good at being a government. In a recent article in the Atlantic, McKay Coppins observed that the Republican Party’s spectacular inability to get the Trump administration’s first piece of legislation through the US Congress “after seven years of promising to repeal and replace Obamacare” is “emblematic of a deeper dysfunction that grips [the] party”. He added:

That’s because it has been nearly a decade since Washington Republicans were in the business of actual governance. Whether you view their actions as a dystopian descent into cynical obstructionism or a heroic crusade against a left-wing menace, the GOP spent the Obama years defining itself – deliberately, and thoroughly – in opposition to the last president.

In many ways, the strategy paid off: Republicans took back Congress, slowed the progress of an agenda they genuinely opposed, and ultimately seized control of the White House. But it also came at a cost for the GOP – their lawmakers forgot how to make laws.

This is all too familiar a phenomenon in Australia. My 2015 Quarterly Essay ‘Political Amnesia’ was subtitled ‘How We Forgot How To Govern’ and looked at the structural deterioration of our institutional and policy memory. The essay focused on the parliament, the public service and the media.

The potency of the phenomena now ripping up US politics is exactly what we have seen in executive government in Australia – and continue to see: the prevailing political culture of oppositionist politics cannot be overcome in government; politicians forget that the public looks to them to resolve our differences, rather than enlarge them.

No matter how jaded you are by the ongoing theatrics, don’t forget how utterly poisonous the atmosphere was in Australia by late 2015. For when people talk about Malcolm the Disappointing, they are mostly referring to the confident, calm and articulate man who strode into a parliamentary courtyard in September 2015 – and into the middle of the maelstrom – and declared:

“It is clear enough that the government is not successful in providing the economic leadership that we need.

“It is not the fault of individual ministers. Ultimately, the prime minister has not been capable of providing the economic leadership our nation needs. He has not been capable of providing the economic confidence that business needs.

“Now, we are living as Australians in the most exciting time. The big economic changes that we’re living through here and around the world offer enormous challenges and enormous opportunities and we need a different style of leadership.

“We need a style of leadership that explains those challenges and opportunities, explains the challenges and how to seize the opportunities. A style of leadership that respects the people’s intelligence, that explains these complex issues and then sets out the course of action we believe we should take and makes a case for it.”

Yet the truth is that people were anxiously scanning the horizon in search of Turnbull long before that balmy September afternoon.

Within six weeks of the 2013 election, when journalists were still trying to get a handle on how the new government, the new ministry, would function, people were already asking me, “Yes, but when is Malcolm coming back?” And it wasn’t just the voters who had never liked Abbott in the first place. It was often senior business figures, trying to make a pragmatic judgement about the political environment in which they would make economic investments.

And it was a question asked before the political incompetence of Abbott – who, after all, as Opposition leader had been politically lethal – was exposed.

It was not a question based on “inside knowledge” of the workings of the Liberal Party. Turnbull’s colleagues were adamantly against the idea of a return. They didn’t like his management style and they didn’t like his policies.

For people outside politics, though, Turnbull’s return seemed to be not just a rejection of Abbott but a yearning for something else. The restoration to the top job was a fascinating study in expectations. Why was his previous history as party leader so discounted? Why did voters think they knew what he stood for so well?

An old friend observed recently that he really didn’t understand why everyone was so shocked that Malcolm Turnbull, prime minister, wasn’t very good at politics because, after all, he’d been terrible at it when he had been Liberal leader.

But voters believed they knew Turnbull: they believed he was a creature of the centre. They believed he was a person who believed in things, whether that be Australia as a republic or doing something about climate change.

The big question on the day was whether Turnbull’s colleagues would allow him to move on policy, would recognise that voters had rejected – along with Abbott himself – much of the Coalition’s message. The answer came almost instantly, as details of a deal with the Nationals – on climate change, same-sex marriage and the budget – emerged. The looming disaster for the Coalition had already been set up. Barrie Cassidy was just one of many commentators who observed at the time that:

To insist that he stick with the current policy – the current direction and strategies – won’t do it. They must give him the flexibility to make changes that allow him to embrace, and not disappoint, the new constituency that is now available to the Liberal Party; that is, the political centre, the soft Labor voters and the young.

If he is not allowed to do that, Bill Shorten will be free to develop the line he has already put out: that Turnbull has “sold out all the things that were important to him”.

So Turnbull walked into the prime ministership required to meet what was already a near-impossible set of expectations: that he could restore people’s sense of certainty, and affirm their reliance on government to make meaningful policy. And he had to do it in a world where he had promised his colleagues he would not actually change anything substantial.

You can blame Turnbull for this. For walking into a political turkey shoot. Or you can blame his colleagues for failing to allow their new leader to establish a viable prime ministership. Or we can blame ourselves for behaving like a crowd out of Life of Brian looking for the miracle of the juniper bush.

But this is where we have to start being very careful in how we interpret events, and how we characterise Malcolm Turnbull and the expectations we had of him in the first place.

People start from the presumption that the prime minister is a politician of the centre who is driven by a coherent ideological base, who must inevitably have a clear medium-term strategy and a program to implement. But what if he isn’t, and hasn’t?

Malcolm Turnbull has brought to the prime ministership the same approach he took to his long career in business: he is a deal-maker. He sees himself primarily as a problem-solver.

Think about the implications of this: the prime minister walks into his office on any given day and sees what “wicked problem” has to be sorted. Then he tries to sort it.

No one doubts Turnbull’s intellectual capacity, or his curiosity. Arrium’s steelworks in Whyalla faces closure? He goes to the plant, and peppers people with questions in order to understand how it works and how its business is structured. He doesn’t have at the front of his mind an overarching view of the future of manufacturing, or of how fixing the Arrium plant might work in the local electorates (though that would be nice, wouldn’t it?).

Reducing carbon emissions? Well, an emissions trading scheme might have been the answer in 2009, but it isn’t now, he argues, because both global climate politics and technology have moved on since then.

Of course, this is a rather touchy subject, as his strong advocacy for market-based interventions to reduce carbon emissions cost him the leadership in 2009.

It became clear during last year’s election campaign that the prime minister was genuinely mystified by the view that he had abandoned his previous philosophical commitment to climate change action; he felt he had never changed his basic views, just pragmatically shifted with the facts. In an interview in December, he told me:

And this is the problem, where [we are] turning everything into an ideological battle. What does it mean when we talk about ideology? We are basically talking about being fact-free, frankly.

So if somebody says, “gosh we’ve got an electricity grid that was designed for centralised, synchronous generation, and that’s changed because of all this wind and solar and so forth and that has adverse implications unless we address them” – if saying that means you are a climate-change denier, or you hate renewable energy, that’s ludicrous.

Some argue that this is a little too cute. “I’d be more prepared to believe this rationale for him changing his position if he acknowledged that he used to hold a different position,” one jaded close observer of the prime minister notes. “But he doesn’t. On all sorts of issues he behaves and talks like everything that he previously believed never happened. I wouldn’t have a problem with Malcolm saying, ‘We made the decision not to [have an ETS] for various reasons, so now we have to approach it differently,’ but instead he denies it was ever a good idea in the first place.”

What’s more, “If he knows he can’t do something, he then avoids responsibility for it. Apparently the energy crisis is all South Australia’s fault. These are minnows you are dealing with. Why is Malcolm not calling on the ACT government to build a clean-coal power station?”

There are two crucial implications that flow from having a deal-making prime minister like Turnbull. The first is that it leaves him vulnerable to both sides of politics painting him in their colours, in an age where the major parties are desperately trying to give a rabid ideological edge to their collapsing policy platforms. And he does not have the political skills to be able to resist these characterisations.

The second is that a deal-maker, by nature, tends to be responding to events rather than shaping them. One-off deals also tend not to lend themselves to a broad strategic direction.

If someone else in the cabinet was working behind the scenes, helping set a political and policy strategy, “he could be left to be a mind-bogglingly good deal-maker”, our jaded observer notes. “But it is mostly Malcolm alone.”


In the public service, as in the corporate world, there are long-established frameworks for assessing people you think might rise up the ranks into positions of leadership. They are expected to shape strategic thinking, achieve results, exemplify personal drive and integrity, cultivate productive working relationships, and communicate with influence (with this last one being rather important for a politician).

“If you ran Malcolm through the federal public service’s leadership capability framework, you would find he has none of the leadership qualities we demand of bureaucrats,” a long-time Canberra insider observes.

If we try to align this with Turnbull’s own definition of the task facing him in September 2015, his failings would be that he hasn’t learnt to communicate with influence and “explain the challenges and how to seize the opportunities”. Nor has he been able to provide the economic leadership that people took him to be talking about: to restart or redefine the economic debate.

It is true that few of our former political leaders were strong in all these skills. But they usually mastered a few.

A less harsh assessment of Turnbull would suggest that he has spent considerable time investing in achieving results (if not always getting a pay-off), exemplifying integrity (in seeking to win the trust of his colleagues) and in cultivating productive working relationships.

On this last point, he has perhaps been most successful (particularly notable, given a track record of broken relationships with former partners in his business life). A small team of senior cabinet ministers has gradually built up around the prime minister: Mathias Cormann, Peter Dutton, Barnaby Joyce, Arthur Sinodinos, George Brandis, Christopher Pyne, Josh Frydenberg, Greg Hunt, Simon Birmingham.

They may have their own agendas – as politicians always do. But there is a sense of shared purpose: to get the government and the prime minister to the next election. The government has an effective negotiating team in the Senate, and Cormann and Dutton as the most senior leaders of the party’s right form a crucial support base for the PM.

“Cabinet is cohesive but what is hurting [Turnbull] is ill-discipline across the broader team,” one cabinet minister notes. “That includes everyone from marginal-seat backbenchers to former cabinet ministers.”

Turnbull has built good relationships with the key crossbench senators, who say he will always take their call. Backbenchers approvingly note they can get access to his office. At some points, Bill Shorten has been surprised to have Turnbull ring him to discuss a political dilemma.

The glaring problem relationship, though, is the one with his treasurer, Scott Morrison. When it comes to the budget, or even to Senate strategy, it can sometimes seem that the two men are not talking about the same thing. The prime minister might be pushing equity; the treasurer will come out and talk growth.

Most famously, there was the car crash over tax reform in the early days of the Turnbull prime ministership. And within Parliament House, it is still this episode – along with the question of whether Turnbull should have gone straight to the polls after he became leader – that gets workshopped the most.

Morrison famously did the “front-running” on tax reform. He was gung-ho to have a big package of changes, including an increased GST.

Turnbull blinked.

How could there be such a misunderstanding between the two most senior figures in the government?

“The problem is,” one source says, “Malcolm thinks in draft until he reaches a firm conclusion. Particularly in the early days, people were interpreting ‘Hmmm …’ as a green light. All of a sudden you have positions splashed across the front page.

“He has had to learn to say to people, ‘We’re just testing the idea here. We’re just discussing the principles.’”

Morrison, by comparison, tends to be a bit more, er, linear. “That’s why he was so good in Immigration,” the same source observes. “There’s a simple message, a black-and-white proposition. But he struggles more when you have to come up with a nuanced thread.” As of course you have to do all the time as treasurer.

In all the replays about the early election option, people around Turnbull come back to the point that there were too many unresolved issues for them to go to the polls.

Tax reform? People seem to forget that it is up to the states to say by how much the GST might be lifted, and where the money it raises goes. Good luck finding agreement on this – despite the attempts to be helpful from Jay Weatherill and others – if the states and Labor knew that a Coalition election platform relied on it.

Turnbull has made arguments about why the GST shouldn’t be increased. “I know a lot of people will say, ‘You should just increase the GST and then use it to cut company tax, or give it to the states,’” he said in March.

“The problem with raising the GST is that because so many Australians are not in the tax net, by the time you have kept the bottom and second bottom quintile – so the bottom 40% of households by income – compensated so that they are not materially worse off, you have relatively little money left.

“That is one clear objection. So the idea that there is this one huge easy pot of gold to grab simply does not stack up. That’s why we rejected it as a proposal last year, and that is the flaw in the argument.”

(Of course, there is actually another point here. The awful truth is that the budget situation, the very issue of budget consolidation, really means that not everyone should be fully compensated for an increase in the GST. We are not just talking about a tax-mix switch here. But nobody will say this out loud.)

Perhaps the ultimate test of a problem-solving prime minister should be: does he solve problems?

Cabinet ministers defending their boss proffer a range of tricky problems – many of which you may have forgotten or not known about – that Turnbull has resolved. There was a conflict over water for South Australia. The re-establishment of the Australian Building and Construction Commission. The disputes over independent truck drivers and volunteer firefighters. Achieving at least some reform of the Senate (however contentious). Finding a partial solution – or a path to one – that may eventually facilitate a way out of Manus Island and Nauru.

A lot of the Turnbull solutions have a frustratingly unfinished quality to them. Take the “solution” to the impasse over section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act or the issue of same-sex marriage.

Delving back into Turnbull’s time as a minister in the Howard and Abbott governments, there are conflicting views of the success of two signature policy issues: reforming the water market and implementing the National Broadband Network. The critics argue that while Turnbull does a good job of talking the economics or the technology, he often actually blinds people with science.

On water, for example, he saw it as a demand problem, when in fact it was a supply issue. More pragmatic defenders say, yes, there may have been a lot that was wrong with his water deal, “but it got us over the line”.

Turnbull’s hotchpotch technology-neutral NBN (which has uncanny resonances with the technology-neutral energy debate at present) might also have a lot of critics. But, the argument goes, he managed to keep the NBN alive when Abbott had sworn to get rid of it altogether.

Similarly, the compromises Turnbull made as Opposition leader in 2009 with the then Labor government to get the carbon pollution reduction scheme over the line also turned it into a mishmash. But if it had got through the parliament, the argument goes, you could then have used Treasury and the Productivity Commission to “knock the warts off” the scheme over time.

None of this explains some of the inexplicably bad policy positions the Coalition government has locked itself into, in what has often looked like a moment of brain-snapping blind panic.

Some examples? Well, without doubt the worst was ruling out an emissions intensity scheme for the energy sector – a policy that had been carefully kept alive as an option through the worst of the Abbott Ground Zero years.

There was ruling out doing anything on housing tax arrangements. By all means, the Coalition might make an argument it didn’t want to touch negative gearing (even if Labor’s position had left it the room to do so). But why rule out changes to capital gains? It just looked pathetic.

We come back to the anarchy that rolls through the Coalition and that Turnbull is unable to ever quite deal with. The day after he got (or half-got) his company tax cuts through the Senate, the prime minister told the Victorian Liberal Party that “Menzies rejected the populism, the authoritarianism of both left and right. He knew that the future … was in the sensible centre; was in the politics, not reactionary, but liberal, proudly liberal. Above all, you build from the centre, bringing people together, and that is our commitment.”

It sounded as much a plea as a statement.

For it is not at all clear what lies at the “sensible centre” of Australian politics anymore. All the fundamental planks of policy that shaped much of our politics over the past three decades have been smashed in recent times.

Is there a consensus on climate change? No. Is there a consensus on the role of government? No.

We may have had almost two decades now of post–September 11 terror and global security fears. But there is more recent and profoundly unnerving uncertainty. We quietly look askance at our most trusted ally, with the rise of Donald Trump, and at what is happening in our region, and these are new things to contemplate for an Australian prime minister.

This is not a period for orthodoxy, one policy-maker observes. And that makes it hard to set out any vision for the future. Bureaucrats say that Turnbull has stopped the rot in the policy-making process and tried to bring rigour and method to it.

Others observe that the problem he has with people’s huge expectations is replicated in other countries: in the US with Obama, in India with Narendra Modi, in Canada with Justin Trudeau.

“People project onto him what they want,” one source says. “There are contradictory expectations. The public and the media deluded themselves that he could change the nature of his party, but it is still split between moderates and conservatives. In the Menzies era, it was anchored in the idea of small business. The split is now on more contentious issues. It used to be economics issues that were the points of division. Now it is the social ones.”

So we have a flawed prime minister, constrained by a party that is not interested in resolving its divisions, and with a problem-solving approach that, one by one, deals with issues via responses of varying quality. His issue-by-issue approach, though, makes it difficult to construct an overall strategy.

He does not lead a great or inspirational government. He can argue it has made the parliament work more effectively than its predecessor.

It is not a disastrous or awful or embarrassing government. However, if it continues as it is, it will almost certainly be defeated at the next election.

What are Turnbull’s options?

While budgets don’t have the punching power they once had to change the political narrative, this year’s looms as a crucial opportunity for the prime minister and his government to make people take a second look at them.

As the budget preparations continued through April, ministers were hoping that the mix would include policies that addressed not just the hot-button issues of the economy – such as housing affordability – but the role of government itself.

If the budget contained clear statements about the way the Coalition sees its role in areas such as education, health and basic infrastructure for our booming cities, it might help change the prism through which people view it from one of ideological conflict to one more in tune with voters’ desires.

Physical infrastructure, in particular, is something that voters can grasp as a tangible achievement.

In turn, if the conversation changed from “things the government is arguing about” to “things the government is doing”, there would be more scope to shift quietly back towards the centre.

That was the hope, anyway.

At some point, Turnbull’s colleagues will have to consider whether they share some of the responsibility for the government’s fortunes, or whether it really can be sheeted home to one person.

Since John Howard was unceremoniously booted out of his seat in 2007, we’ve seen several prime ministers try different approaches to straddling the collapse of the old political order and policy orthodoxies. None has really worked.

Part of the collapse of the older order that has seen prime ministers become so vulnerable, and so utterly dominant in the day-to-day assessments of politics, is the gradual erosion in stable votes for the major parties.

Most of the conversation about this focuses on the Senate crossbench. But it is just as important in the way it affects the psychology of the major parties as they contemplate their prospects of winning majority government in the future.

The major parties have two possibilities to explore here, both of which hold out the promise of their salvation, and, more importantly, ours.

The first is for the major parties to recognise they are killing themselves, and enabling the minor parties, with their ongoing hardline attacks on each other and their refusal to find the points of compromise that voters yearn for.

The second sounds more radical but is also a live one and involves a transformation in the way we see minority government.

Many voters greeted Australia’s brief dalliance with minority government between 2010 and 2013 with horror, unnerved by a sense of the instability of the arrangement. But given how unstable things seem these days, even with the majority governments of Abbott and Turnbull, the next stage of our political evolution may actually lie in minority government.

In countries from Norway to New Zealand, changes in politics or changes in voting systems have seen minority government become a permanent feature of the political landscape. New Zealand’s political parties have had to strike very different negotiating arrangements, and accept that they have to work together, long before policy options come up in the parliament. The result is pragmatism rather than “oppositionism”, and New Zealand has been able to continue to remake itself, while Australia’s capacity to conduct a grown-up debate about almost anything has stalled.

It may just be that in our disillusion with the major parties we are preparing the ground that forces them to resurrect themselves.

Whether we can give up our love affair with the prime ministerial soap opera, however, is another question.

About the author Laura Tingle

Laura Tingle is the political editor of the Australian Financial Review and the author of the Quarterly Essays ‘Great Expectations’ and ‘Political Amnesia’.

 
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