The Politics    Monday, September 14, 2015

Turnbull challenges Abbott

By Sean Kelly

Why it happened and what it will mean

Watching our prime minister over the past few days brought Hemingway to my mind. Not for the short, pithy phrasing suggesting untold depths of character below. Nor for the cult of masculinity he has worked so assiduously to build around himself. (It should be noted that Hemingway was not a Speedos man.) It was, instead, for that timeless description of finding oneself in crisis.

“How did you go bankrupt?” Bill asked.

“Two ways,” Mike said. “Gradually and then suddenly.”

One of the less-remarked aspects of the last few days’ leadership conniptions – culminating in Malcolm Turnbull’s announcement an hour ago that he would challenge the prime minister for the leadership – has been how quickly they emerged, seemingly, from nowhere. One day we were talking about Syria. The next it was leadership, leadership, leadership.

And yet, what made that uncanny speed possible was the fact that this had been building for months, and had been constructed on the foundations of factors themselves months old.

And even years old. The first factor was, as always, polling. It may have been true, as Abbott was said to believe, that he could have out-campaigned Bill Shorten in a genuine campaign period; it may even have been true that he could have come from behind to beat the Opposition leader. It is certainly true that voters know the difference between “sending a message” to the government via opinion poll and actually voting in an election. But if that was what was going on then we are talking about a stunningly diverse group of voters with a remarkably consistent approach to message-sending maintained across a surprising duration: 30 consecutive Newspolls have had Labor ahead of the government on two-party-preferred vote. The “protest polling” theory looks thin. Turnbull was right when he said at his press conference this afternoon that “the people have made up their mind about Mr Abbott's leadership.”

The second factor, an essential element of the first, was poor governing. I don’t mean to make an ideological argument here, because Abbott’s sometimes overexpressive conservatism is only part of the government’s problem. The sad fact for the prime minister is that it is possible to be largely on his side and still believe the government is being run poorly. A number of conservative columnists provide convincing evidence of this, but not so convincing as the number of Liberal MPs willing to provide anonymous quotes to newspapers despite their desperation not to replicate the messy division of the last government. Decisions taken in haste, their leader’s failure to consult cabinet, public squabbles between senior ministers, refusal to make an adult case for difficult reform. Occasional sins are forgivable, but none of these have been occasional. Turnbull was appealing directly to his exhausted colleagues when he promised, in the same press conference, a return to Howard-style cabinet government.

The third was the presence of deadlines. Deadlines are a beloved tactic of challengers: set your foe a deadline by which to improve their performance. If they fail, then you have an excuse to move. If they succeed, no matter – there’s always another deadline around the corner. This was a constant challenge for Julia Gillard as Kevin Rudd’s supporters built momentum: still, the deadline that finally did her in was the one nobody could deny was real, namely the election. And that was Abbott’s problem, too – his deadlines were real. The first he set himself in the form of a six-month window to turn around his government’s performance, a window that recently closed. The second was imposed on him but was no less concrete: the forthcoming Canning by-election.

The fourth was that the opposing party refused to blow itself up. It is true the Labor Party underestimated Abbott when he was elected Liberal leader in 2009. But it is also true that the political establishment has overestimated him ever since, believing him ultimately responsible for the downfall of two Labor prime ministers. The more important ingredient was Labor’s own institutional weakness. Labor tore itself down, with some assistance from Abbott – not the other way around. Without that spluttering division in his opposition, Abbott has struggled.

So what happens next? It seems likely Turnbull will win his party’s ballot. How will he do as prime minister?

Turnbull has many strengths: he is eloquent and seems willing, unlike so many of his contemporaries, to explain his reasons for doing things. The phrase he used in his press conference was as well sculpted as any election slogan aimed at playing up one’s strengths while simultaneously damning the weakness of one’s opponent (in this case Abbott): “We need advocacy, not slogans.”

It is true that Turnbull suffers from the reputation of a silvertail, with all the privilege and potential out-of-touchness that entails. But the flipside of this is an image of being able to manage money, and Turnbull was well aware of that when he made the centre of his pitch today the provision of “economic leadership” and “economic confidence” at a time of “economic changes”.

There has also been, at times, a certain smugness about Turnbull, which he will have to minimise, as well as a tendency towards impulsiveness. There is an argument that the latter – illustrated so well in his ill-judged reliance on Godwin Grech in the utegate affair – stems from impatience, an impatience that might now be at an end.

Some argue that the act of tearing down a first-term prime minister is potentially fatal, as it was for Julia Gillard. That is a risk. But I believe Gillard suffered from being the first – the shock of the new. If Turnbull wins he will be the third usurping PM in three years. It simply won’t define him the way it did Gillard. To quote myself bastardising Oscar Wilde: “to lose one prime minister is a misfortune; to lose two looks like carelessness; to lose three inspires only a yawn”. (I also suspect it makes a difference that he is an ambitious man, more easily forgiven than an ambitious woman.)

The major struggles Turnbull will face are the ones no prime minister can avoid. Not the hours, or the pressure, but simply the cold clear fact that you are judged on what you do. The day Malcolm Turnbull becomes prime minister is the day he gives up the luxury of being a screen on which voters can project their hopes. He will no longer be the leader many Labor voters prefer to Abbott: he will be the leader of a party with fundamentally different beliefs to their own. He will not be the politician progressives prefer for his outspoken support of action on climate change and same-sex marriage: he will be a man who will have to deliver policies his party can live with (there are already reports he will stick with Abbott’s plebiscite on marriage). Every prime minister must compromise – with their party, with their supporters, with the voters, with the senate. Turnbull has a well-deserved reputation for being his own man. Keeping that reputation in place, while doing the necessary work of government, will be his greatest challenge to date.


Today’s links

Sean Kelly

Sean Kelly is a columnist for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, and was an adviser to Labor prime ministers Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd.


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