The Politics    Thursday, September 17, 2015


By Sean Kelly

There are some things about Tony Abbott’s government that Malcolm Turnbull needs to change, and some he needs to keep the same

Newly elected leaders – whether elected by the people or their party – have a tendency to do the opposite of their predecessors.

It’s an understandable instinct. The predecessor has, after all, just been rejected, if not by their party then by the people; and if they’ve been rejected by their party it’s a good bet it’s because the people didn’t want them any more either. Why wouldn’t you try to do the precise reverse of what’s been done before?

But too often leaders overbalance in these attempts. The most obvious recent example was Tony Abbott’s early attempts to slow down the media cycle after the sometimes frenzied tempo of the Labor years. There was some logic to the intention, but it was taken further than it should have been, resulting in a failure to make the case for change and a sometimes damaging culture of secrecy.

In the past day or two we’ve had some behaviour from the Coalition that definitely would not have looked out of place in Tony Abbott’s government. First, there has been plenty of grumbling to the media (anonymously, of course) about Scott Morrison’s role in Abbott’s removal. The charge is not that Morrison technically deserted Abbott – he voted for Abbott and refused to make the case for Malcolm Turnbull – but that he substantively deserted his PM, deciding he would not accept Abbott’s offer of the treasury and that he would not campaign internally for Abbott to stay.

Second, after Turnbull argued there was no more enthusiastic supporter than he of the appointment of women to the ministry, a cabinet document was leaked suggesting that Turnbull as communications minister did dreadfully when it came to appointing women to boards. 

These are the cries of those who feel themselves wronged, trying to remind their colleagues that there are consequences for treachery. But they don’t have the sense of ongoing threat; they sound more like whimpers. These leaks feel like the last dying away of the past few days’ fireworks: their afterimages.

Turnbull must hope that is the case. One of Tony Abbott’s greatest promises, and greatest failures, was that he would deliver a government of grown-ups. Too often it felt like a childish government driven by petty squabbles and personal crusades. This is one respect in which it is not possible for Turnbull to overcorrect. The more grown-up his government, the better. To achieve that, of course, the leaks will have to stop, or at least subside.

Arthur Sinodinos, senator and formerly John Howard’s chief of staff, said this week: “What we want is boring, predictable, competent government.” He is spot on.

There will be those among Turnbull’s enemies hoping for fireworks. There will be many progressive Australians hoping Turnbull is the exciting, forward-looking prime minister they desire. He may be that in some senses, but too exciting in politics – at least at this stage in politics, after too many years of too much excitement – is probably not a good thing. In this, Turnbull should do the precise opposite of Abbott.

There is one respect, however, in which Turnbull should follow Abbott to the letter. That is in maintaining Abbott’s commitment to spend a week each year in remote Indigenous communities.

Warren Mundine said today that he hoped Turnbull would continue to prioritise Abbott’s focus on Indigenous affairs. There will be debate about how best that can be done.

But the commitment of one week each year should not shift. It was one of Abbott’s few visionary actions. It had no populist appeal, and involved a sacrifice of time that might easily have been used for more populist political opportunities. Its potential to draw the attention of most Australians to a part of our country that is too easily ignored was massive. Abbott was an unpopular prime minister. Imagine what a popular and articulate prime minister could achieve in the same time to remind the country of its responsibility towards our first peoples, and how often we have failed in that responsibility.

Abbott got that right. Turnbull should see that, and follow his example.


Today’s links

  • Super article from Tony Wrightfive PMs in five years is nothing new.
  • Lenore Taylor on the ReachTEL poll. She says Martin Parkinson, former treasury secretary, could be offered Turnbull’s chief of staff role.
  • Niki Savva argues Hockey should stay in the ministry (but not as treasurer).
  • The SMH reports on Cory Bernardi’s links to Family First.
  • Scott Morrison moves to placate conservatives angry at him for not supporting Tony Abbott more strongly.
  • Who won the Republican debate. The fifth most googled Jeb question, Vox says, is “is Jeb related to George”?
  • Tsunami warnings as an earthquake hits Chile.
  • Jeremy Corbyn has a good day in parliament, then hits the media rounds.

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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