The Politics    Monday, September 21, 2015

Scooby Scooby Doo

By Sean Kelly

Turnbull is starting well - for the most part

Remember how in Scooby-Doo the scary monster would always turn out to be not quite as scary as all that? At the last minute, the Scooby Gang would rip off the monster’s face (which sounds brutal except it would turn out to be not so much a face as a mask) and right beneath it would be a perfectly ordinary human who was only ever pretending to be a monster? And you’d be amazed, partly because you were five years old and too young to see narrative twists coming, but partly because how on Earth was something so reassuring hidden only a thin layer of latex beneath something so frightening?

This weekend Malcolm Turnbull did a Scooby-Doo.

Because one of the most surprising things about the new PM’s ministerial reshuffle was how easy he made it look. Abbott’s ministry was an odd hangover from the Howard years. It often looked like a ragtag bunch of Howard’s second-rate ministers, the ministers who never quite made the cut under the old PM but could now, finally, take their place in the sun. At the same time there was a sense that they never felt Labor was legitimate: their main aim was therefore not to build anything new but to rip down any shred of evidence that the Rudd-Gillard years had ever existed.

It was pretty unedifying.

And yet, just beneath the surface of that government, it seems, a new, fresher government waited its turn.

When Labor made its various leadership changes, it lost significant talents, as was acknowledged on both sides of politics: Lindsay Tanner and Greg Combet, for example. There is no sense of that this time. Those who have gone from the ministry, and who will likely resign at the next election, will not be terribly missed. To start with, Joe Hockey’s woeful performance as treasurer and Eric Abetz’s bizarre comments on same-sex marriage: these ex-ministers are too heavily associated with the past, substantively and symbolically.

In the same vein, the appointment of more women to cabinet is symbolically important, but it’s a material change as well. Are five women in a 20-person cabinet enough? No, but it’s a big jump from two, and from the one in Abbott’s first cabinet, and it should mean women will have a greater say in government policy.

Having myself called last week for Turnbull to appoint more women, jettison knights and dames, and leave all economic reform options on the table – all three of which seem to be under way – I’d have to say Turnbull is doing pretty well so far.

Of course, these are the low-hanging fruit that define the early weeks of any new PM: fixing up the obvious mistakes of your immediate predecessor.

What comes next is much harder.

This weekend I was talking to a friend, a Liberal voter who prefers Turnbull to Abbott, and he is pleased with the change, but he reminded me that much of Turnbull’s reputation for being “modern” is built on ideas that, while important, are no longer new: his perceived support for an emissions trading scheme, his support for same-sex marriage, his support for a republic, his long-ago investment in the internet.

That’s fair enough, too: Turnbull has only just become PM. It wasn’t his job as a minister to roll out new ideas in every portfolio under the sun.

Now it is.

Bill Shorten made an interesting move today, announcing Labor’s education policy. He wants to increase the number of students finishing their degrees by 20,000 and lower the costs for students compared to estimates of the government’s old policy.

I say the government’s “old policy” because Turnbull today indicated that, given that policy is stalled in the senate, he might just come up with something new himself.

This is exactly what most of us want from politics: two sides battling it out over policy. If this is a harbinger of the future, hurrah.

On the downside, there was one indication today that Turnbull might not be so very different from his predecessor. Asked whether he had done any deals with Scott Morrison on the leadership, a “Kirribilli agreement” for the new century, he gave an answer that sounded much like Abbott answering a question about the economy by talking about how he’d stopped the boats: “Scott will do a great job as treasurer, and that's what we're focused on.”

A few attempts by the interviewer later and Turnbull still hadn’t answered. It was an odd moment, because one of the hopes for Turnbull is that he will communicate honestly, recognising that voters have a right to know rather more than they’ve become accustomed to being told. It was a fair question, concerning not just the inner workings of government but the stability of the prime ministership – something most voters have good reason to care about right now.

New appointment to the ministry Wyatt Roy today said that, under Malcolm Turnbull, politics dominated by glib scripting would end: “I think we saw the soundbite die the other day. Rather than going to that soundbite and that bubble-wrapping, we will remove the bubble wrap from politics. That will also mean conceding points.”

On today’s evidence Roy wasn’t quite correct. Let’s hope Turnbull realises that. 


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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