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The disease killing Turnbull’s government

And where it began

Fans of pandemic disaster movies – think Outbreak, or Contagion, or the surprisingly excellent zombie flick World War Z – will be familiar with the phrase “patient zero”. While its precise definition is more nuanced, in movie terms it means the first person to contract a virus that is spreading with lethal speed and effect through the world’s population. If you can track down patient zero in time, then you can figure out where the illness came from, and how to stop it.

Late yesterday afternoon, Malcolm Turnbull’s majority government became the first to lose a vote in the House since 1962. To give perspective: at that point The Beatles had not yet released an album. This morning, responding to questions about the humiliating scenes, the prime minister correctly identified a virus that could be fatal for his government, saying that Bill Shorten had exposed, “among a number of our colleagues, a degree of complacency that obviously was unwarranted”.

Complacency is a lethal epidemic, but it did not begin with the PM’s colleagues, who have in fact been so exercised by the future of the government in recent times that they pulled down the previous prime minister in order to save it. In this disaster flick, not a lot of detective work is required. Patient zero of the complacency virus rapidly destroying the Turnbull government is Malcolm Turnbull himself.

Turnbull’s assumption of power was undermined almost immediately by the thousands of other assumptions he foolishly made, most damagingly the notion that merely by convincing his party to deliver him his rightful crown he had brought Morning to Australia. He assumed that merely by saying things once or twice he could make them so. He assumed that if he expressed optimism and blithe excitement then the rest of the country would follow. He assumed that he could skate through nationally televised interviews with seasoned journalists without preparation, relying on the strength of his vaunted vocabulary. He assumed he could make arguments against things he had recently held to be dear and the public would simply accept that that was the way things had to be. He assumed he could win an election without any actual policies, by promising “stability” when it was very clear his party had no interest in stability whatsoever.

Such lazy disarray has continued since the election, evidenced in basic administrative delays and avoidable political errors, like the botched appointment of the original commissioner for the Don Dale inquiry, who was replaced within days.

Every senior commentator in the country has by now warned Turnbull of the complacency and the political mismanagement that seems rife in his own approach. Is it a surprise to anybody – other than Turnbull – that that attitude has filtered out to the rest of his ministry?

In yesterday’s debacle, Christopher Pyne, one of the most experienced operators in Canberra, apparently gave permission (possible paywall) to Peter Dutton, who fancies himself a leadership contender, to leave parliament. That is a dumbfounding mistake by two members of cabinet who should know better. In fact, they do know better. The problem is that this government has not learned, yet, just how seriously it must take its job.

Parallels are drawn often right now between this majority-by-a-sliver government and Julia Gillard’s minority government. Like Gillard, Turnbull took the job from a first-term prime minister and subsequently held on to power by a bare margin.

There are many contrasts you can draw between the two leaders, but one that is not often mentioned is that when Gillard took the job she had enormous, visceral support within her party. There was a desperate relief that the party had one of its own back in charge. It was one of the reasons it took Kevin Rudd so many attempts to dislodge her, even in the face of disastrous polls. In the torrid times of the 43rd parliament, when an enormous amount was demanded of government MPs under the pressure of Tony Abbott’s parliamentary tactics, this counted for a lot. Nobody wanted to let Gillard down.

Turnbull is in the opposite position. Installed to win an election, he does not command tribal loyalty. This isn’t just about the Delcons, and it doesn’t mean he’s about to be rolled. The problem is less dramatic and more insidious than that. Yesterday afternoon, even before the House shenanigans, Laura Tingle wrote (possible paywall) that the Coalition “often looks more like a bunch of people who don’t give a rats about the prospects of the government”. I suspect that indifference towards Turnbull, the party outsider, is a big part of that.

Labor, on the other hand, pushes hard at every opportunity, with long-term and short-term plays. Look at how Tony Burke repeated, when the issue of pairing arose a few weeks ago, Malcolm Turnbull’s declaration to his party room of a “working majority”. That seeding allowed the phrase to spread through the press gallery corridors yesterday, and it has appeared across the nation in the past 24 hours. Some of Shorten’s drive, as Peter Hartcher rightly points out today, comes from a fear of Anthony Albanese. But the motivation does not matter right now – it is the contrast with Turnbull that is crucial.

So what should Turnbull do now?

Novelist Philip Roth explained once that he will write a hundred pages of a book, and scrap pretty much all of them, before finding anything worthwhile.

“I’ll go over the first six months of work and underline in red a paragraph, a sentence, sometimes no more than a phrase, that has some life in it, and then I’ll type all these out on one page. Usually it doesn’t come to more than one page, but if I’m lucky, that’s the start of page one.”

There is no doubt that Turnbull has talent, intelligence and certain abilities. But in the first 12 months of his leadership we have seen very little go well. That does not have to be a cause for despair – as long as he is able to realise it, and act.

Turnbull should do as Roth does, and write himself a list of his successes. Not just sensible announcements, but decisions and policies that have been developed effectively, announced smoothly, and argued for well. I would include his most recent ministerial reshuffle, budget week, and the ways he has talked about terrorism and Islam. But what is on my list is not important. Whatever the PM counts in this category should receive careful consideration: how precisely did they work, what drove his decisions, and who was involved? When he is clear on the answers, he must reorient his entire political approach. The changes do not necessarily have to be dramatic. Some of them will be small, though important. He should remember Tony Abbott’s refusal to change his ways, and the consequences it brought.

Such a shift in attitude would be felt across the government. The prime minister is watched constantly. His ministry, consciously or not, takes its cue from him. Turnbull cannot expect his ministers to care about his future if it is not clear that he does. The complacency virus can only be cured at its source. 

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About the author Sean Kelly

Sean Kelly was an adviser to prime ministers Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard. He is the Monthly’s politics editor.

@mrseankelly
 
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