Monday, March 7, 2016

Today by Sean Kelly

Muddle-Headed Turnbull and the Early Election Mistake
The PM hasn't figured out how to do his job yet


There is a particular argument for going to an early election that has been gaining ground in recent weeks. It holds that the government’s mess stems from Malcolm Turnbull’s lack of authority over his own MPs. Turnbull feels unable to impose his own will, and his MPs – many still loyal to Tony Abbott – will not fall into line. Therefore Turnbull needs to hold an election and get the authority of a popular mandate behind him, freeing him to be the PM he really wants to be.

It reminded me of an old comment from Labor veteran Graham Richardson, which he in turn learned from the ALP Right’s John Ducker: “The assumption of power gives it to you, whether you have it or not.” 

Or, in Laurie Oakes’ more pithy translation: “You get power by exercising it.”

When Turnbull first came to power, I was convinced his self-assurance, eloquence and air of competence would shoo him into a second term with a solid majority. Right now he is at risk of taking the government backwards, as voters learn to see him as a dithering mess of indecision, a Muddle-Headed Wombat.  

Why would voters want to award more authority to a man who doesn’t seem even to have figured out how to use the limited amount he already has?

The argument I’ve put forward previously for a later election rests on the long-term: get some substantive reform under your belt and it will stand you in good stead for years.

But when it comes to elections, politicians are only interested in one short-term question – am I likely to win? – and so here are two arguments the PM should listen to.

Number one: Turnbull is not ready. He has not figured out how to be prime minister. He has not yet grasped the truth of Richardson’s formula. The only way of showing his MPs who’s boss is by remembering a really basic fact: he already is the boss. Start acting like it, and perhaps other people will start acting like it too.

The danger for Turnbull is not just that he hasn’t figured out how to be PM. The much bigger danger is that voters can tell he hasn’t figured it out. What an awful way to begin an election campaign.

Number two: The government is not ready for an election campaign. Election campaigns require an incredible degree of coordination. Tiny mistakes are blown up into front page stories that can run for days. Many people working at high levels of the government, both in elected positions and as staff, are only just adjusting to the levels of scrutiny their day jobs attract. A campaign inflates that scrutiny to crazy levels.

You don’t need to go trawling for examples that prove both of these are true, because we get offered up a new booboo every day. In the past 24 hours it was George Brandis saying there would be a same-sex marriage plebiscite before the end of the year, followed by the prime minister’s office refusing to back poor George in.

Perhaps Turnbull told Brandis about the timing but didn’t think to tell him not to make it public. Perhaps Turnbull wanted to support Brandis but then retreated when the backbench got a bit testy. Perhaps Brandis was freelancing, though it didn’t seem like it. Perhaps people just are not talking to each other enough. At the very least it seems like nobody thought through the implications for election timing, and the fact Brandis might have been unwillingly tipping his hand on a double dissolution.

And that’s before you get to the fracas over the Niki Savva book, which, while it may have done Tony Abbott some damage, has also allowed the general appearance of chaos within the Liberal Party to roll on for a few more days.

Looking back over this column, The Muddle-Headed Wombat is not the only children’s classic that comes to mind. I can think of another that describes the start to this week even better: What-a-Mess


Today’s links

Sean Kelly

Sean Kelly is a columnist for Fairfax and a former adviser to Labor prime ministers Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard.



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