Monday, March 21, 2016

Today by Sean Kelly

Malcolm Turnbull takes control
Bold? Audacious? Yep and yep.

In a bold and audacious act this morning, Malcolm Turnbull gave the Australian people the strongest possible demonstration that he was capable of the leadership they had been waiting for. 

That is the line the PM hopes every news bulletin in the country will lead with tonight.

And they probably will. Not because they’re gullible, either. In this day and age we’re all pretty world-weary, but it’s worth reminding ourselves: a politician who deliberately sets out to get you to call them “bold” may be cynical, but they may also, in fact, be bold.

In case you are a sensible person who has had to focus on things not election-related today, here’s a very brief recap of what happened.

The facts

Malcolm Turnbull today announced a press conference with 13 minutes’ warning. In the press conference he announced he had been to visit the Governor-General earlier, not to call an election but to ask for parliament to be recalled for three weeks from 18 April.

He said that the senate would be asked to pass two union-related bills, both allowing for tighter regulation of unions. He then said that if the senate did not pass the bills, he would use those pieces of legislation as triggers for a double-dissolution election, which would be held on 2 July.

The Budget will be moved forward a week, to 3 May, which means there will be time to pass any necessary budget bills and for Opposition Leader Bill Shorten to deliver his Budget reply speech before an election is called.

What it means

The first thing it means, as I said above, is that Turnbull looks decisive. This is the single most important thing about today. Turnbull has looked mildly adrift for some months now. His personal approval ratings hit negative today for the first time since he became PM. Rather than a slow war of attrition against these perceptions, through tax plans and policy releases and the like, Turnbull has shifted all of that with one move. It’s smart politics.

Turnbull has also wisely avoided letting Budget date speculation linger. He has answered all of the questions politics-watchers were driving themselves crazy over: election triggers, senate dates, Budget dates, election dates. That means the focus for the next few weeks is not on Turnbull’s own process-related decisions, with all their intimations of dithering, but on the actual substance under discussion.

The decision to hang everything off legislation that cracks down on unions does not, despite what you’ll hear lots of people saying, mean that the election will be about unions. Double-dissolution triggers rarely dictate the focus of campaigns, as I explained a few weeks ago. But the next few weeks are a different matter.

That’s crucial, because it plays perfectly into the other outcome of today’s announcement.

The moment an election is seen to be imminent, voters start paying attention in a new way. They become much more interested in what’s going on. In particular, they start paying attention to the headline contest. Elections are about many things, but they really come down to one choice: who do I want to be prime minister?

Turnbull has been adrift, yes. He has kowtowed to his party’s right, yes, who have made him look, at times, weak, yes. Tony Abbott is constantly hovering around the action, Banquo’s ghost-style, yes. All of these things have defined the narrative around Turnbull in recent times. 

But Turnbull is no longer being tested against himself, against all the hopes that voters held for him, many of which he’s disappointed. The contest is now much simpler: Malcolm Turnbull or Bill Shorten?

And that is a very good thing for Turnbull. Voters might not like him that much right now, but that is no longer so relevant. They like him better than they like Bill Shorten, and that’s what counts on election day.

This is where the focus on union corruption comes in. I am still not certain Turnbull himself will spend much time talking about unions during the campaign. But I would bet money that the Liberal Party will run television ads attacking Bill Shorten over his union past. Ads are a crucial part of campaigns, though they often receive less focus than actual events. Politically, the next few weeks are important for the Liberals in softening the ground for damaging perceptions of Shorten’s character.

The other beauty of focusing on union corruption – as well as the recalcitrant senate – for the next few weeks is simple: it means there actually is a focus. One of the great problems Turnbull has posed himself in half-announcing an election today is how on Earth to fill the 15 weeks until polling day. The next few weeks will be filled by these union bills. After that there will be the lead-up to the Budget and the Budget itself. Suddenly filling those 15 weeks doesn’t seem so hard.

Overall, then, today is a good day for the PM. A very good day, even.

Some caveats, though.

Fifteen weeks is still a long time to sustain the intense focus of a quasi-election campaign. The government is still not functioning well at a basic political mechanics level. The PM talked to two relevant ministers last night before bringing his plan to Cabinet this morning. Why didn’t he talk to his treasurer, who will have to bring down the early budget, and who an hour before Turnbull stood up was still talking about 10 May?

The Coalition must fix these types of rookie mistakes and fast.

There is also still a chance the senate will pass the two union bills. My feeling is this will leave the PM looking a bit silly, having built all this momentum to not very much at all. His team will be hoping that, instead, getting an outcome will make him look strong, and effective. And of course it will still have the result of filling the next few weeks.

Finally, the truth is we already knew Turnbull was capable of audacious political moves. He pulled one in Utegate, disastrously, when he foolishly suggested Kevin Rudd should consider resigning, and another last year when he challenged for the leadership, successfully. What we do not know yet is whether he is capable of backing up his tactical bravery with policy bravery. We probably won’t have a clearer sense of that until just before the Budget.


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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