The Politics    Tuesday, November 29, 2016

The problem with “delivery”

By Sean Kelly

We still don’t know what the PM cares about

The prime minister and the opposition leader addressed their respective party rooms this morning.

Here’s the PM:

All of us will be able to go back to our electorates and say ‘We came to you in the election with an economic plan. We laid it out. We sought your support and you returned us to government and we are delivering.’ We are getting the runs on the board. We are defying the critics. We are delivering, the 45th parliament is working, the government is governing, the government is leading, the government is delivering on its promises.

And here is Bill Shorten, his first words here on the Coalition:

If you fall behind, you get left behind. We are different. We’ve always been different and we remain strong and proud in our difference to the Liberals. We know that it is our job in this parliament to make economic change work for everybody, to make the economy work in the interests of working class and middle class people.

Spot the difference?

Turnbull’s speech is a litany of sterile synonyms. “Delivering”, “getting the runs on the board”, “working”, “governing”, all are just words for the bare basic minimum a government is supposed to do. “Leading” and “delivering on its promises” are slight variations, but they are still merely what is expected.

More importantly, none of those words tells us anything about what the government is doing, what it cares about, what it thinks is important. There is no sense of a philosophy. No sense of passion.

Compare that to Shorten’s lines, which tie his own mission to the traditional Labor mission, and draw a clear contrast between his party and the Coalition. He recognises that economic change is happening, and says he wants to make it work for the working and middle classes (i.e. everybody except the rich).

My point is not just that Shorten is a better communicator than Turnbull – though at this point, perhaps incredibly, it seems he is.

Nor is it that he has a “narrative”. This is a common theme in political commentary, one I’ve never had much time for, because I tend to think that the spin a government puts on its actions is always much less important than the actions themselves. Words only get you so far. Voters are smart, and will judge you on what you’ve done.

Or to put it another way: narrative matters, but only when it arises naturally from a party’s policies. It can be expressed badly or well, but it will only have resonance if it reflects the underlying facts. A government can only talk meaningfully about purpose when the purpose is already there for everyone to see.

And this is where we get to Turnbull’s actual problem.

He is right when he tells his party room that he is getting things done. And by the end of this week this is likely to be the prevailing theme in commentary on Turnbull: that he has ended the parliamentary year as he needed to, with some solid achievements. This is true, and it’s important, and I’ve written it myself.

But beyond the fact that these things have been successfully voted on, what knits them together? 

The best attempts we’ve seen are Turnbull’s continued reference to an “economic plan”. But this didn’t work during the election, for the good reason that there’s not really any sense of a “plan”, just a set of separate dot points. “Budget repair” is another attempt, and it’s better, but voters have stopped caring about politicians who promise surpluses. After years of false starts, they won’t believe it until they see it.

Which is why Turnbull – and Morrison, as I wrote yesterday – are fixated on pragmatics. It’s all they’ve got. The problem for Turnbull is not that he simply lacks the words to knit these achievements together into a coherent philosophical narrative. The problem is that the coherent philosophy knitting them together does not exist.

Arguably, Labor could be doing better on this front. But the opposition has two things going for it. First, it has some policy that backs up Shorten’s theme of fairness. Second, it benefits by comparison with the government. 

I’m happy to repeat that Turnbull is having a fair parliamentary fortnight. And it’s better for him that way than were he failing to get things done. But the questions that should be occupying the prime minister as he leaves Canberra this week are fundamental: why did I want to be PM? Why do I want to remain PM? What do I want my legacy to be? Or – stripping things back further – what is the philosophy that guides me in politics? What do I think is important? What will make this country better?

The real difficulty for Turnbull is not that he’s not “the old Turnbull”. The difficulty is that most of us are still in the dark about what “the old Turnbull” has been replaced with. Until Turnbull figures that out himself, we too will remain confused. That is frustrating for us, but it is lethal for the prime minister.


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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