The PM may be gaining some much-needed momentum
Morale in the Coalition has been low recently. There’s been muttering about leadership, a sense that nothing ever goes right. As Fairfax had it earlier this week: “Coalition MPs are increasingly nervous the Turnbull government is terminal and an election defeat is inevitable.”
Psychology is tremendously important in politics, as in any bloodsport. There’s no clear rule here; naturally it works differently for different people. Some leaders perform best when they are well ahead in the polls, but tend to struggle under pressure. Others only show their abilities when they have to punch their way out of a corner.
My feeling about Turnbull is that he is not great in situations of obvious, immediate pressure; see the last election campaign, or his reaction on election night, or his show of temper recently when challenged on various citizenship matters. On the other hand, it seems to me that what he likes most is to surprise people. He is quite happy working quietly on a solution, letting the pressure slowly build before emerging into the spotlight – not when it is demanded of him, but on his own terms, sometimes when the pressure has in fact abated – to loudly declare his ingenious and unexpected idea; see the American deal on refugees, or the announcement of an early budget and an early election.
I have my own strong beliefs about the marriage vote, but for the purposes of today’s column they’re not at all important. Lots of other people have described the strong Yes result as a vindication of the survey process, or at least as a victory for the prime minister. In pragmatic political terms, that matters because it helps to change the political landscape in which the PM operates. He is, for the next day or two at least, not a “beleaguered” leader, but a leader with a national victory under his belt.
Coming back to psychology, what is even more important is that the prime minister sees himself that way.
“I guess it wouldn’t have happened without my pushing. There was a lot of opposition to having this survey. Crossbenchers, the Labor Party, even people on my own side that didn’t want to have it.”
You can see that in Turnbull’s eyes this is not just a win but an out-of-the-box win, a victory that surprised his opponents, that nobody else would have been capable of delivering. In other words, his sweet spot.
“I put my faith in the goodwill, in the common sense of Australians and they responded responsibly, with love, and with respect. So they put their arms around same-sex couples and said we respect you, we love you, your committed relationship is worthy of the same respect as ours.”
That was all delivered on Channel Nine [$]. But the PM was also on Channel Seven this morning, and on a bunch of FM stations. This was exactly what he should have been doing. He spent time during the marriage campaign making sure that FM listeners knew exactly where he stood on marriage. Despite his earlier refusal to commit to campaigning, that is precisely what he did. That was the right thing to do. It was also savvy, ensuring that many Australians knew that Bill Shorten wasn’t the only leader of a major political party in favour of equality. And today, Turnbull went back to celebrate the victory, and to claim credit.
In the past, the PM has probably enjoyed basking like this a little too much, which you can tell from the fact that his government usually doesn’t take long after a successful announcement to make an avoidable mistake.
But that hasn’t happened yet, and let’s for a moment imagine it won’t. In that case, what you have is a prime minister who has, at least briefly, found his happy place; and at the same time is seen in a more favourable light by the political establishment, including his own MPs.
If he can ride those elements into the next sitting of parliament, 11 days away, then he could yet deliver the marriage bill he clearly wants to, one that does not bend too far to the conservatives – which would in turn give him a second victory.
The other major issue to be dealt with in the next parliamentary fortnight is the disclosure of MPs’ citizenship histories. Right now that is a massive danger to the PM, bringing the threat of several by-elections.
Labor is vulnerable here, too. Bill Shorten continues to say that he is confident in his MPs, and that he has legal advice on his side, but by now there is not a person in the country who will accept the proclamations of a politician that they know anything about citizenship or that their legal advice is watertight. If Turnbull manages to refer as many Labor MPs as Liberal to the High Court – or more, given two by-elections for Liberal MPs have already been set – the pressure on the PM will ease a little.
Finally, you have the Bennelong by-election. It’s impossible to know what will happen, but there is at least a chance that if other things are going well for Turnbull, that will affect votes, helping to deliver a victory for the government.
Will all this happen smoothly and without incident? Will the government manage to avoid avoidable mistakes? Will the gods of political chaos hold their thunder? Judging by the rest of this year, absolutely not. But… it’s possible.
And if that happens, Turnbull will have shocked us all. Exactly how he likes it. Which could make the Turnbull of 2018 a very different proposition.
In other news
Social media is blurring the line between opinion and advertising
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What a father learnt on the sidelines
“Sport, he has learnt, is not ‘win at all costs’ for these girls. One of the better players on his boys’ team complained to him that constantly letting a weaker boy play was hurting their chances of winning. But in an especially tense girls’ game this year, Andreas left a girl on the bench for the whole match. Although we won, some of the girls later told him that what he had done was wrong; the player had been unable to celebrate with the others afterwards. The team ethos was that everybody got game time, even if it increased the risk of a loss. He thought about it for a long time before deciding they were right.” (November 2013) READ ON
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