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The lethal tiredness destroying Turnbull’s government

The PM’s main threat is the growing indifference of the electorate

Watching Australian politics this week, an immense wave of tiredness swept over me.

Perhaps I’m alone in this. There will, over the weekend, be a sweep of commentary from some quarters arguing that in finally hewing close to the traditional conservative script of citizenship tests and all the rest of it, Malcolm Turnbull has found his mojo, or at least a winning strategy.

But I have had the opposite reaction. The government’s rearguard action this week had the feel, for me, of a poorly scripted, under-rehearsed play, opening to a half-empty house. It doesn’t feel like anyone’s listening anymore – and if they are the performance is unlikely to convince them the show is any good.

Let’s start with today then get back to the wider landscape.

This morning, as part of its ongoing immigration announcement choreography, the government released details of its new citizenship policy. Would-be citizens will have to do an English test, answer questions that demonstrate they understand “Australian values”, show they’ve taken steps to integrate into the community and wait four years rather than one after becoming a permanent resident.

There are lots of criticisms that can be made and lots of people will make them – so let’s start from the opposite direction and say, for a moment, that there’s logic behind all this. You can make an argument, as the prime minister did, for encouraging newcomers to the country to learn English. Perhaps there’s no real harm in changing the test from a civics test (who-is-Don-Bradman type of thing) to a test about values. And let’s say four years is not an unreasonable length of time.

Even giving the PM the benefit of the doubt on individual elements, the fundamental question you must always ask yourself about government policy is: what problem is this solving?

It is significant that we were given no answer to this. In fact, the prime minister has taken care this week to emphasise what a successful immigration nation we are. In which case, why is this necessary? When Turnbull and immigration minister Peter Dutton were asked today, they didn’t have answers.

So Dutton, as an example, mentioned that you’d expect new migrants to send their children to school. Don’t they have to do that anyway, in the usual course of abiding by laws, Dutton was asked. “No, it’s not an issue that’s properly tested now. There’s no question about that.” But there was a question, Dutton had just been asked it, and he had no answer.

In response to his assertion that domestic violence offenders should not be allowed in – and fair enough – he was asked whether background criminal checks were conducted now. “There are some checks undertaken at the moment but they’re clearly insufficient.” But the word “clearly” here isn’t an answer either. How are they insufficient, precisely? Has the government been allowing violent offenders to become citizens for the past four years? The government’s own consultation document says there are “existing police checks” – so what, precisely, has been missing?

Dutton gave another example, saying that allowing kids to roam the streets in Apex gangs was not an Australian value. But just last week the Victorian deputy police commissioner, Shane Patton, said that members of Apex gangs were predominantly Australian-born. How is asking questions of prospective citizens going to stop their Australian-born children from joining gangs 14 or 15 years down the track? (The deputy commissioner also said the gang was now a “non-entity”.)

If the government truly believes that a problem is being solved, it is saying that our current migration program has failed in important ways. That many people who have become citizens should not have been allowed to. That is a significant claim and one that would alienate many Australians. And in fact last time Dutton made such a claim, the prime minister would not repeat it.  

The 457 visas announcement earlier this week was similar. There are some criticisms that can be made of the current system – but the more people looked, the less it seemed the government’s announcement was fixing them. It was – not entirely, but largely – cosmetic.

These are problems with the substance of the policies. But they’re political points too.

For policies to have a genuine political impact, they need to do one of three things. The first is to touch people’s lives in tangible ways. None of these policies will do that for the voters Turnbull is trying to reach, though they may harm some ethnic communities, which will turn on the government. The second is to respond to a very visible problem with clear results. A lot is made in Australian debate of asylum-seeker policy and its racist overtones. But the main times it has worked – for John Howard in 2001 and for Tony Abbott in 2013 – was when boats were coming and they were stopped. Just talking about it, as in 2016, is not enough.

The final option is symbolism. Symbolism is important, and it can have an impact – I have no doubt that Turnbull’s actions this week will send a message of exclusion to some Australians and strengthen others in their convictions that migrants are taking their jobs and behaving in reprehensible ways. But for symbolism to have a beneficial political impact, my suspicion is that it must at least appear to come from a genuine place.

So perhaps plays like this week’s can be effective. But Turnbull is not the man to pull it off. It doesn’t fit. The standard Liberal attack on “political correctness”, coming this morning from Turnbull, looked silly.

Will it all pay off in the next Newspoll? Perhaps. Any move at all will be trumpeted as a sign it has. But I can’t see any bump lasting – and that is what is important.

We also had Abbott out today, responding to polling leaked to the Financial Review [$] that suggested he would have lost his seat if Turnbull hadn’t campaigned for him. I suspect the story is accurate, but I doubt very much Abbott would have ended up losing his seat. In any case, if somebody leaked it to damage Abbott it was a stupid move, because once again we had the former prime minister chewing up the current prime minister’s airtime.

And so, after all the shouting, what did we see this week? An unpopular prime minister, following a script handed to him by the right of his party, underprepared for his public appearances, announcing a policy that won’t actually achieve very much, only to have any semblance of success immediately overshadowed by his nemesis …

In other words, the same old show.

Turnbull’s greatest problem is not that people hate him. On the contrary: many people still hold out some half-hope he could return to the shimmering figure he once seemed to be. The greatest threat to Turnbull’s prime ministership is a growing indifference to anything this government does.

The result of the repetition we’ve been watching for so long – a kind of bored exhaustion – is lethal. Ever since 1996, governments have worried about voters waiting for them with baseball bats. But at least those voters were paying attention – and as long as you’ve got their attention, you can change their minds.

Politicians can sense this. Sharri Markson of the Daily Telegraph recently told a BuzzFeed podcast that “All of the [Coalition] politicians just seem resigned to go into Opposition. You’d be very hard pressed to find a minister who would say that Turnbull’s doing a brilliant job – and they’re all expecting to lose at the next election.”

Turnbull, naturally, believes otherwise. Prime ministers always do. To show everyone up, to cut through the growing tiredness with his government, and within his government, he’s going to need more than the borrowed script he used this week. 

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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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