Once the race for the leadership begins, it can be very hard to stop.
The government’s been getting on with things this week. On Monday night, the prime minister flagged coming tax cuts. On Wednesday, former minister Philip Ruddock was appointed to review religious freedoms. On Thursday, the government released Australia’s first foreign policy white paper in 14 years. A meeting of state and federal energy ministers today agreed to keep working on Malcolm Turnbull’s proposed National Energy Guarantee, which is significant, because the agreement included the Victorian Labor government. The next stage of banking reforms was foreshadowed [$].
It’s not a bad list, even if you discount the political management exercise that is the Ruddock review. But, as is now noted somewhere in Australia every 60 seconds, the government has no “clear air” in which to talk about its progress. And so, while the government must keep trotting out achievements – why add “paralysed” to its list of unhelpful adjectives? – none of its doings are helping it politically. If a tree falls in a forest etc, etc.
In the context of the leadership chatter right now, there are two ways to read this gap between what the government is doing and what is being talked about.
The first reading is that there is a fundamentally competent prime minister in charge, capable of getting things done despite horrendously difficult circumstances, and that he should therefore be given time and space to govern. The rabble that is his backbench and the troublemakers inside the cabinet should quiet down because, given what he’s been able to accomplish already, imagine what he could do if they’d all just shut up?
The second reading is that the prime minister is so utterly politically hopeless that he can deliver all the policy that he wants – see this week – and it won’t make a lick of difference because the voters, the media, and his own party have given up on him. And that even if it’s not his fault, the internal opposition to his leadership makes his chances of recovery nil, because he can’t get his message heard over all the turmoil. He must therefore be removed in order to allow any good work the government does to have an impact.
Both readings are plausible, and both are clearly believed by significant sections of government MPs. The obvious problem for Turnbull right now is that the second group has begun to grow. The newspapers today suggest the mood has become significantly darker in the past fortnight. It still seems to me as though a final reckoning is some time off, which means that those who adhere to the first reading have some more weeks or months in which to prosecute their case.
But then there’s the other problem Turnbull faces as a result of weakening confidence in his ability to hold on. Once the second group becomes large and loud enough, leadership change becomes a realistic possibility. And once that happens, the gun has been fired on a new race to become the new boss. And the problem then becomes that those ministers who are still in the first camp – let’s say people such as Peter Dutton, and perhaps Scott Morrison and Julie Bishop – realise that even if they themselves believe Turnbull should be propped up, if there is going to be a change then they’d like to be in the running please. And at that point you begin to get things like blatant pandering to the backbench, damaging leaks, fingers pointed publicly. In other words, exactly what we’ve had the past few days.
This is all bad for Turnbull, but it’s bad for us, too. It is consuming our government. It is dominating political debate. It commands most of the focus of the media. This makes sense – we are talking about the prime ministership of our country, after all.
But in the meantime actual things continue to happen, such as the events on Manus Island this week, or negotiations over climate policy, or an economy that has become an increasingly strange beast. They are not receiving enough attention from ministers – how could they be? – but they are not consuming a proportionate share of the public sphere, either. There are big policy contests this country needs to have, and to resolve. That will never happen while all anyone can talk about is Malcolm Turnbull’s leadership. Personally, I think MPs are mad not to give Turnbull a chance to turn things around. But that would require a level of restraint and selflessness that we have not seen in a long time.
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