What Do We Want? The Lesser Of Two Evils! When Do We Want It? In Perpetuity, Apparently…

Words By Tim Dunlop
September 15, 2015
It is less than twenty-four hours since the glorious phrase “former prime minister, Tony Abbott” officially entered the lexicon, and the sheer awfulness of his time in power still weighs heavily. He was simply the worst. A national embarrassment and a man who left not so much a mark on the national psyche as a stain. We are well rid him.

The magnitude of Abbott’s woefulness was the all the more intense because of the way he came to power, borne aloft by a fawning and uncritical media, who for some reason became hypnotised by his relentless negativity, mistook his aggressiveness for decisiveness, and so failed to do their due diligence and dropped us all in it.

Never was the circle jerk of the press gallery more circular or more jerkier.

And it wasn’t just the reactionaries in the Murdoch press who ushered him into power. Fairfax and our ABC played their part. Lest we forget.

As the days and months of his reign of error progressed, the magnitude of Abbott’s ineptitude was such that even his party could no longer deny the damage he was doing: not so much to the country (a secondary consideration), as to their brand. Even the risk of spinning the leadership revolving door in the way that Labor had done became worth taking, and who else but Malcolm Turnbull would emerge from it, all shiny and new?  (Well, Scott Morrison for one, but we’ll come back to him.)

Labor is already running the line that nothing has really changed, and they are absolutely right, and absolutely wrong.

All this is obvious: Turnbull leads a party that consists of a significant number of people who don’t like or trust him, who are ideologically repelled by the some things that to him are second nature, including issues around gay marriage and climate change. This means that the structural problems that infest party politics more generally are still firmly in place.

But for the time being, all this is probably manageable. Indeed, there was The Australian Financial Review, the media representative of Turnbull’s natural constituency, already making excuses for him, and doing its best to manage that constituency into relaxed-and-comfortable mode with the new PM:

Changing prime minister is the biggest call in politics, with unpredictable consequences. The ALP’s fortunes never properly recovered from knifing Kevin Rudd. So the reasons for changing the leader must be compelling.

Would Mr Turnbull do a better job communicating the government’s economic strategy? Yes. Could Mr Abbott win a head-to-head contest with Bill Shorten? Probably, yes as well. The shock to voters that made the axing of Mr Rudd so disastrous is not a factor here.

Mr Turnbull’s previous Liberal leadership ended in disaster – high-handed, autocratic and with serious errors of judgment.

But he was also leader during the height of Ruddmania before being brought down by climate change policy which also helped sink John Howard, Mr Rudd and then Julia Gillard.

Translation: this isn’t like Labor; honest. This is the good sort of coup. And Turnbull’s past flakiness is no indication of future behaviour. Besides, none of it was really his fault; it was that nasty Ruddmania and all that climate change stuff. Great analysis, AFR.

Worse, they then attempt to peddle the line so beloved of the political class — that “leadership” trumps structural weakness:

Ever constant, however, is the risk of a conservative backlash from Liberal party members and voters who don’t trust him. The new Prime Minister must move decisively to unite the government and deliver the stability of clear and effective leadership that Australians are crying out for.

He must do this. Well, yes, he must. But he is not going to. Because how can he? How can anyone? That’s the whole fucking point. The only way Turnbull “unites” the party is by becoming the party. That is, by adopting the right wing positions that dominate it. That is, by abandoning the very things that make him electable and relatively popular in the first place.

Still, he has indicated he is willing to do this, and so this is where the Labor Party’s strategy of “see the new boss, same as the old boss” falls apart. Yes, they are right to point out the non-change in policy prescriptions (and thus, Turnbull’s hypocrisy), but that is not going to be enough. Not in the short term.

The fact is, Turnbull is popular. And people from across the spectrum are relieved to be rid of Abbott. There is going to be a national sigh of relief that will show up in the polls. And Turnbull will be a better prime minister than he was an opposition leader.

So while people were almost certainly willing to take another risk with Labor in order to get rid of Abbott, the sensible, rational conservatism of the electorate that traditionally and almost inevitably gives a new government a second term is again in play. Which means Turnbull more than likely gets this awful government re-elected. At the very least — and we are already hearing it — his elevation throws the leadership pressure back on the Labor Party.

“In policy terms we are likely to get more of the same, with a few signature changes to make it look like something new has happened. “

But instead of playing out Labor leadership scenarios, let’s, for now, stand back and look at the business of government. By electing Turnbull, the government has most likely ensured itself a second term. In policy terms we are likely to get more of the same, with a few signature changes to make it look like something new has happened. These are likely to be around weekend penalty rates or some other IR matter, an area where Turnbull and his new buddies on the right of the party are in broad agreement.

All the wicked problems of governance, though, are still in place. Many of these — asylum seekers, free trade, climate change — have a global dimension and so are ultimately beyond the control of any national government. This is the essence of the structural problems that any government faces: they simply lack the mechanisms to control what happens in key policy areas, a situation that will be amplified if the Trans Pacific Partnership is passed in what we understand to be its current form.

Then there is the fact that the Coalition, like Labor, is working off a diminished base. Another major structural problem. The old verities of party loyalty have evaporated and Malcolm’s leather jacket and winning smile are not a long-term solution. Eventually, Turnbull’s pragmatic embrace of the right wing of his party will come back to haunt him. Having served his purpose, that part of the party will be looking to reinstall one of their own at the earliest possible opportunity.

Malcolm Turnbull is likely to give them that opportunity because, well, Malcolm Turnbull. He is also likely to strongly resist being removed. Same as it ever was, and around we go again.

This is not leadership speculation. This is simply registering that the leadership instability that now defines Australian national politics is a symptom of more fundamental problems. And they aren’t going anywhere. For now, all this is now buried, snowed under by the temporary whitewash that a change of leadership is designed to achieve. But it has all the characteristics of a zombie problem, and you can’t bury a zombie forever.

Which brings us back to Scott Morrison….

Tim Dunlop is the author of The New Front Page: New Media and the Rise of the Audience. He writes regularly for The Drum and a number of other publications. You can follow him on Twitter.

Feature image: AAP Image/Alan Porritt.

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