Turnbull: A rich man’s Nelson

Monday, 6 October 2008 

Is the penny starting to drop about Turnbull?

Maybe it’s the polls. The latest one, Morgan, gives a new twist to the non-existent Turnbull ‘bounce’ by reporting a move away from the Liberals since Turnbull took charge. Of course, this modest shift to Labor is as meaningful as the AC Nielsen poll that showed one the other way. It is just that the AC Nielsen was the hook on which the media hung its ‘game-is back-on’ narrative over the last three weeks.

The Australian’s Lenore Taylor and The Age’s Phillip Coorey have now picked up that the big change in direction that was supposed to happen with Turnbull’s arrival, has not. Both articles would be a bit more interesting if they could explain why Turnbull is now emulating Nelson’s strategy. For Taylor to do so might be a bit difficult because it would mean going against the views of her colleagues in the paper, especially its Chief Political Correspondent.

Turnbull is constrained from being the economic dry he clearly wants to be by three factors, none of them recognised by the Canberra Press Gallery. The first constraint is his popularity, or lack of it. A reason why politicians go down the populist route is that it is more, er, popular. Turnbull comes to the leadership with the sort of ratings that caused Denis Shanahan to kid himself that he could use to get rid of Crean in 2003. Turnbull’s chief weakness is that he has allowed the government to portray him as out of touch so early in his leadership. It means if Turnbull tries the economic rationalist route, he leaves himself vulnerable to the sort of attack that Keating used against the ‘feral abacus’ in 1993.

Such a hit in short-term popularity might be feasible as a long term positioning as a ‘responsible economic manager’. This might become useful if the government starts to look as though it is losing its grip on the Australian economy. Unfortunately, Turnbull doesn’t have that room to manoeuvre. He does not have a strong enough position in the party to bear poor polling for very long. Dennis Shanahan might think there is unity behind Turnbull but already Costello, Abbott and Nelson have been undermining him in their own special ways.

Incredibly, Milne even carries on this myth of Turnbull’s strong position in the party by claiming that he has successfully broken with the Howard years. This is in the same article that reports that Howard himself is actively phoning around the party warning against Turnbull taking it too left. Having someone so influential on your back is why on all the issues that Milne claims on which Turnbull differed from Howard, such as climate change, the republic and social issues, Turnbull has not pushed a single one since coming to the leadership. In fact, the Howard story highlights Turnbull’s problem. Turnbull has Howard, Costello, Minchin and Abbott to contend with if he wants push a more liberal agenda. While on his side, Turnbull has … Chris Pyne.

Turnbull is being forced to act like Nelson because his position in the party is even more conditional than Nelson’s. However, Turnbull also has the same problem that politicians on both sides are facing and what makes the New Sensitivity the prevailing orthodoxy. Neither side has much authority to do anything else. The financial crisis in the US has highlighted a political crisis as the President is unable to impose his will on the Congress. Gerard Henderson on Insiders thought this is natural for a President near the end of his term. The trouble with that argument is that neither of those who will be replacing Bush is taking control of it either.

If the world’s most confident political class is floundering, the Australian one would hardly be much better if the turmoil struck here. Both sides have given reassurances on the resilience of the Australian financial system but then so did the regulators and governments of other countries until things went wrong. The crisis is unprecedented and any politician who pretended to have an economic agenda would be exposed as soon as the unexpected happened. Instead, the response of both Labor and Liberal has been to act as glorified consumer lobby groups pleading with the RBA and commercial banks to mitigate the pain but with no control over any of them. Only Rudd seems now ready to take it further, as we are also seeing with Obama in the US, and show us if you can’t control something, you can at least moralise about it. It is hard to see how Turnbull, who is only just working out how to do empathy, will be able to move on to that.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Monday, 6 October 2008.

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