Locked in

Monday, 9 May 2016 

David Rowe, AFR

David Rowe, AFR

It is not right for Australians to be forced into a guessing game, and it’s not right for Australians to not face this year with certainty and stability. So in the interests of certainty, in the interest of transparency, in the interest of good governance, I have made the date clear today.

J Gillard, January 2013

Turnbull’s bold play came as the latest Newspoll showed his authority sliding, and his government wearing the costs of a perceived drift. Turnbull’s frustration at these perceptions has been as evident as it has been pointless. Having so many unknowns in play at once has done the new PM no favours.

This special sitting / early budget / early double-D election announcement will change all of that smartly.

Mark Kenny, 21 March

Poor polling is making the decision to defer the election until July look increasingly questionable.

Mark Kenny, one month later

This is the second election in a row that the date has been locked in well in advance. The key advantage of choosing an election date, so helpful to a Prime Minister’s authority, has been thrown away by Prime Ministers who desperately needed all the help they can get, because other concerns prevailed – namely the need to lock in a party behind them that was in danger of drifting and fragmenting beneath them.

It only took a few months before the Turnbull leadership was starting to lose momentum and making one of Australia’s most inept senior politicians seem influential again.

So calling back Parliament and fixing the election date was meant to bolster the Turnbull leadership by bringing the government together and focus its attention, rather than endorsing any program as such. It is why the length of campaign is inverse proportion to its interest, and why we are left with the impression that voters are being asked to trudge to the ballot box on 2 July to resolve an internal Liberal party dispute.

As has been nicely pointed out, the first day of the campaign was an anti-climax because in reality it is just another day in an ongoing campaign. Even Turnbull’s motivation for dumping Tony Abbott, a problem with the message and communication, was more the excuses given for dumping a campaign manager than a Prime Minister. The public may have been under the impression that Turnbull coming to the leadership would mean a change in agenda, but as with his last stint, he’s found it difficult and down his personal polling goes – proving, despite what Keating thinks, a soufflé can not only rise twice but fall twice as well.

Turnbull has been bound by three factors. The first is the Liberal’s need for a defining agenda which hampers Turnbull’s need to try and muddy it and move away from the redundant traditional right agenda of the party. The importance of such branding has often been misunderstood, either treated as a policy option, or even more bizarrely, as a vote winner. But political parties are entities in their own right and Abbott, along with other conservatives, fulfil a real need and electoral relevance is secondary. Abbott is back where he is happiest, a perpetual opposition leader, and indeed the very loneliness of Abbott’s political outings just adds to the delusion of the Churchillian wilderness years he no doubt thinks he’s in.

Turnbull’s second problem is how he has taken it on. Not up-front, as Rudd did against the “old politics”, but rather to avoid it altogether through his own personal will to power and a belief that he can make the times exciting simply by saying it.

In this he was indulged by the media. The Age of Fabulousness, which ran roughly from his taking over the leadership in September to, well, sometime during the confusion over the GST in February, was a period of fulsome personal profiling and hopes that Turnbull would use his “political capital” to bring in reform. Broadly speaking, it was a time of revenge by the more technocrat commentators in the Fairfax stable against the pushing of Abbott by more conservative columnists in the Murdoch press.

These early supporters of Turnbull have also tended to be pushers of the need for “reform” and here we get to Turnbull’s third problem, the agenda it appears he wants to bring in. Just as Turnbull himself appears to be avoiding the political problem posed by his own party, so does the “reform” agenda also ignore political reality.

Take one example, Turnbull’s 24 hour proposal to shift revenue collection back to the states. On the surface, this seemed a splendid idea. Realigning revenue with where the money is spent would make state government more accountable for what is spent on education and health and force it to justify priorities.

The problem with it is that it completely ignores what is happening with state government. If the hollowing out of the political parties has been a reality of the last thirty years, the frontline is at the state level where state politics is a mere shadow of the polarised and engaged politics of decades ago. This is most evident in South Australia, where arguably this began, and where what was regarded as a right-wing former Liberal leader now sits in a Cabinet led by what was regarded as a left-wing Labor leader, thereby making those labels meaningless.

Comparisons were made between Turnbull’s proposal and Rudd’s plan to take over the health from the states in 2010, but the two were very different. Rudd’s was essentially a political attack disguised as a funding plan, which basically forced the states to justify why they should control health when they had little reason to do so. Turnbull’s plan went in exactly the opposite direction.

Public antipathy to the idea was put down to fears of “double taxation” recalling Wran in the 1970s. But that was during the brief dawn of the New Right when tax was a dirty word. These days, voters are open to seeing tax rises to pay for what are seen as under-funded services. The resistance to state taxation is likely more a reflection of the public view of the state governments themselves and the need for their existence. As for the state governments, no wonder they were horrified. Brittle state governments would prefer to conduct such matters within the discrete lobbying of a COAG meeting than having to justify themselves to the voters.

This evasion within the reform debate was illustrated when two of its most articulate exponents, Laura Tingle and George Megalogenis, joined last week’s Q&A panel. A reform debate ostensibly about economic policy was immediately understood by the US visitor, and much of the audience for what it really was, a debate about political malaise.

It is a malaise that has burst open in the US and much of Europe, with the collapse of traditional parties and chaos within political elites but still only experienced in Australia through constant leadership turmoil and understood within the narrow confines of lamenting about a lack of reform. The narrowness of it is also evident in the complete incomprehension of the rise of Trump in Australian political commentary, much of it feeding off equally uncomprehending US commentary with a stake in what is being torn apart but reproduced in Australia because it reflects the narrow confines a similar disengagement of the old politics is still understood.

There is no reason why this should end any time soon. Even if Turnbull has a large victory, it is unlikely to stop the manoeuvres in the party any more than it did a few months ago when it looked more likely than it does now. All that has happened is that two parties with major flaws have been placed under a microscope for a prolonged period of time. As Gillard found when declaring an election date early that only serviced to focus Labor’s minds on the electoral wipe-out to come, Turnbull’s use of a technical manoeuvre to deal with a more profound political problem also has the potential to back-fire in what is going to seem to many a very long campaign ahead.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Monday, 9 May 2016.

Filed under State and federal politics, State of the parties, Tactics

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4 responses to “Locked in”

  1. Riccardo on 10th May 2016 9:14 am

    “a perpetual opposition leader, and indeed the very loneliness of Abbott’s political outings just adds to the delusion of the Churchillian wilderness years he no doubt thinks he’s in.”


    I can’t see him being there just to service the needs of the constituents of Warringah.

    Also, can someone explain why TA keeps saying he is short of money? Not like he hasn’t been a backbencher, Minister, Oppo Leader and PM in the last few years. You shouldn’t leave the job needing money.

  2. Snorky on 10th May 2016 3:07 pm

    Turnbull is proving conclusively that he’s a fraud. When he took the Prime Ministership, some of us were, naively as it turns out, prepared to take at face value his promises to promote an environment conducive to good policy making and to talk to us as adults.

    His real agenda is now abundantly clear. He’s read the polls that tell us, bizarrely, that we regard his party as superior at economic management and has has decided that if he repeats ‘economic plan’, ‘jobs and growth’ and ‘Labor is the party of high taxes and high spending’ enough times, that’s what we’ll remember on election day.

    A cute enough political tactic, but nothing whatsoever to do with good government, and bears no relationship to how he told us he’d govern last September. We were conned then but let’s hope enough of us have seen through him by now.

  3. F on 11th May 2016 3:39 pm

    Day three or whatever, and we are still talking about Abbott’s knifing and boats boats boats.

    Good to see the Australian media campaigning for the things they think are important…I thought they lived policy and stuff?

  4. Dianne on 11th May 2016 5:23 pm

    You are correct Shrike. Abbott is on sure ground when he is opposing something or someone. He is a funny little fellow.

    You would not agree but I fully expect he will lead the Libs again to beguile us all again with talk of ‘shirt fronting’ and manly displays of onion eating.

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