The rise and stall of Mal­colm Turn­bull

The Monthly (Australia) - - NEWS - Laura Tin­gle

He has aged ten years in less than two. As prime min­is­ters tend to do. He looks like he wears the job heav­ily, though he in­sists that he loves it. Those close to him ob­serve that he feels the weight of the en­tire gov­ern­ment’s for­tunes upon him. He doesn’t get enough sleep. Here is the first re­mark­able, yet al­most com­pletely un­re­marked upon, thing about our prime min­is­ter: de­spite these pres­sures, you never hear about “bad” Mal­colm any­more.

The Mal­colm Turn­bull who ex­ploded at peo­ple and brought to bear his sharp in­tel­lect, sharp tongue and lim­ited store of pa­tience on some­one felt to be of in­fe­rior in­tel­lect or ca­pac­ity – and there were lots of them – is a fig­ure of the past.

Yes, we have seen what seems al­most a car­i­ca­ture of an­gry Mal­colm in re­cent months, un­leashed against Bill Shorten. But there are no tales cir­cu­lat­ing in Par­lia­ment House – as they in­evitably do – of Turn­bull ex­plo­sions. I can think of just one story since he be­came prime min­is­ter: of him tow­elling up a state premier on the phone.

Turn­bull has given up tem­per, and a bel­liger­ent re­fusal to con­sult, in the way Curtin and Hawke gave up the drink.

The sec­ond re­mark­able thing about Mal­colm Turn­bull and his prime min­is­ter­ship is that, in an age of light­weight jour­nal­ism under the pres­sures of a col­laps­ing me­dia model, where fed­eral pol­i­tics is re­ported al­most ex­clu­sively as a mat­ter of prime min­is­te­rial for­tunes, there has been so lit­tle at­ten­tion paid to the me­chan­ics of how Turn­bull runs his gov­ern­ment or how he does his job.

The head­line in the Aus­tralian on 13 March, for ex­am­ple, blared over the front page in a font size usu­ally re­served for dec­la­ra­tion of war or na­tional emer­gency: ‘WA elec­tion: fall­out threat for Mal­colm Turn­bull’.

The ar­ti­cle was a clas­sic news­pa­per con­struc­tion de­signed to give a na­tional an­gle to a lo­cal or state story. We jour­nal­ists have all had to do this at times – but usu­ally there is a le­git­i­mate link be­tween the event and the con­struc­tion.

From the first para­graph of this story, it was clear that the “fall­out” from the WA poll was not, as a reader might think, a threat to the prime min­is­ter’s lead­er­ship. In­stead we were told that “re­crim­i­na­tions over the West Aus­tralian Lib­eral Party’s One Na­tion pref­er­ence deal, which con­trib­uted to the Barnett gov­ern­ment’s his­toric elec­tion de­feat”, were “threat­en­ing to spill over into Mal­colm Turn­bull’s par­ty­room, as the Prime Min­is­ter re­fuses to rule out a sim­i­lar deal for the next fed­eral elec­tion”.

Yet, even more than is usual for state elec­tion re­sults, the de­feat of the Barnett gov­ern­ment (past its use-by date and pre­sid­ing over a sad econ­omy) or even the re­sults for One Na­tion (an own goal on anti-vac­ci­na­tions, Vladimir Putin and a pref­er­ence deal with the state Lib­er­als) had noth­ing to do with Mal­colm Turn­bull.

You could find sim­i­lar ex­am­ples of this per­son­al­i­sa­tion of the news any day of the week, in al­most any me­dia out­let; it is part of the trend in which ev­ery­thing that hap­pens in

pol­i­tics is some­how the work, or the fault, or the cun­ning plan, of the prime min­is­ter. (It just hap­pens to be Mal­colm Turn­bull at the mo­ment.)

But we don’t re­ally know much about how Turn­bull’s cab­i­net works or how his of­fice works, though these were both sub­jects of ob­ses­sive in­ter­est in past gov­ern­ments. De­spite all the mis­chief and malev­o­lence within the Coali­tion, we have seen lit­tle re­vealed pub­licly about these cru­cial re­la­tion­ships.

We have also jumped, in the past decade, from the pre­sump­tion that vot­ers would give gov­ern­ments at least two terms to es­tab­lish them­selves, straight over the idea that we might have one-term gov­ern­ments, to the ex­pec­ta­tion that a prime min­is­ter (rather than a gov­ern­ment) who is not per­form­ing will be im­me­di­ately dis­patched. The ques­tion is not “How is the gov­ern­ment far­ing and does it have a chance of win­ning the next elec­tion?” but “How is the prime min­is­ter far­ing and does he have a chance of sur­viv­ing un­til the next elec­tion?”

This ques­tion frames our think­ing about pol­i­tics even when the gov­ern­ment of the day has no al­ter­na­tive can­di­date who can ful­fil the ultimate cri­te­rion for a lead­er­ship change: that they of­fer the prospect of win­ning more seats than the in­cum­bent.

It frames our think­ing even when the stum­bles of the gov­ern­ment are not the prime min­is­ter’s stum­bles, but those of his col­leagues.

We have lost a time frame within which to judge whether a prime min­is­ter is grow­ing in the job. Do we start the clock from the day he takes over a gov­ern­ment whose agenda he can’t just drop overnight? Or from when he wins an elec­tion in his own right?

The lim­ited fo­cus also seems to blind the trou­ble­mak­ers and bomb-throw­ers in the Coali­tion to the re­al­ity that, in their ef­forts to de­stroy the prime min­is­ter, they are de­stroy­ing the gov­ern­ment of the day and, for that mat­ter, their own party. They are en­abling the mi­nor par­ties that so un­nerve them by “steal­ing” their votes.

Peo­ple don’t hate the way Mal­colm Turn­bull walks, or feel mor­ti­fied on be­half of the coun­try when he trav­els over­seas. He is not sub­ject to sex­ist at­tacks or spoofed for the way he talks. He has nei­ther Ju­lia Gil­lard’s nasal Aus­tralian­ness nor the pro­gram­matic speci­ficity of Kevin Rudd. Yet Turn­bull, ap­proach­ing two years in the job, has seem­ingly ut­terly failed to find favour with the Aus­tralian pub­lic.

His ma­jor crimes? He isn’t who we thought he was. He runs a do-noth­ing gov­ern­ment. It is a sham­bles.

There are con­sid­er­able sub­stan­tive crit­i­cisms that can be made of his gov­ern­ment’s poli­cies. But most vot­ers’ re­flec­tions on the gov­ern­ment are dom­i­nated by opin­ions of Turn­bull’s per­son­al­ity weak­nesses – not whether an out­come is, prag­mat­i­cally, the best any­one can get in the cir­cum­stances, or whether the out­come is good in it­self, what­ever its po­lit­i­cal implications.

The con­sen­sus view of the prime min­is­ter is that he is lead­ing – if this is not a con­tra­dic­tion in terms – a rud­der­less gov­ern­ment, lack­ing any strat­egy or pur­pose, and for­ever at the mercy of the whims of the right of his own party room, or One Na­tion, or a dif­fi­cult Se­nate cross­bench.

But the prob­lems of the gov­ern­ment are more than the work of one man. In what fol­lows, I want to pull out two strands that high­light, and seek to go be­yond, the soap opera view that the en­tire coun­try is run by one man or woman, and that its for­tunes rise and fall, from day to day, with the for­tunes of one hu­man be­ing.

One strand con­cerns the style of Mal­colm Turn­bull’s prime min­is­ter­ship, and con­sid­ers just what it was that we were ex­pect­ing from him in the first place, and why.

The other strand con­cerns the ex­is­ten­tial fog in which pol­i­tics to­day is con­ducted, and why, over a decade and four prime min­is­ters, what­ever the ap­proach, prime min­is­ters have been un­able to guide us through it for any last­ing time. It pon­ders whether any­one can find a way through this fog when all the or­tho­dox­ies about how we run our pol­i­tics and our econ­omy seem open to chal­lenge.

Mal­colm Turn­bull seems to spend his life ne­go­ti­at­ing or de­fus­ing land­mines laid for him by his col­leagues. So many of those mines were laid by his pre­de­ces­sor (not to men­tion the grenades Tony Ab­bott has lobbed since the change of lead­er­ship). Oth­ers were planted by those who bro­kered the agree­ments he had to make to be­come prime min­is­ter. We re­sent Turn­bull’s re­sult­ing vul­ner­a­bil­ity, are con­temp­tu­ous of him for mak­ing the deals. We blame blind am­bi­tion for his woes. Yet at the same time we for­get how des­per­ate we were for him to strike against Tony Ab­bott.

“Our big mis­take,” one sea­soned Coali­tion politi­cian re­flected re­cently, “was that we thought we won the 2013 elec­tion. We re­ally didn’t un­der­stand, or want to ac­knowl­edge, that the vot­ers were just want­ing to get rid of La­bor. We thought they were em­brac­ing what we were say­ing. And they weren’t. We have been liv­ing with the con­se­quences of that ever since.”

Tony Ab­bott launched him­self into the prime min­is­ter­ship with ide­o­log­i­cal gusto in the sec­ond half of 2013. His was a gov­ern­ment of the neg­a­tive. It was a re­jec­tion of Kevin Rudd’s re­newed as­ser­tion that gov­ern­ment could do stuff for you. It was built on a grand cir­cle of neg­a­tive ex­pec­ta­tions – of not be­ing La­bor, of not be­ing Ju­lia Gil­lard, of not be­ing mi­nor­ity gov­ern­ment.

There was a breath­tak­ing machismo to its lan­guage in those early days. Re­mem­ber how Joe Hockey ef­fec­tively dared Gen­eral Mo­tors Holden to leave the coun­try? All the talk about cor­po­rate wel­fare?

Re­mem­ber the ma­li­cious, de­lib­er­ate and inflexible in­sti­tu­tional de­struc­tion en­cap­su­lated in the de­ter­mi­na­tion to get rid of any­one – in­clud­ing any­one in the busi­ness com­mu­nity – who might have been ap­pointed by, as­so­ci­ated with or tainted by La­bor?

That in­sti­tu­tional de­struc­tion said much about Tony Ab­bott: the so-called keeper of the con­ser­va­tive flame was burn­ing and pil­lag­ing Aus­tralia’s in­sti­tu­tions of gov­er­nance.

The gov­ern­ment rapidly im­ploded when the elec­torate found that there wasn’t any­thing there other than a mish­mash: a delu­sion that the coun­try could sim­ply shift back to the good old days of John Howard, an alarm­ing swing to the right that was be­yond where most vot­ers were happy to be, and a Ne­an­derthal id­iocy best il­lus­trated by the ex­tra­or­di­nary spec­ta­cle of Aus­tralia giv­ing a knight­hood to the hus­band of the English Queen.

The Coali­tion was also only too happy to demon­strate that it wasn’t very good at be­ing a gov­ern­ment. In a re­cent ar­ti­cle in the At­lantic, McKay Cop­pins ob­served that the Repub­li­can Party’s spec­tac­u­lar in­abil­ity to get the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion’s first piece of leg­is­la­tion through the US Congress “after seven years of promis­ing to re­peal and re­place Oba­macare” is “em­blem­atic of a deeper dys­func­tion that grips [the] party”. He added:

That’s be­cause it has been nearly a decade since Wash­ing­ton Repub­li­cans were in the busi­ness of ac­tual gov­er­nance. Whether you view their ac­tions as a dystopian de­scent into cyn­i­cal ob­struc­tion­ism or a heroic cru­sade against a left­wing men­ace, the GOP spent the Obama years defin­ing it­self – de­lib­er­ately, and thor­oughly – in op­po­si­tion to the last pres­i­dent.

In many ways, the strat­egy paid off: Repub­li­cans took back Congress, slowed the progress of an agenda they gen­uinely op­posed, and ul­ti­mately seized con­trol of the White House. But it also came at a cost for the GOP – their lawmakers for­got how to make laws.

This is all too fa­mil­iar a phe­nom­e­non in Aus­tralia. My 2015 Quar­terly Es­say ‘Po­lit­i­cal Am­ne­sia’ was subti­tled ‘How We For­got How To Gov­ern’ and looked at the struc­tural de­te­ri­o­ra­tion of our in­sti­tu­tional and pol­icy mem­ory. The es­say fo­cused on the par­lia­ment, the pub­lic ser­vice and the me­dia.

The po­tency of the phe­nom­ena now rip­ping up US pol­i­tics is ex­actly what we have seen in ex­ec­u­tive gov­ern­ment in Aus­tralia – and con­tinue to see: the pre­vail­ing po­lit­i­cal cul­ture of op­po­si­tion­ist pol­i­tics can­not be over­come in gov­ern­ment; politi­cians for­get that the pub­lic looks to them to re­solve our dif­fer­ences, rather than en­large them.

No mat­ter how jaded you are by the on­go­ing the­atrics, don’t for­get how ut­terly poi­sonous the at­mos­phere was in Aus­tralia by late 2015. For when peo­ple talk about Mal­colm the Dis­ap­point­ing, they are mostly re­fer­ring to the con­fi­dent, calm and ar­tic­u­late man who strode into a par­lia­men­tary court­yard in Septem­ber 2015 – and into the mid­dle of the mael­strom – and de­clared:

“It is clear enough that the gov­ern­ment is not suc­cess­ful in pro­vid­ing the eco­nomic lead­er­ship that we need.

“It is not the fault of in­di­vid­ual min­is­ters. Ul­ti­mately, the prime min­is­ter has not been ca­pa­ble of pro­vid­ing the eco­nomic lead­er­ship our na­tion needs. He has not been ca­pa­ble of pro­vid­ing the eco­nomic con­fi­dence that busi­ness needs.

“Now, we are liv­ing as Aus­tralians in the most ex­cit­ing time. The big eco­nomic changes that we’re liv­ing through here and around the world of­fer enor­mous chal­lenges and enor­mous op­por­tu­ni­ties and we need a dif­fer­ent style of lead­er­ship.

“We need a style of lead­er­ship that ex­plains those chal­lenges and op­por­tu­ni­ties, ex­plains the chal­lenges and how to seize the op­por­tu­ni­ties. A style of lead­er­ship that re­spects the peo­ple’s in­tel­li­gence, that ex­plains these com­plex is­sues and then sets out the course of ac­tion we be­lieve we should take and makes a case for it.”

Yet the truth is that peo­ple were anx­iously scan­ning the hori­zon in search of Turn­bull long be­fore that balmy Septem­ber af­ter­noon.

Within six weeks of the 2013 elec­tion, when jour­nal­ists were still try­ing to get a han­dle on how the new gov­ern­ment, the new min­istry, would func­tion, peo­ple were al­ready ask­ing me, “Yes, but when is Mal­colm com­ing back?” And it wasn’t just the vot­ers who had never liked Ab­bott in the first place. It was of­ten se­nior busi­ness fig­ures, try­ing to make a prag­matic judge­ment about the po­lit­i­cal en­vi­ron­ment in which they would make eco­nomic in­vest­ments.

Why did vot­ers think they knew what he stood for so well?

And it was a ques­tion asked be­fore the po­lit­i­cal in­com­pe­tence of Ab­bott – who, after all, as Op­po­si­tion leader had been po­lit­i­cally lethal – was ex­posed.

It was not a ques­tion based on “in­side knowl­edge” of the work­ings of the Lib­eral Party. Turn­bull’s col­leagues were adamantly against the idea of a re­turn. They didn’t like his management style and they didn’t like his poli­cies.

For peo­ple out­side pol­i­tics, though, Turn­bull’s re­turn seemed to be not just a re­jec­tion of Ab­bott but a yearn­ing for some­thing else. The restora­tion to the top job was a fas­ci­nat­ing study in ex­pec­ta­tions. Why was his pre­vi­ous his­tory as party leader so dis­counted? Why did vot­ers think they knew what he stood for so well?

An old friend ob­served re­cently that he re­ally didn’t un­der­stand why ev­ery­one was so shocked that Mal­colm Turn­bull, prime min­is­ter, wasn’t very good at pol­i­tics be­cause, after all, he’d been ter­ri­ble at it when he had been Lib­eral leader.

But vot­ers be­lieved they knew Turn­bull: they be­lieved he was a crea­ture of the cen­tre. They be­lieved he was a per­son who be­lieved in things, whether that be Aus­tralia as a re­pub­lic or do­ing some­thing about cli­mate change.

The big ques­tion on the day was whether Turn­bull’s col­leagues would al­low him to move on pol­icy, would recog­nise that vot­ers had re­jected – along with Ab­bott him­self – much of the Coali­tion’s mes­sage. The an­swer came al­most in­stantly, as de­tails of a deal with the Na­tion­als – on cli­mate change, same­sex mar­riage and the bud­get – emerged. The loom­ing dis­as­ter for the Coali­tion had al­ready been set up. Bar­rie Cas­sidy was just one of many com­men­ta­tors who ob­served at the time that:

To in­sist that he stick with the cur­rent pol­icy – the cur­rent di­rec­tion and strate­gies – won’t do it. They must give him the flex­i­bil­ity to make changes that al­low him to em­brace, and not dis­ap­point, the new con­stituency that is now avail­able to the Lib­eral Party; that is, the po­lit­i­cal cen­tre, the soft La­bor vot­ers and the young.

If he is not al­lowed to do that, Bill Shorten will be free to de­velop the line he has al­ready put out: that Turn­bull has “sold out all the things that were im­por­tant to him”.

So Turn­bull walked into the prime min­is­ter­ship re­quired to meet what was al­ready a near-im­pos­si­ble set of ex­pec­ta­tions: that he could re­store peo­ple’s sense of cer­tainty, and af­firm their reliance on gov­ern­ment to make mean­ing­ful pol­icy. And he had to do it in a world where he had promised his col­leagues he would not ac­tu­ally change any­thing sub­stan­tial.

You can blame Turn­bull for this. For walk­ing into a po­lit­i­cal turkey shoot. Or you can blame his col­leagues for fail­ing to al­low their new leader to es­tab­lish a vi­able prime min­is­ter­ship. Or we can blame our­selves for be­hav­ing like a crowd out of Life of Brian look­ing for the mir­a­cle of the ju­niper bush.

But this is where we have to start be­ing very care­ful in how we in­ter­pret events, and how we char­ac­terise Mal­colm Turn­bull and the ex­pec­ta­tions we had of him in the first place.

Peo­ple start from the pre­sump­tion that the prime min­is­ter is a politi­cian of the cen­tre who is driven by a co­her­ent ide­o­log­i­cal base, who must in­evitably have a clear medi­umterm strat­egy and a pro­gram to im­ple­ment. But what if he isn’t, and hasn’t?

Mal­colm Turn­bull has brought to the prime min­is­ter­ship the same ap­proach he took to his long ca­reer in busi­ness: he is a deal-maker. He sees him­self pri­mar­ily as a prob­lem-solver.

Think about the implications of this: the prime min­is­ter walks into his of­fice on any given day and sees what “wicked prob­lem” has to be sorted. Then he tries to sort it.

No one doubts Turn­bull’s in­tel­lec­tual ca­pac­ity, or his cu­rios­ity. Ar­rium’s steel­works in Whyalla faces clo­sure? He goes to the plant, and pep­pers peo­ple with ques­tions in or­der to un­der­stand how it works and how its busi­ness is struc­tured. He doesn’t have at the front of his mind an over­ar­ch­ing view of the fu­ture of man­u­fac­tur­ing, or of how

fix­ing the Ar­rium plant might work in the lo­cal elec­torates (though that would be nice, wouldn’t it?).

Re­duc­ing car­bon emis­sions? Well, an emis­sions trad­ing scheme might have been the an­swer in 2009, but it isn’t now, he ar­gues, be­cause both global cli­mate pol­i­tics and tech­nol­ogy have moved on since then.

Of course, this is a rather touchy sub­ject, as his strong ad­vo­cacy for mar­ket-based in­ter­ven­tions to re­duce car­bon emis­sions cost him the lead­er­ship in 2009.

It be­came clear dur­ing last year’s elec­tion cam­paign that the prime min­is­ter was gen­uinely mys­ti­fied by the view that he had aban­doned his pre­vi­ous philo­soph­i­cal com­mit­ment to cli­mate change ac­tion; he felt he had never changed his ba­sic views, just prag­mat­i­cally shifted with the facts. In an interview in De­cem­ber, he told me:

And this is the prob­lem, where [we are] turn­ing ev­ery­thing into an ide­o­log­i­cal bat­tle. What does it mean when we talk about ide­ol­ogy? We are ba­si­cally talk­ing about be­ing fact-free, frankly. So if some­body says, “gosh we’ve got an elec­tric­ity grid that was de­signed for cen­tralised, syn­chro­nous gen­er­a­tion, and that’s changed be­cause of all this wind and so­lar and so forth and that has ad­verse implications un­less we ad­dress them” – if say­ing that means you are a cli­mate-change de­nier, or you hate re­new­able en­ergy, that’s lu­di­crous.

Some ar­gue that this is a lit­tle too cute. “I’d be more pre­pared to be­lieve this ra­tio­nale for him chang­ing his po­si­tion if he ac­knowl­edged that he used to hold a dif­fer­ent po­si­tion,” one jaded close ob­server of the prime min­is­ter notes. “But he doesn’t. On all sorts of is­sues he be­haves and talks like ev­ery­thing that he pre­vi­ously be­lieved never hap­pened. I wouldn’t have a prob­lem with Mal­colm say­ing, ‘We made the de­ci­sion not to [have an ETS] for var­i­ous rea­sons, so now we have to ap­proach it dif­fer­ently,’ but in­stead he de­nies it was ever a good idea in the first place.”

What’s more, “If he knows he can’t do some­thing, he then avoids re­spon­si­bil­ity for it. Ap­par­ently the en­ergy cri­sis is all South Aus­tralia’s fault. These are min­nows you are deal­ing with. Why is Mal­colm not call­ing on the ACT gov­ern­ment to build a clean-coal power sta­tion?”

There are two cru­cial implications that flow from hav­ing a deal-mak­ing prime min­is­ter like Turn­bull. The first is that it leaves him vul­ner­a­ble to both sides of pol­i­tics paint­ing him in their colours, in an age where the ma­jor par­ties are des­per­ately try­ing to give a ra­bid ide­o­log­i­cal edge to their col­laps­ing pol­icy plat­forms. And he does not have the po­lit­i­cal skills to be able to re­sist these char­ac­ter­i­sa­tions.

The sec­ond is that a deal-maker, by na­ture, tends to be re­spond­ing to events rather than shap­ing them. One-off deals also tend not to lend them­selves to a broad strate­gic di­rec­tion.

If some­one else in the cab­i­net was work­ing be­hind the scenes, help­ing set a po­lit­i­cal and pol­icy strat­egy, “he could be left to be a mind-bog­glingly good deal-maker”, our jaded ob­server notes. “But it is mostly Mal­colm alone.”

In the pub­lic ser­vice, as in the cor­po­rate world, there are long-es­tab­lished frame­works for as­sess­ing peo­ple you think might rise up the ranks into po­si­tions of lead­er­ship. They are ex­pected to shape strate­gic think­ing, achieve re­sults, ex­em­plify per­sonal drive and in­tegrity, cul­ti­vate pro­duc­tive work­ing re­la­tion­ships, and com­mu­ni­cate with in­flu­ence (with this last one be­ing rather im­por­tant for a politi­cian).

“If you ran Mal­colm through the fed­eral pub­lic ser­vice’s lead­er­ship ca­pa­bil­ity frame­work, you would find he has none of the lead­er­ship qual­i­ties we de­mand of bu­reau­crats,” a long-time Canberra in­sider ob­serves.

If we try to align this with Turn­bull’s own def­i­ni­tion of the task fac­ing him in Septem­ber 2015, his fail­ings would be that he hasn’t learnt to com­mu­ni­cate with in­flu­ence and “ex­plain the chal­lenges and how to seize the op­por­tu­ni­ties”. Nor has he been able to pro­vide the eco­nomic lead­er­ship that peo­ple took him to be talk­ing about: to restart or rede­fine the eco­nomic de­bate.

It is true that few of our for­mer po­lit­i­cal lead­ers were strong in all these skills. But they usu­ally mas­tered a few.

A less harsh as­sess­ment of Turn­bull would sug­gest that he has spent con­sid­er­able time in­vest­ing in achiev­ing re­sults (if not al­ways get­ting a pay-off), ex­em­pli­fy­ing in­tegrity (in seek­ing to win the trust of his col­leagues) and in cul­ti­vat­ing pro­duc­tive work­ing re­la­tion­ships.

On this last point, he has per­haps been most suc­cess­ful (par­tic­u­larly no­table, given a track record of bro­ken re­la­tion­ships with for­mer part­ners in his busi­ness life). A small team of se­nior cab­i­net min­is­ters has grad­u­ally built up around the prime min­is­ter: Mathias Cor­mann, Peter Dut­ton, Barn­aby Joyce, Arthur Sin­odi­nos, Ge­orge Bran­dis, Christo­pher Pyne, Josh Fry­den­berg, Greg Hunt, Simon Birm­ing­ham.

They may have their own agen­das – as politi­cians al­ways do. But there is a sense of shared pur­pose: to get the gov­ern­ment and the prime min­is­ter to the next elec­tion. The gov­ern­ment has an ef­fec­tive ne­go­ti­at­ing team in the Se­nate, and Cor­mann and Dut­ton as the most se­nior lead­ers of the party’s right form a cru­cial sup­port base for the PM.

“Cab­i­net is co­he­sive but what is hurt­ing [Turn­bull] is ill-discipline across the broader team,” one cab­i­net min­is­ter notes. “That in­cludes ev­ery­one from mar­ginal-seat back­benchers to for­mer cab­i­net min­is­ters.”

Turn­bull has built good re­la­tion­ships with the key cross­bench se­na­tors, who say he will al­ways take their call.

Back­benchers ap­prov­ingly note they can get ac­cess to his of­fice. At some points, Bill Shorten has been sur­prised to have Turn­bull ring him to dis­cuss a po­lit­i­cal dilemma.

The glar­ing prob­lem re­la­tion­ship, though, is the one with his trea­surer, Scott Mor­ri­son. When it comes to the bud­get, or even to Se­nate strat­egy, it can some­times seem that the two men are not talk­ing about the same thing. The prime min­is­ter might be push­ing eq­uity; the trea­surer will come out and talk growth.

Most fa­mously, there was the car crash over tax re­form in the early days of the Turn­bull prime min­is­ter­ship. And within Par­lia­ment House, it is still this episode – along with the ques­tion of whether Turn­bull should have gone straight to the polls after he be­came leader – that gets work­shopped the most.

Mor­ri­son fa­mously did the “front-run­ning” on tax re­form. He was gung-ho to have a big pack­age of changes, in­clud­ing an in­creased GST.

Turn­bull blinked.

How could there be such a mis­un­der­stand­ing be­tween the two most se­nior fig­ures in the gov­ern­ment?

“The prob­lem is,” one source says, “Mal­colm thinks in draft un­til he reaches a firm con­clu­sion. Par­tic­u­larly in the early days, peo­ple were in­ter­pret­ing ‘Hmmm …’ as a green light. All of a sud­den you have po­si­tions splashed across the front page.

“He has had to learn to say to peo­ple, ‘We’re just test­ing the idea here. We’re just dis­cussing the prin­ci­ples.’”

Mor­ri­son, by com­par­i­son, tends to be a bit more, er, lin­ear. “That’s why he was so good in Im­mi­gra­tion,” the same source ob­serves. “There’s a sim­ple mes­sage, a blackand-white propo­si­tion. But he strug­gles more when you have to come up with a nu­anced thread.” As of course you have to do all the time as trea­surer.

In all the re­plays about the early elec­tion op­tion, peo­ple around Turn­bull come back to the point that there were too many un­re­solved is­sues for them to go to the polls.

Tax re­form? Peo­ple seem to for­get that it is up to the states to say by how much the GST might be lifted, and where the money it raises goes. Good luck find­ing agree­ment on this – de­spite the at­tempts to be help­ful from Jay Weather­ill and oth­ers – if the states and La­bor knew that a Coali­tion elec­tion plat­form re­lied on it.

Turn­bull has made ar­gu­ments about why the GST shouldn’t be in­creased. “I know a lot of peo­ple will say, ‘You should just in­crease the GST and then use it to cut com­pany tax, or give it to the states,’” he said in March.

“The prob­lem with rais­ing the GST is that be­cause so many Aus­tralians are not in the tax net, by the time you have kept the bot­tom and sec­ond bot­tom quin­tile – so the bot­tom 40% of house­holds by in­come – com­pen­sated so that they are not ma­te­ri­ally worse off, you have rel­a­tively lit­tle money left.

“That is one clear ob­jec­tion. So the idea that there is this one huge easy pot of gold to grab sim­ply does not stack up. That’s why we re­jected it as a pro­posal last year, and that is the flaw in the ar­gu­ment.”

(Of course, there is ac­tu­ally an­other point here. The aw­ful truth is that the bud­get sit­u­a­tion, the very is­sue of bud­get con­sol­i­da­tion, re­ally means that not ev­ery­one should be fully com­pen­sated for an in­crease in the GST. We are not just talk­ing about a tax-mix switch here. But no­body will say this out loud.)

Per­haps the ultimate test of a prob­lem-solv­ing prime min­is­ter should be: does he solve prob­lems?

Cab­i­net min­is­ters de­fend­ing their boss prof­fer a range of tricky prob­lems – many of which you may have for­got­ten or not known about – that Turn­bull has re­solved. There was a con­flict over wa­ter for South Aus­tralia. The re-es­tab­lish­ment of the Aus­tralian Build­ing and Con­struc­tion Com­mis­sion. The dis­putes over in­de­pen­dent truck driv­ers and vol­un­teer fire­fight­ers. Achiev­ing at least some re­form of the Se­nate (how­ever con­tentious). Find­ing a par­tial so­lu­tion – or a path to one – that may even­tu­ally fa­cil­i­tate a way out of Manus Is­land and Nauru.

A lot of the Turn­bull so­lu­tions have a frus­trat­ingly un­fin­ished qual­ity to them. Take the “so­lu­tion” to the im­passe

over sec­tion 18C of the Racial Dis­crim­i­na­tion Act or the is­sue of same-sex mar­riage.

Delv­ing back into Turn­bull’s time as a min­is­ter in the Howard and Ab­bott gov­ern­ments, there are con­flict­ing views of the suc­cess of two sig­na­ture pol­icy is­sues: re­form­ing the wa­ter mar­ket and im­ple­ment­ing the Na­tional Broad­band Net­work. The crit­ics ar­gue that while Turn­bull does a good job of talk­ing the eco­nomics or the tech­nol­ogy, he of­ten ac­tu­ally blinds peo­ple with sci­ence.

On wa­ter, for ex­am­ple, he saw it as a de­mand prob­lem, when in fact it was a sup­ply is­sue. More prag­matic de­fend­ers say, yes, there may have been a lot that was wrong with his wa­ter deal, “but it got us over the line”.

Turn­bull’s hotch­potch tech­nol­ogy-neu­tral NBN (which has un­canny res­o­nances with the tech­nol­ogy-neu­tral en­ergy de­bate at present) might also have a lot of crit­ics. But, the ar­gu­ment goes, he man­aged to keep the NBN alive when Ab­bott had sworn to get rid of it al­to­gether.

Sim­i­larly, the com­pro­mises Turn­bull made as Op­po­si­tion leader in 2009 with the then La­bor gov­ern­ment to get the car­bon pol­lu­tion re­duc­tion scheme over the line also turned it into a mish­mash. But if it had got through the par­lia­ment, the ar­gu­ment goes, you could then have used Trea­sury and the Pro­duc­tiv­ity Com­mis­sion to “knock the warts off” the scheme over time.

None of this ex­plains some of the in­ex­pli­ca­bly bad pol­icy po­si­tions the Coali­tion gov­ern­ment has locked it­self into, in what has of­ten looked like a mo­ment of brain-snap­ping blind panic.

Some ex­am­ples? Well, with­out doubt the worst was rul­ing out an emis­sions in­ten­sity scheme for the en­ergy sec­tor – a pol­icy that had been care­fully kept alive as an op­tion through the worst of the Ab­bott Ground Zero years.

There was rul­ing out do­ing any­thing on hous­ing tax ar­range­ments. By all means, the Coali­tion might make an ar­gu­ment it didn’t want to touch neg­a­tive gear­ing (even if La­bor’s po­si­tion had left it the room to do so). But why rule out changes to cap­i­tal gains? It just looked pa­thetic.

We come back to the anar­chy that rolls through the Coali­tion and that Turn­bull is un­able to ever quite deal with. The day after he got (or half-got) his com­pany tax cuts through the Se­nate, the prime min­is­ter told the Vic­to­rian Lib­eral Party that “Men­zies re­jected the pop­ulism, the au­thor­i­tar­i­an­ism of both left and right. He knew that the fu­ture … was in the sen­si­ble cen­tre; was in the pol­i­tics, not re­ac­tionary, but lib­eral, proudly lib­eral. Above all, you build from the cen­tre, bring­ing peo­ple to­gether, and that is our com­mit­ment.” It sounded as much a plea as a state­ment.

For it is not at all clear what lies at the “sen­si­ble cen­tre” of Aus­tralian pol­i­tics any­more. All the fun­da­men­tal planks of pol­icy that shaped much of our pol­i­tics over the past three decades have been smashed in re­cent times.

Is there a con­sen­sus on cli­mate change? No. Is there a con­sen­sus on the role of gov­ern­ment? No.

We may have had al­most two decades now of post– Septem­ber 11 ter­ror and global se­cu­rity fears. But there is more re­cent and pro­foundly un­nerv­ing un­cer­tainty. We qui­etly look askance at our most trusted ally, with the rise of Don­ald Trump, and at what is hap­pen­ing in our re­gion, and these are new things to con­tem­plate for an Aus­tralian prime min­is­ter.

This is not a pe­riod for or­tho­doxy, one pol­icy-maker ob­serves. And that makes it hard to set out any vi­sion for the fu­ture. Bu­reau­crats say that Turn­bull has stopped the rot in the pol­icy-mak­ing process and tried to bring rigour and method to it.

Oth­ers ob­serve that the prob­lem he has with peo­ple’s huge ex­pec­ta­tions is repli­cated in other coun­tries: in the US with Obama, in In­dia with Naren­dra Modi, in Canada with Justin Trudeau.

“Peo­ple pro­ject onto him what they want,” one source says. “There are con­tra­dic­tory ex­pec­ta­tions. The pub­lic and the me­dia de­luded them­selves that he could change the na­ture of his party, but it is still split be­tween mod­er­ates and con­ser­va­tives. In the Men­zies era, it was an­chored in the idea of small busi­ness. The split is now on more con­tentious is­sues. It used to be eco­nomics is­sues that were the points of di­vi­sion. Now it is the so­cial ones.”

So we have a flawed prime min­is­ter, con­strained by a party that is not in­ter­ested in re­solv­ing its di­vi­sions, and with a prob­lem-solv­ing ap­proach that, one by one, deals with is­sues via re­sponses of vary­ing qual­ity. His is­sue-by-is­sue ap­proach, though, makes it dif­fi­cult to con­struct an over­all strat­egy.

He does not lead a great or in­spi­ra­tional gov­ern­ment. He can ar­gue it has made the par­lia­ment work more ef­fec­tively than its pre­de­ces­sor.

The pub­lic and the me­dia de­luded them­selves that he could change the na­ture of his party

It is not a dis­as­trous or aw­ful or em­bar­rass­ing gov­ern­ment. How­ever, if it con­tin­ues as it is, it will al­most cer­tainly be de­feated at the next elec­tion.

What are Turn­bull’s op­tions?

While bud­gets don’t have the punch­ing power they once had to change the po­lit­i­cal nar­ra­tive, this year’s looms as a cru­cial op­por­tu­nity for the prime min­is­ter and his gov­ern­ment to make peo­ple take a sec­ond look at them.

As the bud­get prepa­ra­tions con­tin­ued through April, min­is­ters were hop­ing that the mix would in­clude poli­cies that ad­dressed not just the hot-but­ton is­sues of the econ­omy – such as hous­ing af­ford­abil­ity – but the role of gov­ern­ment it­self.

If the bud­get con­tained clear state­ments about the way the Coali­tion sees its role in ar­eas such as ed­u­ca­tion, health and ba­sic in­fras­truc­ture for our boom­ing ci­ties, it might help change the prism through which peo­ple view it from one of ide­o­log­i­cal con­flict to one more in tune with vot­ers’ de­sires.

Phys­i­cal in­fras­truc­ture, in par­tic­u­lar, is some­thing that vot­ers can grasp as a tan­gi­ble achieve­ment.

In turn, if the con­ver­sa­tion changed from “things the gov­ern­ment is ar­gu­ing about” to “things the gov­ern­ment is do­ing”, there would be more scope to shift qui­etly back to­wards the cen­tre.

That was the hope, any­way.

At some point, Turn­bull’s col­leagues will have to con­sider whether they share some of the re­spon­si­bil­ity for the gov­ern­ment’s for­tunes, or whether it re­ally can be sheeted home to one per­son.

Since John Howard was un­cer­e­mo­ni­ously booted out of his seat in 2007, we’ve seen sev­eral prime min­is­ters try dif­fer­ent ap­proaches to strad­dling the col­lapse of the old po­lit­i­cal or­der and pol­icy or­tho­dox­ies. None has re­ally worked.

Part of the col­lapse of the older or­der that has seen prime min­is­ters be­come so vul­ner­a­ble, and so ut­terly dom­i­nant in the day-to-day as­sess­ments of pol­i­tics, is the grad­ual ero­sion in sta­ble votes for the ma­jor par­ties.

Most of the con­ver­sa­tion about this fo­cuses on the Se­nate cross­bench. But it is just as im­por­tant in the way it af­fects the psy­chol­ogy of the ma­jor par­ties as they con­tem­plate their prospects of win­ning ma­jor­ity gov­ern­ment in the fu­ture.

The ma­jor par­ties have two pos­si­bil­i­ties to ex­plore here, both of which hold out the prom­ise of their sal­va­tion, and, more im­por­tantly, ours.

The first is for the ma­jor par­ties to recog­nise they are killing them­selves, and en­abling the mi­nor par­ties, with their on­go­ing hard­line at­tacks on each other and their re­fusal to find the points of com­pro­mise that vot­ers yearn for.

The sec­ond sounds more rad­i­cal but is also a live one and in­volves a trans­for­ma­tion in the way we see mi­nor­ity gov­ern­ment.

Many vot­ers greeted Aus­tralia’s brief dal­liance with mi­nor­ity gov­ern­ment be­tween 2010 and 2013 with hor­ror, un­nerved by a sense of the in­sta­bil­ity of the ar­range­ment. But given how un­sta­ble things seem these days, even with the ma­jor­ity gov­ern­ments of Ab­bott and Turn­bull, the next stage of our po­lit­i­cal evo­lu­tion may ac­tu­ally lie in mi­nor­ity gov­ern­ment.

In coun­tries from Nor­way to New Zealand, changes in pol­i­tics or changes in vot­ing sys­tems have seen mi­nor­ity gov­ern­ment be­come a per­ma­nent fea­ture of the po­lit­i­cal land­scape. New Zealand’s po­lit­i­cal par­ties have had to strike very dif­fer­ent ne­go­ti­at­ing ar­range­ments, and ac­cept that they have to work to­gether, long be­fore pol­icy op­tions come up in the par­lia­ment. The re­sult is prag­ma­tism rather than “op­po­si­tion­ism”, and New Zealand has been able to con­tinue to re­make it­self, while Aus­tralia’s ca­pac­ity to con­duct a grown-up de­bate about al­most any­thing has stalled.

It may just be that in our dis­il­lu­sion with the ma­jor par­ties we are pre­par­ing the ground that forces them to res­ur­rect them­selves.

Whether we can give up our love af­fair with the prime min­is­te­rial soap opera, how­ever, is an­other ques­tion.

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