Tony Ab­bott is look­ing bet­ter by the week as this dis­mal decade draws to a close


It is more than a prime min­is­te­rial melt­down, par­lia­men­tary show­down, in­ter­nal break­down and con­sti­tu­tional shake­down. We seem to be suf­fer­ing the sum of all our mis­takes. Christ­mas al­ways looked a long way off for Malcolm Turn­bull and now the na­tion must long for a fes­tive sea­son re­boot in the hope of more or­der and pur­pose in the new year.

Pol­i­tics, as a rule, is never as good or as bad as it seems but com­ing months could bring a se­ries of by-elec­tions, a change in prime

min­is­ter, a mi­nor­ity govern­ment, a gen­eral elec­tion or all of the above. Prospects for good gov­er­nance seem re­mote. Even the tor­tu­ous path to same-sex mar­riage is more per­ilous as op­po­nents seek to ex­ploit the dis­ar­ray. It is 10 years this month since Aus­tralia vol­un­tar­ily, but not know­ingly, departed from good govern­ment. Kevin Rudd promised con­ti­nu­ity of eco­nomic con­ser­vatism and sober ad­min­is­tra­tion, tempt­ing vot­ers to punt on change with­out con­se­quence.

It trig­gered a dis­mal decade; ma­jor par­ties be­trayed con­stituents and val­ues while in­sti­tu­tions, mi­nor par­ties and me­dia all contributed to the par­lous sit­u­a­tion.

We ap­proach the end of 2017 seem­ingly un­governed and al­most un­govern­able. The Prime Min­is­ter is paral­ysed by in­de­ci­sion and sur­rounded by ob­sta­cles. The par­lia­ment is frag­mented and in­tran­si­gent. La­bor is ob­struc­tive and as­cen­dant. The me­dia is Balka­nised and su­per­fi­cial. Uni­ver­si­ties, bu­reau­cra­cies and pub­lic broad­cast­ers are ac­tivist and mis­lead­ing.

Thank­fully, the asi­nine na­tional de­bate does not hob­ble the coun­try; while the dis­ar­ray un­der­mines con­fi­dence and de­lays progress our econ­omy, ser­vices and civil so­ci­ety func­tion largely un­hin­dered. Still, left un­ad­dressed, this malaise will hurt us all. Imag­ine an­other decade such as this.

A reck­on­ing has long been in­evitable. We ex­pected a fis­cal re­cal­i­bra­tion man­aged sen­si­bly by govern­ment or some­thing more dra­matic im­posed by eco­nomic calamity. Per­haps we hadn’t con­sid­ered an­other op­tion: po­lit­i­cal dys­func­tion con­spir­ing to take us deeper into the self-harm of de­nial, more spend­ing, deeper debt, in­creased taxes, higher en­ergy prices and less re­form. Strap your­selves in be­cause that is what Bill Shorten is promis­ing.

If the Op­po­si­tion Leader’s eco­nomic pre­scrip­tion isn’t wor­ry­ing enough, look at his po­lit­i­cal strat­egy: block­ing, de­stroy­ing or un­der­min­ing vir­tu­ally ev­ery­thing an elected govern­ment at­tempts. Man­date is not in his lex­i­con. (Crit­ics of­ten ar­gue this was Tony Ab­bott’s ap­proach in op­po­si­tion but all the Coali­tion was able to block, with the Greens, was Rudd’s emis­sions trad­ing scheme and Ju­lia Gil­lard’s so-called Malaysia so­lu­tion).

On Wed­nes­day, Turn­bull had a 90-minute meet­ing with Shorten to dis­cuss the el­i­gi­bil­ity cri­sis threat­en­ing the le­git­i­macy of the par­lia­ment and the sur­vival of the govern­ment, yet they emerged with no con­sen­sus, no so­lu­tion and with the Op­po­si­tion Leader hold­ing the up­per hand.

Shorten ex­tended the Prime Min­is­ter’s pur­ga­tory, forc­ing Turn­bull to stew with­out a clear way out. In ac­tions rather than words it was a par­ti­san play rem­i­nis­cent of Paul Keat­ing’s fa­mous taunt to John Hew­son: “Mate, I want to do you slowly.”

That an op­po­si­tion leader can lord it over a prime min­is­ter like this says it all — es­pe­cially when Shorten’s own du­plic­ity is ob­vi­ous as he stands by four of his own MPs whose el­i­gi­bil­ity is du­bi­ous. The cit­i­zen­ship im­broglio is not one of Turn­bull’s mak­ing but he has han­dled it badly. It was clear at least three months ago that de­ci­sive ac­tion was re­quired but he stalled and hoped. He was too op­ti­mistic and em­phatic about what the High Court would find, too slow to ex­am­ine foren­si­cally the sta­tus of his own MPs and too re­luc­tant to force an au­dit of some kind.

His hand was even­tu­ally forced not just by La­bor but by con­ser­va­tive Lib­eral MPs loyal to Ab­bott and then, tellingly, by the for­mer prime min­is­ter him­self, just hours be­fore Turn­bull re­lented.

The Prime Min­is­ter in­creas­ingly is cap­tive to events rather than shap­ing them. Weighed down by his own Newspoll bal­last, Turn­bull’s in­abil­ity to cre­ate a sense of pur­pose or de­fine a nar­ra­tive means he has hit this un­fore­seen cit­i­zen­ship cri­sis with­out the mo­men­tum and au­thor­ity to carry him through. He seems stuck, with sur­vival the only im­per­a­tive.

He has started to crack un­der the glare. His shrill in­vo­ca­tion of the Holo­caust to de­fend Josh Fry­den­berg’s cit­i­zen­ship sta­tus was over the top. Turn­bull also snapped back at provo­ca­tions on break­fast tele­vi­sion. His self-as­sess­ment that he was a “good man in a cri­sis” was redo­lent of Mar­garet Thatcher’s line that be­ing pow­er­ful is like be­ing a lady: if you have to tell peo­ple you are then you aren’t.

The fig­ure­head of the Lib­eral “mod­er­ate” fac­tion, Turn­bull faces a toxic me­dia en­vi­ron­ment that he has never mas­tered. As a foil to Ab­bott he was al­ways lured by the flat­tery of pro­gres­sive me­dia such as the ABC and Fair­fax Me­dia. Now, as Prime Min­is­ter, he sees how these jour­nal­ists will bar­rack for Lib­er­als against con­ser­va­tive col­leagues but not against the La­bor-Greens al­liance. When the go­ing gets tough, his me­dia al­lies see him only as a wounded Tory.

Yet he gets pain from the other side, too. Much of the main­stream me­dia, from Syd­ney ra­dio sta­tion 2GB’s Alan Jones and Ray Hadley to Sky News hosts An­drew Bolt and Paul Mur­ray — along with a raft of news­pa­per colum­nists — have been an­tipa­thetic to Turn­bull since the day he felled Ab­bott. Rather than at­tempt­ing to en­gage with these crit­ics and their au­di­ences, Turn­bull has avoided them and deep­ened the en­mity.

So in­stead of com­mu­ni­cat­ing with the Lib­eral base he seeks clear air on break­fast TV, FM ra­dio and the Ten Net­work’s The Project, talk­ing to peo­ple who may be like­lier to seek a selfie with Turn­bull than vote for him.

For all its po­lit­i­cal fail­ings and elec­toral self-harm, the Coali­tion has been far bet­ter for the na­tion than the dis­as­trous six years un­der La­bor. Rudd and Gil­lard wrecked the bud­get with pan­icked and waste­ful spend­ing, ce­mented per­ma­nent ex­pen­di­ture growth such as the Gon­ski ed­u­ca­tion fund­ing and Na­tional Dis­abil­ity In­sur­ance Scheme, started ill-con­ceived and un­sus­tain­able boon­dog­gles such as the Na­tional Broad­band Net­work, and jumped head­long into reck­less car­bon pric­ing and re­new­able en­ergy tar­gets. Un­der Ab­bott and Turn­bull the Coali­tion has stanched the dam­age.

Ab­bott axed the min­ing and car­bon taxes and stopped the boats, but his first bud­get broke prom­ises, set up in­evitable road­blocks and cre­ated the cli­mate for Turn­bull to pounce. Turn­bull’s bud­get ap­proach has been more about the pos­si­ble, dodg­ing se­ri­ous re­pair but low­er­ing La­bor’s tra­jec­tory of ex­pen­di­ture growth, start­ing to re­duce taxes and be­gin­ning to tackle the en­ergy mess.

The dishar­mony, di­shevel­ment and in­ep­ti­tude of the Ab­bott and Turn­bull gov­ern­ments has made them seem worse than the sum of their achieve­ments. Just as Democrats must con­cede Don­ald Trump’s rise is an in­dict­ment of Barack Obama’s pres­i­dency, the prospect of a Shorten prime min­is­ter­ship is surely the most damn­ing de­mon­stra­tion of squan­dered Coali­tion op­por­tu­ni­ties.

With just two sit­ting weeks left this year, Turn­bull needs a process to deal with the cit­i­zen­ship cri­sis with­out rob­bing him of his ma­jor­ity. As this col­umn fore­shad­owed four weeks ago, he is pre­oc­cu­pied with sur­viv­ing un­til Christ­mas. Along the way he will also want to make his­tory by de­liv­er­ing gay mar­riage. This would give him a small tem­po­rary boost and, in the midst of con­tem­po­rary trauma, per­haps pro­vide the en­dur­ing high point of his prime min­is­ter­ship. La­bor’s de­mands to fast-track and strengthen Turn­bull’s cit­i­zen­ship tests are dif­fi­cult for the Prime Min­is­ter to refuse and chal­leng­ing to im­ple­ment. More cases will be flushed out. Shorten was taunted by Turn­bull into re­veal­ing his own Bri­tish cit­i­zen­ship re­nun­ci­a­tion pa­pers in Septem­ber. Now he is glow­ing in schaden­freude.

While ever a govern­ment is alive there is Mi­caw­ber’s hope that some­thing will show up. But the fore­cast looks tor­rid for the Coali­tion. Some of the wis­est heads in par­lia­ment and pun­ditry point out that the mod­ern habit of leadership switch­ing is fatal. To dump an­other prime min­is­ter, like an­other swipe on po­lit­i­cal Tin­der, runs the risk of con­firm­ing the shal­low­ness of the en­ter­prise.

But there is a large coun­ter­point to this as­sess­ment and that is that the per­son who cre­ated this sce­nario was Turn­bull. The Coali­tion should have learned all the lessons about sta­bil­ity, weath­er­ing dif­fi­cult times and avoid­ing leadership con­vul­sions. But Turn­bull took them down this path in 2015, invit­ing in­tense pres­sure to per­form and a hellish de­noue­ment for fail­ure. Vot­ers know this. It is why the Coali­tion has lost stand­ing in the polls, not to La­bor but to break­aways on the right.

This is why one leadership al­ter­na­tive will al­ways re­main for the Coali­tion: not an­other un­ex­plained con­tor­tion but a re­ver­sion. Yes, just like Rudd. Not in the midst of this cit­i­zen­ship cri­sis, to be sure, but a re­turn to Ab­bott can­not be ruled out be­cause it would re­in­stall some­one elected in a land­slide in 2013 and robbed of a chance at re-elec­tion. Mar­ginal MPs know Ab­bott would fight Shorten on core is­sues di­vid­ing the ma­jor par­ties. He is not pop­u­lar but he has le­git­i­macy and known cam­paign­ing skills. As has been the case since 2009, Turn­bull and Ab­bott re­main the only Coali­tion op­tions this side of an elec­tion.

Due to his poli­cies and his cyn­i­cal ap­proach, we can­not ex­pect a Shorten govern­ment to cor­rect the na­tional bear­ing. With­out ma­jor ad­just­ment he would most likely en­sure this lost pe­riod of the post-Howard decade is ex­tended. We need to con­front the sober­ing re­al­ity that it might only be the next gen­er­a­tion of leadership, on ei­ther side of the aisle, that holds our best hopes.

That an op­po­si­tion leader can lord it over a prime min­is­ter like this says it all

Bill Shorten

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