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State of the Left - Australia

What is Malcolm Turnbull actually for?

John McTernan - 19 May 2016

Labor has surprised many by reclaiming ground from the governing Coalition on the issues of education and fiscal prudence ahead of Australia’s double dissolution

Australia has a federal election. I know, I know, it seems like moments since the last one. And it is – well at least in political terms. The electoral cycle is only three years – a far cry from Britain's five-year fixed terms. To an outsider it seems as if that is barely enough time to do anything between elections. To insiders – trust me – it doesn't feel short at all. You can change a country in a short time as Gough Whitlam did – abolishing capital punishment, withdrawing from Vietnam, expanding free higher education, lowering the voting age to 18, recognising Aboriginal rights and much, much more – all during a short and chaotic reign. The trick is to know want you want to do. This election contest is illustrating just that point.

This will be one of the longest election campaigns in Australian history – the vote is not until 2 July. The length of the campaign is determined by the fact that there is a double dissolution – the whole of the Senate is up for grabs as well as the lower house, the House of Representatives. Malcolm Turnbull, the current prime minister and leader of the Liberal party, has decided to go for his own unchallenged mandate. But as the launch of the election has approached – it has been anticipated for all this year – the question has become not just ‘a mandate for what?’, but a mandate ‘over whom’.

Australian politics has a well-deserved reputation for robustness – though almost all the people involved are unfailingly polite and charming. In recent years the expression of this has not been verbal pyrotechnics in the chamber but ruthless assassination of leaders. While John Howard was prime minister for over 11 years, Labour from 2007 to 2013 had three PMs – Kevin Rudd, Julia Gillard and then Kevin Rudd again. Not to be outdone, the Liberal party – who govern in coalition with the smaller National party – have had two PMs in three years. Tony Abbott who – in the Australian political jargon – ‘rolled’ Malcolm Turnbull in opposition was himself ‘rolled’ by Turnbull. Five changes of prime minister in nine years! It’s only really comparable to Italy in the 1970s and 80s. So, in one way, the question at this election is what is Malcolm Turnbull for?

When Turnbull won in spring (the northern hemisphere autumn) last year, the answer was clear – the bloodletting was over and the new PM would be PM for as long as he wanted to be. At Christmas, as the summer holidays started, you could feel a palpable relief across the country. Quite simply put: the country was pleased it had a prime minister it was no longer embarrassed about. Tony Abbott, who in opposition was the master of the soundbite, the three word ‘grab’, was unable to master the longer form of speaking in public. You had no idea what he would say, but you knew it would embarrass you as an Australian. Refugees? Muslims in Europe? Women in public life? It didn’t matter, it was guaranteed to make you cringe. If ‘Dad dancing’ took verbal shape it would be a Tony Abbott press conference. In contrast, Malcolm Turnbull was suave and sophisticated. Where Abbott made a truly cringeworthy eulogy in the Australian parliament for Margaret Thatcher (no, me neither), Turnbull gave a spellbinding speech on the death of author and art critic Robert Hughes. Chalk and cheese – or should one say fresco and graffiti?

Then three problems emerged for Turnbull. First, just being able to talk turned out to be way too low a bar. Content – what you actually talked about – mattered, and Turnbull's strength has turned out to be the higher waffle. He is all sizzle and no steak. Second, Tony Abbott has stuck around – he didn't, as some of his closet associates advised at the time, resign at the election. Abbott speaks to ‘clarify’ things about his record, but in truth he reminds votes that he was around – and threatens a return, or at least an attempted return. Third, Australian Labor are not flat on their back – they have bounced back and are competitive, so there’s a real choice.

Bill Shorten, Labor’s leader, was regarded by many commentators as a placeholder – the man who would take a defeat but then make way for the next leader who would be a realistic contender for PM. Shorten deployed his most underestimated strength, his rapacious and creative political and policy intelligence. He used the unity of opposition to lead, and the space and time to rethink Labor policy. As a consequence he answered the most important question asked by voters of a defeated government – ‘Are you too tired to govern?’ – with a resounding ‘no!’ His ideas were good enough to be stolen by Turnbull, so Shorten has the great punchline: never has an opposition had so many policies adopted by a government. (With the implicit rider that if voters liked those ones, there are plenty more where they came from.) More importantly, Shorten has claimed two issues from the Liberals: education and fiscal prudence. Education is traditionally a progressive party’s strongest suit but successful conservatives at least contest the issue – Turnbull has fled the field of battle, almost as if he has accepted it is a Labor issue. So Shorten has promised parents of pupils – in public and private schools alike – big spending increases. But paid for with a coherent set of fair tax reforms that add up. Turnbull, in contrast, has talked for nine months about reform but his proposal is a tax cut for big business. That’s a choice Labor relish.

Where will this leave Australia? It’s hard to say. Labor’s defeat last time was severe. There's a lot of ground to make up. And Australia, like the UK, traditionally gives new governments a second term. But there is a genuine contest which even six months ago didn’t seem likely. A long election campaign should favour the incumbent – if, that is, they have something to say. The fact that it is not clear that the Liberals do is both a sign of Turnbull's failure and Shorten’s success. Game on.

John McTernan is a writer and broadcaster and was head of communications for former Australian prime minister Julia Gillard

This article is a contribution to State of the Left – Policy Network's regular insight bulletin reporting from across the world of social democratic politics

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The Policy Network Observatory promotes critical debate and reflection on progressive politics. It is centre-left orientated but determinedly challenges social democracy. It is pro-European but restlessly questions EU institutions and practices.

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