Inside Story

Prometheus bound

Malcolm Turnbull is just the latest victim of Australia’s political system

Peter Brent 18 November 2016 873 words

Different destinies: prime minister Malcolm Turnbull with NZ prime minister John Key (right) and US president Barack Obama at the East Asia Summit in September. Ritchie B. Tongo/EPA

It wasn’t supposed to be like this. This time last year, Malcolm Turnbull, soaring in the polls, was destined to be Australia’s answer to New Zealand’s John Key (whom Turnbull described to Barack Obama as a “role model”). Politically centrist and successful, that is.

Turnbull was the leader Australians had long craved – rising above petty politics, levelling with voters (within certain constraints) and treating them as grown-ups – and they reacted positively.

How long ago it all was. Now the Coalition consistently trails in the polls, the prime ministerial ratings languish, and Turnbull has become another shrill, hyperpartisan Australian political leader. At times he seems only a “death cult” rant away from morphing totally into his predecessor.

Like Tony Abbott in his final months, Turnbull increasingly depends on his party’s cranky right wing for his very survival; motivated by Donald Trump’s victory across the Pacific, God help us, he has even started banging on about “elites.”

How did it all go so wrong?

One narrative has it that Australians expected the new prime minister to suddenly embrace climate change action, gay marriage and a slew of causes close to his cosmopolitan, socially progressive heart. But anyone who anticipated these things had not been paying attention; forswearing a carbon price and supporting the same-sex marriage plebiscite were obviously conditions for his elevation last September. And the job he was taking was leader of the Liberal Party, which is a conservative outfit.

But on a road not travelled – a big Coalition win in July 2016 – who knows where we’d be now? Ultimately, the authority of party leaders among their MPs and their wider parties derives mostly from electoral success and perceived political indispensability: a prime minister with a big mandate could have dragged the party further towards his own inclinations.

But that still doesn’t tell us what happened to the open, confident, earnest, expansive helmsman Australians saw, and mostly appreciated, in late 2015. The rot had set in long before the election was even called. Something happened in the new year; Turnbull’s demeanour changed.

The public opinion polls narrowed, for one thing. The government’s big leads became more modest and the PM’s personal ratings dipped to sub-stratospheric levels. Which was the chicken and which the egg? Almost certainly, the polls, and probably internal party research, led to a shift to a more traditional mode of political behaviour. The thought-bubbling, the bringing us into his confidence, was replaced with the standard Australian political modus operandi, which mostly involves thundering about the destruction the other side would bring if it were ever elected to government.

Australians claim to hate that kind of behaviour in politicians, but party strategists believe it works.

Then came the election result, with the count for a few days pointing at a hung parliament. Critics within the Coalition grasped the opportunity, and the bubble was well and truly burst.

It all feels familiar. He has turned into Abbott, who had himself, with the world seemingly at his feet after the big 2013 election win, ended up resembling Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd at their most ineffectual. Could it be that the position, or the political system, now ruins whoever is the current occupant?

Those who yearn for the great leaders of bygone eras – the Hawkes and the Howards – need to remember the conditions those politicians governed under: namely, a galloping world economy and, compared to today, compliant Senates. Imagine a Rudd government legislating its emissions trading scheme, Gillard her Malaysia arrangements and Abbott (with modifications) his 2014 horror budget.

Yes, Turnbull’s political judgement can be questionable. Springing the idea of handing income-tax powers back to the states in March remains the most astonishing example. Floating a GST broadening and/or increase before an election was interesting. But all our prime ministers have blundered from time to time.

The chief reason Turnbull will never be John Key is that New Zealand’s national parliament has only one chamber. In 2011, Key increased his country’s GST despite promising not to do so before the previous election. Voters got over it. That’s how reform was done the Hawke/Howard/Keating/Costello way.

A few months ago, the Australian’s Robert Gottliebsen told readers what he would do if he were treasurer. The blueprint contained, as you might expect, a severe set of prescriptions.

But Gottliebsen’s premise was wrong. He couldn’t do those things because any legislation enabling the wishlist would never get through the upper house. In fact, his prime minister and cabinet colleagues would likely not even try, given the guarantee of prolonged grief with no payoff. Opinionistas, of course, would complain about the lack of will for reform in today’s generation of politicians.

Turnbull, after a professional life using brains and cunning to bend circumstances to his purposes, has finally met his match: the Australian political system. He is just its latest victim. And because shrinking major-party support means big Senate crossbenches are here to stay, he won’t be the last. •