End of an error: How Turnbull triumphed
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When Malcolm Turnbull met Warren Truss to resolve a new Coalition agreement on Tuesday morning, he walked around to the Nationals leader’s office.
Truss, as deputy prime minister, still technically outranked the freshly elected Liberal leader, and Turnbull would need the support of the Nationals to be sworn in as prime minister.
Visiting Truss in his office, rather than summoning him, was a display of deference and a deliberate signal that the autocratic style many in the Coalition remember from Turnbull’s stint as opposition leader was gone.
For that is the first thing Turnbull wants his colleagues to know about how he will lead. He spelled it out immediately after ousting Tony Abbott late Monday, promising to be a “thoroughly consultative” leader, heading a “traditional cabinet government”.
It was, Turnbull’s supporters say, a restoration of process rather than a revolution.
Turnbull wanted to distinguish himself from his predecessor’s captain’s picks and the command-and-control approach of Abbott’s office, but also from his own reputation for arrogance.
“The prime minister of Australia is not a president,” he said in some of his first comments as leader on Monday night. “The prime minister is the first among equals.”
The second thing he wants his colleagues to know is that he will represent their views and not his.
Turnbull met with Truss to listen to what the Nationals wanted and then give it to them. In writing. Even if it clashed with principles he had publicly owned on climate policy and same-sex marriage.
It’s a message he needs to get across to his conservative colleagues, but it may be a hard sell to the broader public, whose affection for Turnbull is based to a great extent on his passionate defence of his principles.
And that’s where the third prong of the Turnbull strategy comes in: he’s relying on his silver tongue to explain away his conversion.
Launching his challenge just after 4pm on Monday, he pitched himself as the great explainer, who could offer “advocacy, not slogans”. His supporters argue he will be able to debate the big issues and engage the community, without it descending into an argument and confrontation for the sake of political pointscoring. “He will talk to people,” says one Turnbull backer, “not at them.”
That’s Turnbull’s promise to voters: he will lift the standard of debate. “We need,” he said, “to respect the intelligence of the Australian people.”
His pitch related mainly to his ability to sell an economic vision. It was a brutal demolition of Abbott and, by implication, treasurer Joe Hockey. But his first challenge has been to explain his own recalibration. He may respect the intelligence of the Australian people but that is not to say he will advocate the positions they expect of him.
Predictably, Labor leader Bill Shorten used question time to accuse the new prime minister of having “sold out his principles to achieve his personal ambition”.
Turnbull rose to the occasion, arguing eloquently and unashamedly against his earlier views.
On both climate and same-sex marriage, he resorted to process, rather than principle. The ends, he argued, mattered more than the means.
“It does not matter how you cut emissions as long as they are cut,” Turnbull declared, heartily endorsing the Coalition’s Direct Action scheme and emissions reduction targets. In 2010 he called the scheme a “recipe for fiscal recklessness”.
On a same-sex marriage plebiscite, he did not shift from Abbott’s position: “Giving everybody a say on an important issue is surely a very legitimate and reasonable approach.”
It was a performance that Labor frontbencher Tony Burke summarised as “a nicer suit, but basically it was Tony Abbott with elocution”. That’s what Labor wants voters to think: nothing has really changed. It’s the same line the Coalition used when Labor twice rolled their leader and prime minister.
In his first comments on Monday night, Turnbull also promised to lead a “thoroughly Liberal government committed to freedom, the individual and the market”.
By the following day, he was already tempering these sentiments, telling colleagues he understood the party was a “broad church”, combining both Liberal and Conservative traditions. It’s a description frequently invoked by John Howard, with whom Turnbull had already spoken.
In the Liberals’ party room meeting on Tuesday, he harked back to the Howard era by promising Coalition MPs there would be an “open and collaborative culture” in his office. He cited the regime run by Howard’s former chief of staff and current senator Arthur Sinodinos as the “gold standard”. His message was that the so-called culture of fear and intimidation that some MPs had blamed on Peta Credlin, Abbott’s chief of staff, was over.
Come Tuesday, it was time for Turnbull to court the rural-based party, whose agitation against emissions trading had contributed to the collapse of his leadership and the rise of Abbott six years ago.
The talks with Truss lasted just 30 minutes and the details were finalised in time for Australia’s 29th prime minister to be sworn in before question time, delaying it by only half an hour. The revolving door on Australia’s leadership was turning again, ushering in the fourth prime minister in just over two years.
If Turnbull has learnt anything from Abbott, it is the maxim once espoused by the prime minister he deposed: in a choice between policy purity and political pragmatism, “I’ll take pragmatism every time”.
Pragmatism was the guiding principle in the Coalition this week, as Liberals who were spooked by the prospect of electoral wipeout under Abbott overcame their reservations about rolling a first-term prime minister and replacing a conservative leader with one who is considered progressive.
Late Monday night, they backed Turnbull over Abbott, 54 votes to 44, finishing what they had begun in February, when Abbott survived the “near-death experience” of a spill motion with no declared opponent, 61 votes to 39. Turnbull had kept his powder dry at that time, waiting until he had the numbers to launch his challenge.
In marshalling those numbers, he was assisted by Sinodinos, Mal Brough, Scott Ryan, Mitch Fifield and Simon Birmingham. Wyatt Roy, parliament’s youngest member, was the first MP to publicly back Turnbull in the hours ahead of the ballot.
The polls, which had not been kind to Abbott, immediately surged into euphoric territory for Turnbull. In modern politics, the polls giveth and they taketh away.
Howard – whom Abbott considers one of his mentors – made his reservations apparent in a press conference on Tuesday: “If polls had been different, even to a modest but measurable degree, then there may not have been a change.”
As to whether the Liberal Party had made the right decision, Howard replied: “Ultimately the Australian people will decide that.”
The polls had been thrown into sharp relief by this Saturday’s byelection in Canning. Still, it was not just the polls. There was also mounting frustration on the frontbench with Abbott’s disregard for cabinet processes. After the February spill motion, backbench agitators had told frontbenchers it was now up to them to make the next move.
As deputy leader, Julie Bishop played a central role in bringing events to a head, visiting Abbott about noon on Monday to tell him he had lost the support of the party room. Turnbull was preparing to challenge, she said, and would win. Even some of Turnbull’s close supporters only learnt of her move after Turnbull went to see Abbott following question time.
Bishop retained the deputy’s role, which she has held since 2007, defeating Defence Minister Kevin Andrews, who attracted 30 votes from rusted-on conservatives alarmed that two moderates could lead the party. Scott Morrison reportedly declined a request from Abbott to stand as his deputy and, while backing him in the ballot, did not tell his supporters to do the same. Cue accusations of treachery from the Abbott camp.
In a series of interviews the next day, Bishop explained that Abbott had been given six months from February to turn things around, but the government continued to languish.
“There were a range of issues, from management style to policy decisions to communication,” she told The Project on Network Ten. “But at the end of the day we had to ensure we were getting [out] our message, the right message, with the right policies for the Australian people, and there was a concern by the majority of the party that this was not happening.”
The Nationals have always been more forgiving of Abbott’s faults than of Turnbull’s. Now, for the first time, they wanted conditions on the Coalition agreement to be in writing.
“The Nationals have obviously had policy disagreements with Malcolm Turnbull in the past,” Truss said after signing the deal, “and wanted to be sure we could support him.”
Truss had just come from his own party room, where he had to hose down MPs who argued the Nationals should flex some muscle and insist parliament be adjourned so a new Coalition agreement could be negotiated at leisure, to make Turnbull sweat on it.
Such bolshieness is not Truss’s style. He and others from the old guard were adamant they should not rock the boat too much. Still, Truss knew he had to deliver for his MPs. And Turnbull knows he has an easier job dealing with Truss than he would with Barnaby Joyce, should he become Nationals leader.
Nationals sources claim that, in the brief negotiation with Turnbull, they got everything they asked for.
The pledge not to pursue an emissions trading scheme was the sine qua non for the Nationals, but the deal went further. The list of 10 issues included a vow to stick with Abbott’s preference for a post-election plebiscite on same-sex marriage, even though Turnbull criticised this just last month; a promise that cabinet would consider a toughening of competition law known as an “effects test”, which is opposed by big business; and more money for stay-at-home mums.
The Nationals’ young Turks talked it up as a big win for the junior party, but Truss suggested otherwise: “A very substantial part of this agreement is about cementing existing policies.”
That Turnbull was quick to renounce his former views on climate policy was no great shock to anyone who had watched him limbering up for months to lunge for the leadership.
In the past year he had changed his tune on Direct Action, praising Environment Minister Greg Hunt for making it a plausible scheme.
What did come as a surprise was his willingness to give the Nationals control over billions of dollars of water licences that had been bought in the past five years to restore the health of the Murray-Darling river system.
It was all the more surprising given it was Turnbull who, as environment and water minister in 2007, enacted legislation to revive the river system jeopardised by the overuse of water for farming. Now he will hand its management over to the party that unashamedly puts farmers’ interests first.
Joyce had pushed unsuccessfully for this when the Coalition came to power in 2013. Lest there be any doubt about his approach, Joyce was frank about his priorities: “There’s not much point having an environmental outcome if there’s no one there to enjoy it.”
As the Greens warned that this was akin to putting the fox in charge of the hen house, Turnbull argued the legislative dimension of water reform was finished and farmers, as “the best environmentalists in Australia”, were well equipped to manage it.
The deal with the Nationals was the extension of a charm offensive Turnbull had mounted for several months as communications minister, using his support for media ownership reforms shelved by Abbott but favoured by regional broadcasters to woo rural MPs and persuade them he would listen to their concerns.
“He’s been assiduous in meeting regional Liberals and Nationals and encouraging them to get up to speed on the consequences if the laws are not changed,” says one media industry source.
Turnbull is now expected to pursue the media law reforms he had presented to Abbott earlier this year but will encounter resistance from some powerful players, notably Channel Seven’s Kerry Stokes and possibly also Rupert Murdoch.
In March, Murdoch tweeted his disapproval for reforms favoured by Turnbull, which did not include giving his cable television channel the right to bid for the highest-profile sports events. Yet observers sense a recent softening in News Corp’s approach to the mooted reforms.
Some of the stable’s tabloids gave Turnbull a front page touch-up on his first day in office – “Malcolm Turncoat strikes,” said the Herald Sun; “Turnstile,” said The Daily Telegraph – but they could have been more vicious. Some even played it straight.
The front-page puns were nothing compared with the blast he received from radio shock jocks Ray Hadley and Alan Jones. Hadley went on a two-day rampage, trying to name and shame all 53 “dunderheads” who backed Turnbull. “Malcolm Turnbull is on the nose, he’s unelectable,” thundered Hadley on 2GB. “He’s a toff, an elitist snob.”
Jones, also on 2GB, lamented the treachery against a good man. In an on-air discussion, he and News Corp columnist Andrew Bolt complained that Turnbull had “stolen” the leadership, laying claim to communications skills he did not possess.
“It’s Malcolm Turnbull first, party second,” said Bolt, adding that the party now had a leader far to the left of most Liberals. Perhaps, he conceded, Turnbull had changed. After all, Turnbull had in recent months “reached out” to him for the first time in many years. Jones, too, had received “plenty of phone calls” of late from the man who is now prime minister, and with whom he clashed spectacularly in a fiery interview last year.
As Abbott was hoping in the recent months to rescue his prime ministership, Turnbull was quietly courting former critics whose support he knew he would need to lead. He bound himself to all existing policies, although on Thursday suggested the stalled university fee reforms might be revisited.
For several hours on Tuesday, Abbott went missing, having not commented publicly since his defeat. In the frenzied news cycle, it felt like an eternity, and wild theories were circulating that he might not in fact resign. A news chopper circled Canberra looking for the vanquished leader. When Abbott eventually fronted reporters about 12.30pm, he avoided mentioning Turnbull and took aim at a “febrile media culture that rewards treachery”.
In the ultimate indignity, the noise of the helicopter made it hard for those gathered in the prime minister’s courtyard to hear his final message.
Perhaps it was just as well, for his admonition of journalists for acting as “the assassin’s knife” by printing “self-serving claims that the person making them won’t put his or her name to” might have prompted some derisory snorts.
If Abbott did not personally background journalists, his office certainly did. In fact, one trigger for his demise was a story last Friday in his favoured newspaper, The Daily Telegraph, that he was considering shafting “dead wood” in a pre-Christmas reshuffle.
This particular story might well not have come from Abbott’s office, but exclusives were so routinely dropped to the newspaper that government MPs just assumed his office was the source and responded accordingly.
In that final statement as PM, Abbott said he would make the transition as easy as possible and would engage in “no wrecking, no undermining, and no sniping”. Perhaps he was recalling when he took over as leader in 2009, and Turnbull’s forces immediately leaked against him. Others are not so high-minded. Within days, an Abbott supporter had leaked material designed to damage the new prime minister. Abbott reportedly intends to stay on in parliament. Amid the acrimony of his ousting, Shorten paid a particularly fine tribute to Abbott, saying that he could sometimes surprise with his personal generosity and had rendered service to his country, a comment the Labor leader intended as a compliment to someone who reveres the defence forces.
In the end, Abbott had just two years as prime minister, the first year characterised by a budget that overreached so dramatically some of its central measures are still stalled.
As promised, he cut the carbon and mining taxes and turned back boats, but the so-called “debt and deficit disaster” defeated him. And his own unforced errors defined him, notably the restoration of knights and dames and the bizarre decision in January to bestow this honour on Prince Philip.
During the second year there was paralysis, as he lacked the political capital to push for any serious reform and instead relied on national security measures to try to demonstrate his strength.
As Turnbull made clear on Monday afternoon, he wants to talk to the Australian people about the future and inspire them with a vision.
But he starts his time as prime minister having first to deal with the legacy of his past, to quell lingering concerns in the government he now leads about his intentions and his honour.
With an election due in just over a year and serious economic challenges ahead, Turnbull has to show the doubters that he is more than just a smooth talker and that there will be substance to his leadership as well as style.
And to the voters who have cheered his ascent, he needs to prove that leading this “broad church” of a government, with all the compromises that entails, will not extinguish the Malcolm Turnbull they think they know and love.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 19, 2015 as "End of an error: how Turnbull triumphed".
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