The IPA and other losers of the Tony Abbott guard
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Since Malcolm Turnbull snatched the prime ministership, a strange bipartisanship has flowered between the left and far right of Australian politics.
Suddenly the Labor Party, the Abbott-friendly tabloid commentators and radio shock jocks, right-wing think tanks and not least Tony Abbott himself are all parroting the same talking points.
The Turnbull coup, they say, amounted to a change but not a difference.
Here was Abbott earlier this week, with Ray Hadley on Radio 2GB: “The interesting thing is that no policy has changed since the change of PM.”
The executive director of free-market think tank the Institute of Public Affairs, John Roskam, said something similar in an appearance on the ABC’s Q&A program on Monday. And deputy opposition leader Tanya Plibersek on Wednesday spoke of “the same policies with a different spokesmodel”.
You see and hear the message over and over again. They keep repeating it, whether to comfort themselves or to damage Turnbull. And at one level it’s true: there has not been a lot of policy change yet. At every other level, though, there has been huge change: change in tone, change in process, and change in influence. At the most obvious level, the glib slogans are gone. The words “death cult” have disappeared from the prime ministerial lexicon, for example.
More important, though, are the matters of process and of who is influencing the prime minister.
Maurice Newman is a fine example with which to start.
Two years ago Newman, then 75, was Abbott’s captain’s pick for chief business adviser, a significant influencer of federal government policy, also commissioned to give advice on climate change policy. There was never any doubt about what that advice would be, for Newman is one of Australia’s pre-eminent climate change deniers.
His beliefs are well known because he aired them frequently in the pages of The Australian. Newman believes the whole thing is a hoax, a “scientific delusion” fostered by the United Nations and inculcated through techniques of mass psychology and a compliant media to end democracy and impose authoritarian rule. The terms in which he put this view were never short of alarmist.
This week his two-year term as head of the prime minister’s Business Advisory Council expired. Malcolm Turnbull did not reappoint him.
Let us remember also Tony Shepherd, a former head of the Business Council of Australia and another climate sceptic, who was picked to head the new Abbott government’s Commission of Audit. The commission’s work, which substantially regurgitated the wish list of big business and was widely condemned as sloppy and inaccurate by economists, died along with the Abbott–Hockey first budget. The Re:think discussion paper on tax was little better, with Abbott continually ruling out various options for economic reform.
This week, in response to complaints that the reform process had stalled, the new prime minister announced a summit to rekindle the debate and take ideas. All the options Abbott had ruled out were back on the table. And Turnbull wanted to hear not only from the big end of town, but also from unions, welfare and other civil society groups. Moreover, he did not call on a superannuated business ally to conduct it; he ran it himself.
This is a huge change. As Turnbull said on Thursday, his aim is to be “expeditious but not rash”. He went on to decry the “rule-in, rule-out culture” of on-the-run policy pronouncements that were a hallmark of the Abbott regime as being “counterproductive” to good outcomes.
For further evidence of a change in influence, consider the Institute of Public Affairs, the think tank so confident of its influence with Abbott that before the 2013 election it issued a 75-item policy to-do list. Abbott subsequently addressed the IPA and promised to deliver on a bunch of those demands. “That’s a big yes,” he said.
Abbott failed them on many counts. In fairness, that was often because he was stymied by the senate or overwhelming public opposition. He could not deliver changes to the Racial Discrimination Act that would have removed protections from violence-inducing bigotry. He could not abolish the renewable energy target, nor the Clean Energy Finance Corporation, nor the Australian Renewable Energy Agency. He was not able to devolve powers for environmental approvals to the states. His government’s attempts to deregulate university fees were blocked.
Nonetheless, the IPA could cling to the knowledge that Abbott was their man, still in there pitching for their ideas.
Not now. It’s already clear that the new prime minister has no interest in pursuing these measures. When Turnbull convened his summit, the IPA was not even on the invitation list. Tellingly, the Grattan Institute was.
Lucy Turnbull is on its board. Its CEO, John Daley, favours a raft of tax changes that the Abbott-led government would not countenance, such as changes to superannuation so it no longer overwhelmingly benefits the rich. Such as reform of capital gains tax and negative gearing. Such as using the proceeds of an increase in the GST to cut marginal income tax rates for low- and middle-income earners, instead of company tax.
There is no indication that Turnbull will go for such ideas. But it is significant that he is even prepared to hear them.
Abbott was disinclined to take counsel from anyone he didn’t already agree with. He talked to a narrow range of people, while Turnbull talks to a wide range, says Hugh White, professor of strategic studies at the Australian National University, and a sometime Turnbull interlocutor.
“The thing about Turnbull is that he has an unusually broad-ranging curiosity,” White says.
“There’s no such thing as an idle chat with Malcolm. It’s a real discussion and a bit of a quiz sometimes. He talks to a lot of people in that way. Finding out what they think, exploring their arguments, testing his own ideas with them.
“That’s not necessarily to say he’s very influenced, but he wants to hone his thinking. That is one of the really sharp differences between him and Abbott, who I think didn’t listen to many people, but listened to a few very deeply. There was not a lot of diversity of views.
“Malcolm really likes to debate. I sometimes think he would rather talk to someone he disagrees with. I haven’t identified any coterie or kitchen cabinet. He’s got a lot of names on his phone, I reckon. Hundreds.”
Other people who know Turnbull well are of the same view, and express it with varying degrees of tact.
“He’s very much his own man,” says one.
“The only person with any special influence is Lucy, if she’s lucky,” says another.
No one doubts his intelligence, but some wonder about his capacity to lead a team.
Hugh White is suspending judgement.
“There are lots of ways of being prime minister, but none that doesn’t involve leading a team,” says the former adviser to both Bob Hawke and John Howard.
“One thing that struck me about both Hawke and Howard – and I watched them doing it, very close up – was that they were superb chairs of cabinet. That’s something the public never sees, but it’s the hidden heart of the job.
“It’s a very subtle business of making sure everyone has their views heard, without actually losing control. It’s a kind of alchemy.
“It’s very intellectually demanding. I always thought Abbott just wasn’t bright enough to chair cabinet. And I suspect Rudd thought he was too bright, and didn’t have enough respect for the views of others.”
The concern among those who want Turnbull to succeed is that he might be a little too much like Rudd. He has not been known for humility, for suffering fools gladly or for being politic.
And there are big risks to being a change agent in a party as resistant to change as the contemporary federal Liberal Party. That is what got him removed from the Liberal leadership last time around. He saw the need to address climate change, and was prepared to co-operate with a Labor government to do it.
Under the circumstances, it’s ironic that he should now be criticised for not changing things fast enough, suggests Simon Hackett, the internet entrepreneur who Turnbull appointed to the board of the NBN shortly after the last election.
Like Turnbull, Hackett made a pile of money as an internet innovator. These days he is chairman of Redflow, a company seeking to advance the renewable energy revolution by developing large-scale battery storage.
Immediately after Turnbull won the prime ministership, Hackett was in Canberra lobbying for the retention of the two key funding mechanisms for alternative energy: the Clean Energy Finance Corporation and Renewable Energy Agency.
“I tell you, the atmosphere was like a cloud had suddenly lifted,” he says. “You could see in the place that everyone felt, ‘Okay, now we can start doing better things.’ There was a sense that they had all just got out of the rut.”
But Hackett understands why Turnbull is not moving too fast on climate change.
“One of the worst things about the previous era was captain’s calls. The last thing you would rationally expect Turnbull to do is immediately issue a plethora of captain’s calls,” Hackett says.
“I expect there’s an awful lot of consultation happening. He’s got to carry along the other half of the Liberal Party that preferred Abbott. The only signals you should expect in the short term are coded ones, but we should take some encouragement from the fact that they have begun socialising it in that coded way.”
Closer to the election, and beyond it, Hackett has no doubt that task will get easier as it becomes more apparent that the party needs Turnbull more than he needs the party.
That’s already apparent in the opinion polls: the Coalition is now narrowly in front of Labor, but Turnbull is hugely preferred as prime minister. It’s clear the public makes a distinction between the man and the party he leads.
The critics who suggest the new prime minister offers nothing new, Tony Abbott foremost among them, are going to have to look for other ways to undermine him.
This piece was modified on October 5, 2015, to make clear Maurice Newman did not chair the inquiry into the Renewable Energy Target.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 3, 2015 as "Losers of the Abbott guard". Subscribe here.