Opinion

Paul Bongiorno
Malcolm Turnbull a class war act

Ronald Reagan famously rode a wave of optimism to win the United States presidency back in 1981. Malcolm Turnbull seems to have tapped into a similar sentiment 34 years later. Gone are the relentlessly negative politics playing to the country’s darker angels and fears, the campaigning against rather than for. To many, it feels as though “it’s morning in Australia again”.

One Labor type lamented that we’re dealing with “a fantasy Malcolm”: somebody who is appealing to the deepest yearnings of the left and the right. It goes without saying it can’t last and already storm clouds are gathering on the horizon. It’s often been remarked that government is in fact “a shit sandwich”. But there are indications the new prime minister comes to the task older and wiser. He will need all the considerable skills he has to succeed.

This week the ABC’s Michael Brissenden reprised the famous Richard Carleton interview with Bob Hawke hours after he had deposed Bill Hayden for the Labor leadership. A brave Brisso asked Turnbull, “Have you got blood on your hands?” There was no snarling reply. The reporter was not accused of a “damned impertinence”. He was ignored.

Instead, Turnbull channelled Reagan. He spoke of leading a 21st-century government that would focus on the demands of Australia in the future, on how we could remain a prosperous First World economy with high wages and a generous social welfare net. In numerous interviews, he scarcely mentions the Labor Party, boat people or death cults.

He was asked directly if we still have a national security problem, which the former government put in terms of an “existential threat” from an enemy at least as dangerous as Nazi Germany. His reply: “Of course we have national security challenges. Of course we do.” But sounding like a reassuring prime minister rather than a desperate opposition leader, he continued: “And we have great agencies, you know, in the police, the security services, the military, indeed, working to ensure… to protect us.”

Rather than living in apocalyptic End Times, the Turnbull message is we are living in a period of rapidly expanding opportunities right across the world and “there has never been a more exciting time to be an Australian”.

Since his brilliantly executed coup – his lieutenants had spent months persuading colleagues Abbott was beyond all hope – there have been five opinion polls. They record a 5 per cent swing to put the Coalition government back in front of Labor 51-49 per cent. In statistical terms, it’s lineball. Labor consoles itself that even the initial sugar hit has still left it well and truly in with a chance.

The Essential poll’s measure of 15 key leadership attributes has the recycled Turnbull score approvals in the stratosphere, outranking Shorten on capability, crisis management, vision and intelligence. It finds him more honest than most politicians, 39 per cent to Shorten’s 23 per cent. It’s a stark contrast to the 16 per cent he scored after he pushed disgraced treasury official Godwin Grech’s fraudulent attack on prime minister Kevin Rudd in the Utegate affair.

Turnbull, when he announced his challenge, put economic management front and centre. His accusation against Abbott and his treasurer, Joe Hockey, was that they had failed to deliver the economic leadership the nation needed. And yet it is here he could be setting himself up for his biggest fall. If the economy does not improve – if growth stalls further, plunging the nation into recession, and unemployment surges – any honeymoon could be short lived.

A wetsuited Tony Abbott, panting from his battle with Manly’s surf this week, hit back at Turnbull for his excoriating assessment of the performance of Abbott’s administration: “The fact that no policy settings have been changed testifies to the soundness of what the government was doing and testifies to the soundness of Joe’s stewardship.” That surfside interview was itself a curious event. It smacked of careful orchestration, so that the sacked prime minister and The Daily Telegraph could have a whack not only at Turnbull but more pointedly at his new treasurer, Scott Morrison.

The story was given front-page tabloid treatment: “Former PM says Scott Morrison ‘badly misled’ public.” Inside was a full recounting of shock jock Ray Hadley’s bruising interview with Morrison, where he accused him of lying and of treachery. Abbott endorsed those sentiments. So much for his pledge last week that there would be “no wrecking, no undermining and no sniping”.

Labor sees the hard right’s attacks on one-time hero Morrison as strengthening Turnbull’s position. It may well be so. It also has the added dimension of eroding the credibility of the man the parliamentary party is relying on to help Turnbull manage the economy.

In that regard, Morrison didn’t help himself much when the very next day he gave The Tele an exclusive interview to promise, yet again, tax cuts. He wants a return to the Howard/Costello era of personal and family tax cuts. He either chose to ignore Abbott’s barbs from the previous day or was not given the opportunity to engage with them.

At a later news conference, he repeated his views that government spending was too high. He said it was inherited from Labor. The facts are the Liberals have themselves added to it. But Morrison intends to address that, revealing ministers will be told to find extra savings. “Australia has a spending problem,” he said, “not a revenue problem.”

It’s a strange claim, given the 2014-15 budget outcome, all the Coalition’s own work, showed a $7.5 billion shortfall in forecast receipts. At least Hockey understood that with a softening economy the last thing the federal government should do is withdraw its stimulus. The latest quarterly accounts show that without government spending, economic growth would have stalled completely, if not contracted.

Turnbull and Morrison are, however, giving themselves more room to manoeuvre with tax reform. They see it as critical to boosting productivity and the economy. Unlike Abbott and Hockey, nothing is off the table and that includes the GST and retirement income concessions worth billions. But apart from sunny upland rhetoric at a midweek news conference, there were few clues from the treasurer of his real plans. No doubt if he wants to avoid seeing two decades of continuous economic growth end on his watch he’ll have to follow the example of Hockey, who in turn followed his predecessor Wayne Swan, and keep priming the pump.

The Turnbull government will have to be particularly careful how it shares the burden of budget repair. The United Voice union, which represents some of the lowest paid workers, is looking for fairer treatment of the 40 cleaners at Parliament House. The Abbott government had cut their conditions. They are looking for a pay rise that would bring them to $22.90 an hour, up from $21.10 – hardly a king’s ransom. The union says knocking back the claim is a bad look for the government of multimillionaire Turnbull. Giving the argument force are low wage growth generally and falling living standards hitting wage and salary earners.

Labor’s Bill Shorten is playing into the same sentiment. He says it’s unbelievable that “the Liberal Party of Australia is happy to have a conversation about increasing your GST, my GST, the GST of every student we see here, yet they won’t go after loopholes in the superannuation system at the very top end”. The opposition leader, who is still to unveil a comprehensive economic policy, signalled during the week that he would not be afraid to levy new taxes. He singled out multinational corporations for special attention.

One of Labor’s key strategists says they don’t have to be explicit in playing to class envy; it is already happening. Everyone knows Turnbull is a “rich dude”. The Sydney media has amply demonstrated that the Turnbulls’ Point Piper mansion is a cut above the official residence, Kirribilli House. It even has a better view.

But there’s no doubt Bill Shorten is under pressure thanks to the arrival of a new and popular prime minister. He is showing few signs of being daunted. He believes the Labor voters attracted to Turnbull are sure to be disappointed on the issues they care about, such as climate change and marriage equality. While accepting his new opponent is a consummate salesman, he believes it won’t take too long for the product to fall short of the pitch.

A case in point is the treatment of women in Turnbull’s new frontbench line-up. True, we have our first female defence minister in Marise Payne, and the Coalition matches Labor with five women in cabinet. But Shorten boasts 18 women on his frontbench; Turnbull has just eight. This is something that has made some of Turnbull’s staunchest female allies very angry. How Sharman Stone, Jane Prentice or Teresa Gambaro missed out is hard to explain.

Shorten dismisses speculation that his leadership is under threat or he needs a reshuffle to match Turnbull. He says with some justification that it is the prime minister catching up with Labor.

He had better hope that’s all Turnbull is doing.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 26, 2015 as "One for the chipper". Subscribe here.

Paul Bongiorno
is a columnist for The Saturday Paper and a regular commentator on ABC Radio National Breakfast.