Turnbull’s gritted self-belief

The race is on to define Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull before he gets a chance to define himself. The contest is between the man he knifed, Tony Abbott, and his main political opponents, the Labor Party.

You could have sworn Abbott had stolen Labor’s song sheet when he ventured into the echo chamber of hard-right views at Radio 2GB. After thanking shock jock Ray Hadley for six years of support and encouragement, he said: “The interesting thing is that no policy has changed since the change of prime minister. Border protection policy, the same.” Hadley chimed in: “Same-sex marriage the same ... a plebiscite.” Abbott continued: “Climate change, the same. Border protection policy, the same. National security policy, the same. If you listen to the prime minister and the treasurer, they’re even using exactly the same phrases that Joe Hockey and I were using just a fortnight ago.”

Labor was so impressed they went to the extraordinary length of emailing the full transcript of the interview to the press gallery. If there were any doubts that Abbott’s broadcast was a net negative for the government, that should have put them to bed. Opposition senate leader Penny Wong spelled it out: “Nobody knows Tony Abbott’s policies more than Tony Abbott. If Tony says changing leaders has changed nothing, he’s right.”

Wong also seized on Abbott’s advice to disappointed conservative voters. He urged them to stick to the party and vote for Turnbull, “even if it’s through gritted teeth”. She rightly observed that this was hardly a ringing endorsement.

The Essential poll this week suggests voters are prepared to give Turnbull more time to strut his stuff. In two-party-preferred terms, he has increased the government’s lead over Labor to 54 to 46. Wong says she has worked with Turnbull in the past over climate change policies and knows what he believes. There is no doubt, as she says, that it would be disappointing to many Australians if Turnbull has sold out to get the top job.

The extent of any sellout remains to be seen, but at first sight he has given credence to her charge that, “He sold out on climate change, he sold out on marriage equality, he’s had to sell out to the hard right of the Liberal Party and the National Party.”

On cue, Queensland Liberal National Party MP George Christensen, who sits as a National in Canberra, went on the ABC’s 7.30 to warn Turnbull to honour the new Coalition agreement. That appears to lock the prime minister in to all the “no change policies” to which Abbott pointed. He told the program any deviation would not be tolerated. What that means exactly was not made clear.

There is no doubt Christensen, like the Nationals’ deputy leader, Barnaby Joyce, wanted to play much harder ball with Turnbull than their leader, Warren Truss. They were prepared to hold up the swearing in of the new ministry for a couple of days if necessary. Would they be prepared to send the Turnbull government into minority by pulling out of the Coalition? Probably not, but as one Liberal noted, “with right-wing nut jobs, you never know”.

Symptomatic of the parallel universe the Nationals appear to inhabit was Joyce’s view on Q&A that Tony Abbott should have been allowed to step down voluntarily. Joyce condemned the Liberals for bringing their leader down by intrigue. He didn’t believe that was right. Abbott told Hadley he was cut down by a “cabal”. But here it gets interesting. Joyce believed that he didn’t think “Tony would have taken us over a cliff”. He would have seen that for the good of the government he should go quietly.

That theory was shot down in flames when Abbott revealed he was convinced he could have won the next election despite months of atrocious polls. To back his view, he cited Liberal Party polling in the seat of Canning the weekend before the coup and the byelection. He claimed that had the party leading Labor 57 to 43 per cent. The plotters moved before the poll because it would have disproved that Abbott had made the party unelectable.

According to one highly placed source close to Malcolm Turnbull, that was “absolute bullshit”. He described it as “wild revisionist stuff”. If such polling exists, it would have been commissioned by the party’s federal director, Brian Loughnane. He happens to be married to Peta Credlin, Abbott’s chief of staff. Certainly the published polls had the contest much closer, at 52 to 48 the Liberals’ way. In the end their candidate won 55 to 45, suffering an almost 7 percentage point swing two-party preferred.

Turnbull supporters also deride the comfort Abbott drew from Conservative leader David Cameron’s victory in Britain. “Absolutely the entire five years they were behind in the polls,” Abbott said, “and then they had quite a convincing victory.” Whatever the many factors that led to his win, Cameron is much closer to Turnbull in style than he is to Abbott. He is a moderate, inclusive politician who facilitated marriage equality and took a strong lead on tough climate change action. In fact, as opposition leader in 2009 Turnbull returned to Australia after discussions with David Cameron more convinced than ever that an emissions trading scheme was the way to go. The rest, as they say, is history. That stand motivated Abbott to mobilise the sceptics and conservatives in a party room coup.

In a disturbing development for the Labor narrative that nothing has changed but the leader, Turnbull has parted ways with Abbott’s chief business adviser, Maurice Newman. Newman distinguishes himself as a climate change denier and a world government conspiracy theorist. His departure also coincides with a repositioning of the government’s attitude to renewable energy. Even wind farms look as though they will be brought in from the cold.

It also suggests that Abbott’s attempt to snap freeze government policies to where they were on September 14, coup day, will fail. One Turnbull adviser scoffs at any idea that the Abbott agenda is cryogenically preserved. He points to the new prime minister’s rhetoric on the need to change to meet changing circumstances. But it will all be done through consultative cabinet processes. These provide political cover as long as internal discipline remains and the leader is delivering in the court of public opinion. Hardliners will hardly be able to complain if Turnbull looks like saving their seats. All their problems will multiply if he doesn’t.

Earlier in the week, Turnbull himself phoned the editors at The Australian Financial Review and The Australian to let them know he was happy to give a government response to their National Reform Summit. It was a marked departure from his predecessor, who was decidedly cool on the whole idea. The summit was held last month out of frustration that Abbott had given up on reform. The move took senior ministers by surprise, but they aren’t complaining. It makes the “new” government look as if it’s doing something.

The day after the Australian Stock Exchange saw a brutal $50 billion selloff thanks to woes in the mining sector, Turnbull was back on the sunny uplands. He called the TV cameras in as his economic ministers began preparations for their meeting with business, union and community leaders. “Yes, the mining boom has peaked,” he said. “Yes, our terms of trade have come back, as they always were going to. But big new markets are opening up to us. Great opportunities arise.”

All good, but the time is rapidly drawing near when specifics need to be put on the table. And that’s when it will get harder. Once things are ruled in it gives scope for the political debate to take on a sharper edge. A signal from Scott Morrison that he was open to changes in the goods and services tax drew a quick response from Labor. It refuses point blank to countenance raising the rate or broadening the base of the tax. The opposition is drawing a line in the sand when it comes to any dismantling of our progressive taxation system in favour of regressive indirect taxes. Any debate in this area would be a test of mettle not only for Turnbull and his treasurer but also for Bill Shorten and his shadow treasurer, Chris Bowen.

Harder for the Liberals will be any changes to the overly generous, Peter Costello-created tax concessions to wealthier retirees. Again, Turnbull is open to the argument. It is very persuasive. In three years’ time these super concessions will hit $50 billion, outstripping the cost of the age pension. National Seniors CEO Michael O’Neill says it’s not unreasonable to look at concessions on $1.5 million or $2 million super balances. The attraction for Turnbull, apart from helping repair the budget bottom line, would be the signal it sends on fairness.

It would also counter the charge that nothing has really changed in the government except the chief salesman.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 3, 2015 as "Through gritted self-belief".

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Paul Bongiorno is a columnist for The Saturday Paper and a 30-year veteran of the Canberra Press Gallery.

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