Opinion

Tony Windsor
Waiting for delivery from PM Malcolm Turnbull

There was an air of confidence and hope that the post-Abbott period would provide a better way forward for the country. In fact, the nation was hopeful that it could breathe again without the vitriol and dishonesty of the recent past. Expectation was running high in the first weeks of the Turnbull government and a positive vibe surrounded every utterance, not because the constituency was in love with Malcolm but because they were definitely sick of the winner-takes-all go-to-war-with-everyone philosophy of the Abbott years.

However, suspicion lingers that Malcolm may have had to compromise himself to factional interests within the Liberal and National parties to such an extent that, rather than a return to middle Australia values and a breath of fresh air, he may be constrained by others within and outside the parliament.

One of Turnbull’s strengths, particularly when contrasted with Abbott, is his capacity to embrace complex issues intellectually and also to broker solutions to these issues. The electorate is crying out for a different way of doing politics, and Turnbull has answered that call with the correct rhetoric. But the real test will come from delivery.

Turnbull has marketed himself as someone wanting open conversations on complex issues with the Australian people, not wanting to take them for granted. He is, in his vision, a person who wants to take the people with him. In fact, one of reasons for the removal of Abbott was that the days of slogan bogan were over – this was to be the age of “listening”, moderation in language and deed, and compassion in nature.

The public is accepting of this offer. In fact, they are willing it to happen.

An early demonstration of the PM’s utterances would be to resolve the current political spat over the China–Australia Free Trade Agreement. There is contention about the labour rules as they would apply to Chinese workers. The Coalition has said there is no issue of difference with other free trade agreements, while the ALP and unions take a contrary view. Academics including former trade minister Craig Emerson suggest there are debatable features within the Migration Act as it relates to local labour market testing that could resolve this confusion – and take the sting out of the politics.

If Turnbull is serious about his new way, he could easily diffuse this issue and assume the political high ground by making the appropriate clarifications in the act.

These changes would not have any detrimental impact on the signed Chinese trade agreement but would clarify domestically the actual intent.

An Abbott government would have gone for the throat on a Labor- and union-bashing rant of anti-trade racial discrimination. Turnbull’s position will give us a glimpse of the future. It will show if he is a leader who wants to deliver solutions to issues rather than play the traditional political game of finding and fostering division. It will also provide a window into who actually controls the Prime Minister’s Office.

Other indicators of change and of Turnbull’s sincerity will be his government’s approach to climate change, the Murray-Darling Basin Plan and the NBN.

Climate change policy has been a defining issue in Turnbull’s career, and may well prove to be so again. His removal as opposition leader by Tony Abbott in 2009 was structured on the opportunism that was to be a hallmark of Abbott’s leadership. Abbott saw an anti-science fissure in his colleagues, and he split the party on it. The country be damned.

Short-term political operators such as Barnaby Joyce used the fearing of the future and the natural inclination of Turnbull to negotiate rather than brawl on the big issues against him, which eventually brought him down. What followed was five years of the Abbott disease.

The role Turnbull plays in the run-up to the Paris climate talks will give a clear indication of whether he has free air or still has to work with polluted factions that demand adversarial politics over reason and debate – the factions he denied even existed last weekend, but which he knows too well. If the prime minister maintains the current Direct Action approach and is unable to display the leadership of which he is capable, the light will flash on who controls who.

Likewise, water issues and relations with the Nationals are another test of where the Coalition is going under Turnbull and how compromised he is in terms of maintaining leadership. It’s worth noting that even Abbott wasn’t prepared to put Joyce in charge of water.

The bleating of Joyce and others about the Murray-Darling system and how changes need to occur is reminiscent of the constant carping and fear-mongering on the water reforms during their opposition days. On returning to government, of course, they did nothing other than accept the plan.

The nonsensical position that the National Party maintains in relation to climate change is something Turnbull needs to challenge. The first victims of 2 to 4 degrees warming in the Murray-Darling system, for instance, are the people who live there.

If Turnbull can get through to the Nats and other recalcitrants on this, it will define him as a leader; if not, he will just be another occupant.

Many within the National Party see the continued plight of farmers and country communities in a warming globe as being a political opportunity, just as they did with Turnbull’s demise as leader. It’s not, of course: it is a huge and urgent problem that will define how people on this planet live. Turnbull’s next move will answer a question that has followed him all his life – is he there for himself or the long-term good of others?

Then there’s the national broadband network. Turnbull’s approach as minister has been littered with contradictions. Time will eventually expose the true Malcolm. His history in business and his personal addiction to innovation and gadgetry in the communications area place him ideally in terms of being the digital-age PM the country needs. His experience gives him the capacity to articulate how critical it is to our future.

And yet he stood by as Abbott conned the electorate, and regional Australians in particular, into believing that the Gillard government was wasting taxpayer dollars on the fibre-to-the-home proposals and turned the debate into a short-term economic and political issue rather than the most significant infrastructure of this century. Now country people are bleating that they have been bypassed by the Coalition and feel betrayed.

During his time as shadow communications minister, Malcolm played a confusing role of trying to implement Abbott’s aggressive war on everything Gillard had touched while at times shining the torch on his leader’s lack of interest in the long-term benefits of modern technology and how it could be part of lifting economic productivity.

In the hung parliament, there was a sense Malcolm was riding two horses on the NBN. Perhaps even three, if you included the Murdoch factor. I recall talking with him one day about his demands for a cost-benefit analysis to determine the type of NBN that would enhance productivity in Australia. Strangely, when I suggested inclusion of the role fibre to the home could play in terms of more cost-effective aged care, he replied that a cost-benefit analysis was only as good as the information fed into the model. Obviously so, but the question that lingers is whether that was Turnbull speaking as himself or as a compliant shadow minister needing to sing the song of his master at the time.

Added to this are the questions over the role of Rupert Murdoch and his leverage over Turnbull in areas crucial to his media empire in Australia. The question on many lips is, “Was he controlled by Murdoch or controlled by Abbott who was controlled by Murdoch?” The answer will show whether Malcolm is his own man or the puppet of others.

Opinion polls indicate the general public like what they see in the early days of Turnbull’s prime ministership but are rightly wary of the three-card trick of using a friendly face to deliver bad medicine. They saw that strategy play out with the destruction of Joe Hockey’s career and they didn’t like it.

In my view, Malcolm’s greatest strength in relation to the body politic is that he is in the middle of Australian politics – which is where most Australians reside. The right of the party lives in another street. And Abbott lived in another world.

The public does not want extremism in any form, either from the left and right of politics. They don’t want a continuation of the destructive agenda of Abbott. They do want stability and will accept reform if explained correctly and genuinely included as part of the process.

Turnbull’s greatest problem is that many in his party hate him, even some of those who voted for their own survival in the leadership change. People sense Malcolm can deliver, but they are still suspicious his party won’t let him. If he is judged to be Abbott-lite, though, his party will hand the keys to Bill Shorten.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 17, 2015 as "Waiting for delivery". Subscribe here.

Tony Windsor
is the former independent member for the federal seat of New England. He has held balance of power positions in both the NSW and federal parliaments.