Paul Bongiorno
Resolving doors and Malcolm Turnbull’s spat with Mike Baird

After 19 years, Joe Hockey bade farewell to parliament this week a diminished politician. He left because he fell foul of the judgement his party room had made of the job he did with Tony Abbott of running the government. None of it was his fault and he had a warning: “The revolving door in Australian politics must be jammed shut. If we don’t show enough respect to each other then how can we hope that the electorate will respect us?”

Let’s hit the pause button there and rewind to June 2013. Kevin Rudd had just replaced Julia Gillard as prime minister and Hockey was keen to share his view of the matter: “She has never deserved respect and will never receive it.” But the likelihood of Hockey receiving respect is even more remote. Only the most deluded share his view that the unfair and botched 2014 budget was evidence he showed more courage than the parliament that rejected the bulk of it.

The early judgement of the electorate appears to be in complete harmony with the majority of Liberal MPs. As one Labor frontbencher put it after the Fairfax-Ipsos poll recorded a 53-47 lead for the Coalition: “People are cheering Abbott’s gone and so are we.”

One thing people are cheering is the respectful tone the new prime minister has restored to politics. This week the president of the Human Rights Commission, Gillian Triggs, and one of her colleagues, Race Discrimination Commissioner Tim Soutphommasane, were pleasantly surprised that they didn’t receive the usual contemptuous hostility from government senators at their appearances before an estimates committee hearing.

The new love in the air, as one of the crossbench senators describes it, was also on display with the resolution of the arm wrestle over the China–Australia Free Trade Agreement. Instead of Abbott’s inclination to play chicken with the opposition, setting it up either for an ignominious defeat or blame for wrecking the agreement, an accommodation was reached. Labor’s Penny Wong even praised Trade Minister Andrew Robb for his constructive approach in meeting her concerns over safeguards for Australian jobs. For his part, Robb did not denigrate the deal as a Labor backdown. He accepted the validity of the argument that a future government could arbitrarily weaken job safeguards. So he agreed to regulations that will be imposed on all trade deals that can only then be disallowed by a vote of the parliament.

But mischievous politics is still being played. On the day the Ipsos poll came out, Immigration Minister Peter Dutton raised the spectre of Anthony Albanese positioning to knock off Bill Shorten. There’s no doubt Albo would willingly come to the aid of the party if Shorten was hit by a bus. That bus could be in the shape of the unions royal commission coming up with a finding so damning that it mortally wounds the current leader and he quits voluntarily.

Otherwise, the Rudd caucus rules virtually make Shorten bulletproof. Even if caucus mustered 60 per cent of its members voting for a spill it would take six weeks for the rank and file to vote for a replacement. In the
run-up to a general election that could only create damaging chaos. Of course, only 51 per cent of caucus is needed to change the rules and hand back sole say to the parliamentary party room.

Would Albanese or another name mentioned in dispatches, Chris Bowen, argue to make the leadership vote less democratic when they are on the record praising the reforms? Maybe, but if the motive for the change is panic ahead of an almost certain drubbing at the election, why would either want to kill off their future long-term leadership prospects. Better to let Shorten lose and make their run after the election. That is the more likely scenario, according to one powerbroker.

Shorten is in no mood to run up the white flag of surrender. He says he can beat Turnbull, “because we’ve got policies which we believe talk to the lives of Australians”. A key Labor strategist says the way the Liberals handled the switch back to Rudd in 2013 provides a template plan of attack. The Abbott opposition didn’t panic when Rudd lifted Labor’s primary vote to an election-winning 39 per cent. It stuck to its well-worn attack lines. In fact, it added another one: government disunity and chaos. By the time of the election, Labor’s vote had plummeted to 33 per cent.

This time, the government chaos and disunity line could play Labor’s way. Tony Abbott is in no mood to quit the parliament. And difficulty in finding another job has little to do with it. News.com.au reported that the former prime minister remains angry and still believes he can get his old job back from Malcolm Turnbull. He’s even told colleagues an Abbott government mark II will be much better than mark I. One Turnbull ally laughed at “the delusion of it all”, but it could lead to undermining, especially if some of the current shine comes off the prime minister. A bitter Abbott, unlike the departing Hockey, can’t bring himself to wishing that “the Turnbull government will be the best Australia’s ever had”.

Some Liberals worry that the new button-down Turnbull may not last, especially if he comes under sustained pressure. In fact, two weeks ago there were flashes of the old Turnbull in a heated phone confrontation with New South Wales premier Mike Baird. The trigger was a leaked story on extended control orders for terror suspects. A witness says the premier was shocked by the vehemence of the call. “A leopard can’t change its spots,” was the reaction of one MP who heard of the contretemps.

In parliament, though, Turnbull is showing great agility. Abbott tended to be like an American gridiron running back. He only knew one play, straight ahead smashing into opponents. Turnbull instead sidesteps and pivots. On Monday he caught the ball and started running: “Can I simply say that the government’s policies are unchanged.” Labor rushed out a statement saying Turnbull was backing “Abbott’s disastrous fiscal policy” of harsh cuts. They were left holding thin air as he added, “Our policies will change often in the face of inability to get them through the senate, and we will negotiate and you have seen examples of that.”

A big example was the comprehensive reworking of the family tax benefits cuts rejected in the senate since the 2014 budget. Thousands of families will be better off and losers kept to a minimum. The $3.5 billion package shows much more thought and nimble design than Hockey’s abandoned “doing the right thing” effort – an effort that was widely believed to have been imposed by the Abbott office. The Greens are still unimpressed by the package but Labor is already claiming credit for forcing the ditching of the harshest measures, even if Shorten says he won’t be a “rubber stamp”.

The opposition has little choice but to keep plugging away at Turnbull and that includes attempting to “muddy him up with facts”. There are no apologies for raising his investments in the Cayman Islands tax haven. The party has been out in the field checking its effectiveness and while the attack could have been executed better, “the information is out there, absolutely”, a senior backroom operative says. In fact, the widespread criticism in the media perversely assisted.

A big problem with this strategy is the electorate’s weariness with hyper-partisan aggressive politics. The research shows a welcoming of the optimism and positive message Turnbull is bringing. “Nice words,” Shorten says, but he insists the reality isn’t measuring up.

Labor is convinced, with considerable evidence to support it, that Turnbull has sold out on meaningful policies to combat climate change. But there are signs the government is repositioning. Even under the Abbott Direct Action policy an effectiveness review in 2017 was built in, something Turnbull has reminded the parliament.

The hostility to windmills and renewables has gone. And midweek the new education minister, a strong Turnbull ally and Liberal moderate, Simon Birmingham, quietly confirmed in senate estimates that the government had withdrawn the $4 million grant to “sceptical environmentalist” Bjørn Lomborg. The grant was to help him set up an Australian consensus centre at Flinders University. Those wishing to build any consensus that the “science is crap” or nothing much needs to be done about it will have to look elsewhere for support.

It’s early days but Turnbull has skated through the revolving door with consummate ease. Consoling Labor is the thought that Shorten does not have to be as charismatic to beat him. In 1996 a tugboat defeated a showboat. 

The trouble is an almost 50-point gap between the latest models in the preferred prime minister stakes. Shorten’s tugboat needs to be turbocharged.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 24, 2015 as "Resolving doors".

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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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