Chris Wallace
Turnbull’s honeymoon after the divorce

The shakeout in Australian politics has tumbled one central player back into the right box. Tony Abbott this week returned with full force to the Fourth Estate. Abbott’s columns in the usual conservative organs of media influence rippled with taut arguments for boots on the ground in the international fight against Daesh. “Islamic State cannot be contained; it has to be destroyed,” he wrote, “because as long as it exists, the killings will continue. The more it grows, the worse the killings will become.”

The cowardly slaughter in the northern hemisphere naturally created a climate, even among doves, conducive to arguments for more decisive action against Daesh’s escalating assault on Europe. As one mild-mannered, prime-age, female, swinging voter of AB socioeconomic status said calmly over lunch in Canberra this week, “We’ve got to blast these fuckers to smithereens.”

But the question is how, and the current international consensus is that while the Western response must intensify, boots on the ground is not the way the death culters are going to be defeated. Not yet anyway.

The sigh of relief Australia felt when Malcolm Turnbull succeeded Abbott as prime minister deepened as Turnbull did the standard sidebar jawboning with world leaders at the G20 meeting in Turkey. Turnbull did have a touch of the enthusiastic new boy about him but one glimpse of Abbott’s menacingly lit, gimlet-eyed picture dinkus adorning his op-ed in The Australian this week was enough to bring on another visceral “Phew!” that Malcolm had replaced Tony at a time when, instead, Abbott could have been doing his best Incredible Hulk impersonation for world leaders.

And that’s nothing compared with the relief behind the scenes in the national capital. Right to the end, Abbott was pushing “boots on the ground” in the national security committee of cabinet. And right to the last, Peta Credlin was chipping in her views, too, memorably cutting off a cabinet minister midflight. In short, nothing had changed. And Abbott wonders why he was offed.

Abbott’s and Credlin’s “boots on the ground” pushes had been hard to contain before Paris. In Canberra, officials are acutely aware of how much harder it would have been post-Paris to stop a lurching, counterproductive international gambit for hardline rather than effective escalation – and not just because it’s thought to be the wrong approach right now.

Deeper fears rested on the Abbott government’s ability to implement and manage any kind of major policy initiative, let alone one of this kind, because, as his return to the commentariat this week underlines, Tony Abbott is, essentially, a journalist. You might not like his line, but no fair-minded person can deny he is highly skilled at turning out a tight 700-word opinion piece in timely fashion.

And yet while there are exceptions, the general rule is that journalists can’t run a chook raffle. They’re typically hopeless managers, especially opinion page writers who tend to be all care and no responsibility, experts on everything and experienced implementers of nought. Nor is Abbott the only example in recent Australian politics. Mark Latham is another. One couldn’t run an opposition, the other couldn’t run a government. But give them a rectangular hole in a metropolitan daily and they fill it like pros.

The political and bureaucratic pros in Canberra, meanwhile, have to take prime ministers of uneven quality and make them effective leaders of properly functioning governments. They thank a secular god when the worst of them implode. Liberal MPs relieving Abbott from his post caused the collective political blood pressure to drop 30 points in the parliamentary triangle – a happy development.

Now it’s on to the next challenge, and that’s how to make Malcolm Turnbull an effective leader of a functioning government. The collective Canberra mind is fully focused on this task – senior cabinet colleagues, their staff, departmental secretaries and the upper echelons of the bureaucracy generally. Hopes are high but realistic about whether Turnbull will cut it. This is how insiders are appraising the factors working for and against the new prime minister’s likely success.

Turnbull is bright, sunny and, apart from occasional lapses, articulate. He looks happy, sounds confident, immediately put the nation in a better mood and so far appears competent. Turnbull is enjoying the mother of all honeymoons. His net approval rating advantage over opposition leader Bill Shorten in the Fairfax Ipsos poll this week momentarily winded Labor, sparking chatter that NSW Right senator Sam Dastyari is already counting numbers to test viable alternatives to Shorten should a leadership change become necessary.

Further, Turnbull has the big advantage of being supported by a treasurer in Scott Morrison who is not a total goose. Good treasurers are a prerequisite for good government and prime ministers cannot succeed without them. Abbott never had that support and was too loyal, too naive, too stubborn or too stupid – most likely a mix of those things, but we will never know in what proportion – to take the necessary action to fix the problem. He paid the ultimate political price accordingly.

Conversely, Turnbull not only has Morrison but a capable back-up in assistant treasurer Kelly O’Dwyer, as smart but more telegenic than her predecessor and now resources minister Josh Frydenberg.

Turnbull also has senior cabinet colleagues deeply committed to making his prime ministership work. Julie Bishop is a long-time friend and, in contrast to the Abbott camp-driven campaign to paint her as a backstabber, has loyally done her best as deputy leader in often dreadful circumstances to optimise the performance of successive Liberal leadership duds. Mission impossible it mostly turned out to be, but not for want of effort from Bishop. Foreign policy has unexpectedly heightened further as a political factor since Turnbull’s ascension, and Bishop’s success in the portfolio and closeness to him, with Marise Payne playing wing in defence, is a big plus.

Christopher Pyne’s performance in industry will be pivotal in Turnbull establishing his credentials as an innovation prime minister, and Pyne is highly motivated to make this happen since both their political futures rest on it – Turnbull needing to demonstrate he’s more than cheeriness on a stick, and Pyne having to put his alienating education years behind him to hold on to his restive seat of Sturt.

Turnbull’s final ace is wife, Lucy. She is ubiquitous in the media, standing silent sentinel next to him, poised, appropriate. Lucy Turnbull is a political pro in her own right, and arguably the most important person in the operation, because of the particular nature of the factors working against Turnbull’s success. They are internal.

Even Malcolm’s friends – indeed, Malcolm himself – know there’s a “Good Malcolm” and a “Bad Malcolm”. The “Good Malcolm” is the bright, sunny, articulate guy we’re experiencing now, and whom many people are understandably enjoying after the Abbott and Credlin years. “Bad Malcolm” is the tanty chucker, the phone thrower, the one who takes strips off people, who becomes possessed by passionate but thinly thought-through positions he, to put it politely, pushes onto people with great force. “Bad Malcolm” is Kevin Rudd at his worst.

And that’s where Lucy comes in. At the depths of Turnbull’s dysfunction as opposition leader, it was Lucy who day in, day out, put her arms like steel hoops around the Turnbull office and held it all together. Lucy standing at Turnbull’s side now is the biggest bull point for the likely success of a prime ministership that is, as are they all, hostage to the temperament of the protagonist.

Compare and contrast Rudd, who could never have reached the top without the care, coaching and strategy-crafting efforts over the years of wife Thérèse Rein, but who cast her out of his political operation upon taking office in 2007. Had he kept her close instead of stiff-arming her out of the PMO back then, recent political history may well have played out differently.

The lesson is: if on top of the strenuous collective efforts of his cabinet colleagues and the bureaucracy Lucy can keep “Good Malcolm” to the fore and “Bad Malcolm” in his box, Turnbull has got a decent crack at doing a halfway decent job as prime minister. Enough people are willing him to. If Turnbull stumbles, however, dissident Liberals of a right-wing persuasion will tear him apart like wild dogs. Shorten knows it, and he knows it’s still a long time until the next election.


Paul Bongiorno is on leave.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 21, 2015 as "The honeymoon after the divorce". Subscribe here.

Chris Wallace
is a political historian at the Australian National University, Canberra.