Opinion

Sean Kelly
Abetz and Andrews’ petty politicking dogs statesman Turnbull

During the years I worked for Julia Gillard, whenever we were preparing for an overseas trip the same thing would happen. One by one journalists would make their way to the prime minister’s media office with the predictable complaint, just audible over the noise of six televisions: “Why don’t you guys just buy a bigger plane? It would make things so much easier.”

They were right, of course. It would have meant journalists could have easily followed Australia’s leader around the world, rather than having to individually manage the most logistically complex set of connections, at enormous inconvenience and cost. It also would have allowed them a little more time with the PM, who inevitably would have wandered down the back of the plane for an occasional casual chat, which in turn would have given them and their readers a greater understanding of whatever was trying to be achieved. 

It was also a trap. However well intentioned the journalists doing the asking, there would have been other journalists itching for a front-page splash about the unnecessary millions a narcissistic leader had decided to spend on a new luxury jet to fly them and their media fan club around. 

The upshot of all this is that journalistic junkets on prime ministerial world tours are rarely as wonderful as they sound. Instead, senior members of the press gallery, cooped up in ugly, windowless media centres, work crazy hours to meet deadlines on the other side of the world, sleeping little before dashing back to the airport. Meanwhile, editors, under pressure to justify every hit to their budget, demand more and more saleable content. At the same time, those members of the PM’s travelling party – including the PM – have also slept very little, as their small plane is forced to make repeated stops to refuel. The lack of rest is also because so much is crammed in, as these tours are shorter and more rushed than they once were, with modern leaders terrified of being hit with the “Kevin 747” tagline. 

It’s a formula that ensures mistakes will be made, and that they will be blown out of all proportion. Think of Julia Gillard tripping when her heels got stuck in grass. Or Kevin Rudd’s shift to more blokey language when speaking to troops in Afghanistan. Or the repeated stories about Malcolm Turnbull’s awkward chats with United States President Barack Obama last November. Plus our cultural cringe means one critical comment from a minor overseas official can be enough to poison perception of a leader’s performance. 

This is all by way of saying that Turnbull has done very well this week in Iraq, Afghanistan and the US. Avoiding errors is a higher bar than it seems. More important, the absence of mistakes has allowed the focus to stay squarely on Turnbull’s approach to foreign policy, which is notably more nuanced than that of his predecessor. Labor is right to say that not being Tony Abbott is not enough, but it’s still pretty good. 

The most important political result is that Turnbull has been able to spend a week doing things that prime ministers are expected to do, and has looked comfortable doing it. The story goes that Ronald Reagan’s press secretary used to watch the TV news with the sound turned off, believing that pictures were all that mattered. Some pollsters in recent months have suggested voters are willing the new PM to succeed, probably from a desperate desire for politics to settle down and stay the hell away from them, and the pictures coming from overseas will help to reassure them.

One recurring question has, however, dogged Turnbull: how does he respond to criticisms from his own MPs that Australia should be sending ground troops to fight Daesh? When you’re trying to manufacture a smooth international tour, the last thing you need is your own side kicking up trouble – and yet that is exactly what happened, with former defence minister Kevin Andrews and Senator Eric Abetz ensuring this would be a focus of the PM’s trip. Luckily for Turnbull, the Americans gave him a hand, with Obama and military officials chiming in to say Australia was already shouldering its fair share. 

This is petty politicking from Turnbull’s dissident MPs. Andrews and Abetz may mean what they say, but there is no doubt they are also sending a message about the party’s internal battles: Yes, Mal, you got rid of Abbott, but don’t think this is over. Andrews, who relied for his comments on advice he received when he was defence minister, has been egregious, but the broader point is more important. It is the worst type of cynicism to use the battle against Daesh as some kind of proxy for the fight between Liberal moderates and conservatives.

And, oh boy, did that fight spiral this week. The moderates in the Liberal Party have been threatening to use their numbers to unseat sitting conservative MPs. Conservative MPs, in return, are threatening that this will unleash civil war. 

A prime minister’s voice is very loud, and therefore must be used sparingly. To date, Turnbull has managed this situation reasonably. The news somehow found its way to the papers that he had asked the federal director of the Liberal Party to tell factional chiefs that the PM will be supporting sitting MPs against any challenge. Note what Turnbull has not done: made strong public comments, or tried to order that the challenges do not go ahead. He has therefore sent a message to conservative MPs that he has heard their concerns without running the risk either of looking like he is riding roughshod over party democracy or of having his authority ignored. 

That is probably all he can do at this stage, but it is a situation he will have to watch closely. The tinderbox got a little closer to catching fire with reports midweek that Abbott was being urged by his former chief of staff, Peta Credlin, to stay on in parliament in the hope that he will one day return as PM. Whether or not he is delusional about his future prospects – and Abbott denied the report through a spokesman – how Abbott behaves this year could have a significant impact on Turnbull’s success.

But there is another danger in the battle over Liberal preselections, which is that some MPs who have overstayed their welcome will end up being protected as part of the overall efforts to calm things down. There is no argument for Bronwyn Bishop to remain in parliament. Philip Ruddock was first elected when Gough Whitlam was PM. The practice of protecting sitting MPs when in government is not unusual, and has been pursued by both parties at times, but there was not sufficient renewal during the brief period the Coalition was out of power to justify this. Abbott’s government in particular often looked like Beverly Hills 90210: The College Years – a tired attempt to wring some last drops out of a once-successful line-up. Turnbull did well to refresh his cabinet. It is time to refresh his backbench. 

While Turnbull was traversing the seven seas, his opposition counterpart, Bill Shorten, was making his way through the radio stations and supermarkets of the nation: Cairns, Queanbeyan, Rockhampton, Launceston. It’s a less glamorous journey, but a fair media strategy. When a PM is overseas they will grab the national headlines. Shorten has focused on grabbing local headlines. 

Shorten started his national tour awkwardly (“What’s your favourite type of lettuce?” was one opening gambit) but has seemed a little more comfortable since, and has largely managed to keep the focus on his pet topic of the GST. 

Of course, this is a bit of a phantom campaign, as we are yet to discover what Turnbull’s intentions are on tax. In fact, at this early stage – though several months into Turnbull’s leadership – we still know very little about Turnbull’s plans for the country. Speculation continues to swirl about the possibility of an early election, which, were it to go ahead, would probably mean we would go into a campaign still not knowing very much. 

And an early election would be a mistake. Not because Turnbull wouldn’t win – it is hard to see his popularity slipping so far so quickly – but because, at this stage, it seems likely he will win whenever the election is held. The mood for change simply does not seem afoot. And if that is the case, Turnbull would be a fool to waste the best chance he will ever have to win support for genuine reform.

Take New South Wales premier Mike Baird, who took power 11 months out from the polls. Fighting an unlosable election, he took the opportunity to argue for electricity privatisation, knowing he would win at the ballot box. It was not, as many have suggested, a brave decision, but it was a smart one, giving him a mandate to point to, and a reputation for substance that will endure. This is almost precisely the situation Turnbull is now in. Whether it is the GST or some other policy, he should prosecute the case for change, with all the details worked out, which will take some time to prepare. Going to an early election may set Turnbull up for an immediate victory, but waiting until September might set him up for years. That opportunity will not knock twice.

Paul Bongiorno is on leave.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jan 23, 2016 as "Statesman Turnbull Daeshed at home". Subscribe here.

Sean Kelly
is a political commentator and writer, and a former adviser to prime ministers Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard.

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