It is 16 months since Turnbull became prime minister. In that time, he hasn’t achieved gravitas, has not built authority, and has so far failed to prosecute a substantial political or policy argument of any kind. By Chris Wallace.

Chris Wallace
Turnbull in the Trump era

It could hardly have been a worse summer for the Turnbull government but, against the turmoil of President Donald Trump’s new American revolution, an illusion of relative calm if not competence radiates from Canberra.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull starts the year behind in the polls – the latest, Essential Media, this week had the government trailing Labor 46–54 in the two-party preferred – and with no fear factor to deploy against opponents inside or outside the Coalition.

Former leader Tony Abbott taunted Turnbull mid-January, suggesting in The Australian that the government not only talk about agility but get agile and actually do something.

At a doorstop on Tuesday, after receiving a cybersecurity briefing at the Australian Signals Directorate in Canberra, the threat of rivals in hi-vis vests seemed top of mind for Turnbull. Abbott, of course, made them intrinsic to his political brand. Now Turnbull has visions of Bill Shorten in them.

“He can go around in as many fluoro vests as he likes – he is a walking, talking threat to Australian jobs,” Turnbull railed, calling Shorten a “weakling” for not backing his attempt to keep the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal alive after Trump killed it in one of his first executive acts.

Turnbull’s attack was more shrill than scarifying. Around Parliament House, it invoked nostalgic memories of another failed attack by a Liberal leader – John Hewson’s on treasurer Paul Keating in the late 1980s, and Keating’s devastating response: “It was like being flogged with a warm lettuce. It was like being mauled by a dead sheep.”

It is 16 months since Turnbull became prime minister. In that time, he hasn’t achieved gravitas, has not built authority, and has so far failed to prosecute a substantial political or policy argument of any kind. Departmental secretaries are in a state of deep despair about the apparently hopeless prospects for serious policy in the wake of last year’s energy policy debacle.

Turnbull’s polling is terrible and the list of disasters over the Christmas–new year period formidable. He lost one of his better members of cabinet, Health Minister Sussan Ley, in another scandal mixing conspicuous consumption with MPs’ dubious use of entitlements.

The Centrelink “robo-debt” controversy is roiling, with Centrelink staff now beginning to arc up over the data-matching policy generating “please explain” letters to its clients.

Pension cuts in January, arising from a tighter assets test, generated plenty of bad media – the most damaging contrasting the many part-pensioners who lost the lot as well as their health cards while the government persists with big-ticket concessions for business.

Worst of all, as one opposition MP observed, “Trump has made a joke of their economic mantra that the TPP means jobs – it didn’t”. As a result, the government is “left with tax cuts for business and trickle-down economics which no one will buy”.

Together it is a lot of bad news in one holiday period. To take the potential political impact of just one element – the tighter pension assets test – consider Labor MP Julie Owens’ use of it in her Sydney seat of Parramatta. And that is just one electorate.

The Parramatta Sun reported Owens estimating up to 1430 pensioners in her electorate had been hurt by the policy change, 420 of them losing their pension entitlement altogether. That is a lot of unhappy voters no doubt sharing their unhappiness with as many friends and relatives as will listen.

Yet as 2017 opens, Turnbull faces no leadership threat. He is the ongoing leader of convenience to the federal Liberals’ evenly balanced senior leadership group, none of whom shows the breakout brains or leadership talent required to be worthy of a shift. For them, he has the benefit of brand recognition, however that brand may be hollowing out, and the immense virtue of obedience to the dominant party line.

Australia, on the other hand, faces a challenge of immense proportions in the Trump presidency. Trump has done two things, one promised, the other contrary to a promise.

Trump has moved swiftly, in form and substance, to implement the suite of far-right policies promised during the 2016 United States presidential election.

His positions on race (white is good), gender (men are good), sexuality (straight is good), migration (bad unless the migrants are white – see easier access flagged for Britons as part of a mooted Anglo-American trade deal), climate change (not happening), the environment (to be mined), religion (Judeo-Christianity is good) and economics (protectionism is good) are manifest in a series of rollbacks, executive orders and bully pulpit urgings, exactly as promised.

This is the US with which Australia now finds itself in formal alliance, not the internationalist, pluralistic US of the postwar era.

The Trump administration is nascently fascist – as in “beginning to form or develop”. Cautious commentators have been slow to face up to this. Others, deploying “walks like a duck, talks like a duck, must be a duck” logic, concluded months ago this was the case.

Awkward background conversations ensued. Push-back often took the form of argument that this could not be the case because Trump did not have a coherent agenda.

Those pushing back were not receptive to the response that many elements of nascent fascism were nevertheless evident – racism, misogyny, homophobia, exploitation of false narratives of national decline for political self-interest, attacks on the media, paranoia, the undermining of democratic institutions and practices, the desire to lock up political opponents. That is because a particular fascist leader, Hitler, made such a strong imprint on our historical memory, and Trump is not Hitler.

“Hitler was way, way smarter,” one Liberal staffer privately observed after Trump’s inauguration. “He’s Mussolini. Mussolini never had an agenda – he was all show, with a gift for popular rhetoric. Mussolini’s cronies did well. There was a lot of nationalism and stupid foreign wars in Libya and Ethiopia. Then the whole Italian thing just fell apart and Hitler had to bail him out.”

The speed and decisiveness with which Trump is implementing his promises is causing a rethink. Trump may manifest buffoonery but he has a sharp, far-right team around him, driving things in a grim direction.

Doubters would do well to read Roger Cohen’s piece in the opinion pages of The New York Times this week for a compelling call concerning Trump’s nature and method. Writes Cohen:

“Trump’s outrageous claims have a purpose: to destroy rational thought. When Primo Levi arrived at Auschwitz he reached, in his thirst, for an icicle outside his window but a guard snatched it away. ‘Warum?’ Levi asked (why?). To which the guard responded, ‘Hier ist kein warum’ (here there is no why).

“As the great historian Fritz Stern observed, ‘This denial of ‘why’ was the authentic expression of all totalitarianism, revealing its deepest meaning, a negation of Western civilisation.’ ”

Notably, the promise Trump did not keep was his evocative commitment to “drain the swamp”. His plutocratic administration is effectively government by Goldman Sachs.

So it is that of all world leaders, Goldman Sachs’ former Australian chief and now prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, is arguably the most fluent in the newly restocked swamp’s language. It is the language of the deal.

Australia’s ambassador in Washington, Joe Hockey, is another fluent in the language of the deal. So is industry minister and Australian Water Holdings Pty Ltd (ICAC report pending) veteran Arthur Sinodinos.

To the extent the Turnbull government and the Trump administration understand each other, it can only be a plus, especially given Trump’s already proven propensity to treat middling-sized allies as chips in his global international relations casino. Ask Taiwan, which fears, following suggestive Trump comments, being used as leverage in US bargaining with China over trade and currency policy.

China’s bristling response and Trump’s brittle persona have already led to speculation about potential armed conflict. And Australia, should we be called on within the ANZUS alliance framework – would we get involved? Such are the weighty decisions that could hit the prime minister of convenience’s desk sooner than he may think.

If the government is complacent, Labor is chipper. Opposition Leader Bill Shorten goes into the new year with Labor ahead in the polls and plenty of opportunity in the fast-changing political environment.

Turnbull’s political judgement is not improving with experience, Labor strategists have concluded, pointing to the prime minister trying to keep the TPP alive when it is as dead as the corpse in Weekend at Bernie’s.

It is not hard to find Liberals who concur. Turnbull “pontificates on everything and follows through on nothing”, says one. “He doesn’t seem to have any spine.” Adds another: “They’re just as fucking secretive as Abbott’s office was.”

Nevertheless, colleagues expect Turnbull to motor through to the next election. “Will he have achieved anything?” poses one Liberal. “No. Will he be remembered? No.”

High self-esteem and low self-expectations concerning performance may be Turnbull’s secret to happiness and political survival – for now. But the storm being brewed by the Trump administration, in Labor’s reckoning, will likely demand performance standards way beyond Turnbull’s ken.

Chris Wallace is a professor at the 50/50 by 2030 Foundation, University of Canberra, and the author of How to Win an Election.

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