Setting a date with a bullet train

So far, I don’t think Joe Hockey has been much chop as Shadow Treasurer. He has come up with the odd good line, but I don’t think his political manner (for want of a better term) really suits the portfolio he has been thrust into. On the other side of the fence sits Wayne Swan, a man with probably less confidence or exuberance than anybody who has been Treasurer for well over a decade. Despite this, he has one key strength: the capacity to bore. Swan is a technocrat through and through, and when he hasn’t been putting his foot in it, he has been ideal for the government from a noise minimisation perspective. Hockey’s gregarious nature and his often jocular approach to managing his portfolio does not match up well against Swan’s colourless demeanour. The Opposition need sharp and incisive, not rambunctious. It needs a Nick Minchin-type on the attack.

With this year’s Federal Budget still a month away, the sniping has already begun. Joe Hockey has come out in the media asserting that the Opposition will block the Budget if it feels that there it contains “waste” or “mismanagement”. On recent form, one would have to think that the Opposition will view at least some of the Rudd Government’s further stimulus measures in this way. It’s a pretty gung-ho approach to take when one considers the Prime Minister’s extraordinary approval ratings and the general mood of the electorate, which is predisposed to supporting the government in times of crisis. While thus far this year I have felt that the Rudd Government would serve a full three years before calling an election, despite the emergence of several double dissolution triggers, if the Opposition blocks some key planks of the Budget, I think calling an early election would be justified and even, arguably, desirable.

Well I’ll see your stimulus, and I’ll halve it!

Like the Opposition, I actually do believe that the Rudd Government’s blockbuster $42 billion stimulus package should be subjected to a reasonable degree of scrutiny. I don’t buy the government’s line that this stimulus package is so incredibly urgent that the Senate should not be permitted to conduct an inquiry, bargain or make contrary recommendations. On the other hand, given the economic climate, I do believe the Senate should be seeking to maximise both robustness and swiftness of deliberation when tackling the package – mutually opposing principles perhaps, but then we live in rather difficult times.

This is where I part company with Opposition Leader Malcolm Turnbull. I honestly believe that Turnbull’s rhetoric on the stimulus package is out of whack with the majority of his economic policy peers globally, and the general mood out there in the electorate. In most other scenarios, I would agree that tax cuts are a vastly more sensible means of passing excess government funds back to the electorate than one-off handouts. The scenario that the Rudd Government and the rest of the world faces today, however, is somewhat unique. The economy needs additional activity to be fostered now, not incrementally over the coming years. The results are in for Federal Labor’s December 2008 stimulus package, and they seem positive. The Coalition has painted itself into a corner now, with a series of ugly budget blowouts in the coming years the only possible saving grace for their position.

This leads us neatly to the other quirk in Turnbull’s rhetoric. By proposing that the government’s stimulus package be halved, Turnbull is gambling that the fear of the economy tanking as a result of government inaction is less than a fear that the deficit in the budget is going to get out of control and plague federal governments in the years to come. Some folks in the media and Liberal operatives are already trying to frame the current situation as the “deficit we had to have”. This is strangely enough true, although perhaps not in the way that some are trying to frame it. The abrupt reduction in projected tax receipts for the Federal Government as a result of the global financial crisis could not have been predicted in May last year, and even if the Coalition won at the polls in late 2007, it would find itself in the midst of a budget deficit today. This is a deficit that is not of Federal Labor’s making. It may be somewhat extended by their actions, but given their actions are quite closely tied with the prescriptions of the world’s economic orthodoxy, the Rudd Government has some defences in reserve if it needs them.

Politically speaking, this was not the right time for Turnbull to skimp. Unless the Opposition punches some serious holes in the Rudd Government’s package over the next week or so, it is not going to gain any political capital from this odd little diversion into one-downsmanship. I also don’t believe for a moment that the Coalition caucus unanimously backs Turnbull’s stance. They seem to just be biding their time and hoping that Turnbull is going to somehow get lucky by pursuing this approach.

A wafer-thin Coalition?

Purportedly, one of the positive traits of the Liberal Party as an ideological entity is that it stands up staunchly for the individual. While the Labor Party enforces a very strict brand of collective party room discipline when it comes to parliamentary voting, the Liberal Party has traditionally been viewed as being a bit more tolerant of members who express dissenting views, either publicly or in parliament. This approach takes on an additional level of complexity when one also considers the Liberal Party’s coalition with the National Party federally, and the practically mandatory requirement within modern Australian parliamentary politics for leaders to maintain ironclad control over their own parties (or at least appear to).

Obviously, the rough ideology of the National Party overlaps to a certain extent with that of the Liberal Party, particularly on social or “moral” issues, where both parties tend strongly towards the conservative side of the political spectrum. However, it would clearly be a mistake to assume that the unity that the Coalition exhibited during the lifetime of the Howard Government was the natural state of the relationship. It now seems that the glow of power provided ostensibly by the popularity of John Howard in the role of Prime Minister was the glue that held these uncomfortable allies together. Howard also had the added benefit of being a Liberal whose views were generally conservative, and flexibly pragmatic enough to command the support of the National Party. He was not averse to engaging in acts of rank populism from time to time in order to keep his rural mates on board, even if they did not always sit comfortably with his own ideological views.

By comparison, it is also becoming ever clearer that if John Howard was a ready-made uniter as a leader of the Coalition, Malcolm Turnbull is a ready-made divider. Turnbull is a polarising figure within his own party, and he is even moreso in the context of the broader Coalition. Socially, he is to the left of the majority of the parliamentary Liberal Party, and of course the parliamentary National Party. In terms of economic views, he is to the liberal right of the entire parliamentary National Party, his views etched indelibly by his experiences in the business world and a life of urban affluence.

In trying to compete with the Rudd Government, whose party room discipline thus far has been comparable to that of the Howard Government in terms of ruthlessness, Turnbull has been trying to enforce a similar level of discipline. He is also trying hard to have things his way, as any leader would do, but problematically, his views do not align very well with those of his party or indeed his party’s coalition partner. Clearly, he can not have it both ways; something has to give, either the primacy of Turnbull’s personal ideology as leader or the party-room discipline he is trying to enforce.

Malcolm Turnbull is going to have to defuse this situation, and quickly, or else either his leadership or the federal coalition agreement with the National Party are going to be irrevocably damaged. He can not have his cake and eat it too, as he did in the private sector. He needs to compromise on his own views, or give the reins to somebody who can.

ELSEWHERE: More from Mark over at Larvatus Prodeo.

Talking the financial crisis up and down

There can be no denying that Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and Treasurer Wayne Swan, in particular, have brought a concerted air of solemnity to their communications regarding the global financial crisis. It has become almost cliched for our leaders and media commentators to assert that these are “tough times that we are living in”, or to compare the recent machinations in our financial markets to Black Monday, the oil shocks of the 1970’s, or even the mother of them all, the Great Depression. The national mood is a heady brew of overstated pessimism and introspection, and few have the confidence to predict exactly how events will unfold in the future.

The importance of confidence for consumers and the world’s remarkably flaky financial markets can’t really be overestimated at this stage. This creates a bit of a conundrum for government; on the one hand, the situation should probably be talked up, in order to send positive signals out there to those willing to listen. On the other hand, the government needs to keep its mood in touch with that of the Australian people. The last thing the Rudd Government wants to do is engage in rank triumphalism over Australia’s position in relation to the financial crisis when a lot of people out there are hurting as a result of it.

It would seem that the Liberal Party is happy to send positive signals with respect to the financial crisis, and to wear on its sleeve any criticisms arising from it being out of touch (some would suggest this is its natural disposition). Shadow Treasurer Julie Bishop appeared on Channel Nine this morning suggesting that Rudd needs to be more positive in relation to the crisis, offering this hyperbolic vignette to support her case:

Ms Bishop said shopkeepers in an Adelaide shopping centre had sent her a clear message.

“A number of shopkeepers … said to me that every time the Prime Minister goes on the nightly news and says ‘it’s going to be tough and ugly and hard’, they know that sales will be flat the next day.”

Former Prime Minister John Howard sent the Rudd Government a similar message on Fox News yesterday, urging the government to steer clear of comparisons of today’s crisis with the Great Depression. He is not without a point, but clearly the line upon which the government needs to walk here is fraught. Federal Labor is getting hit by the Opposition and some punters for talking the crisis up. If it talks the crisis down while the problems related with the crisis remain, it will also get hit by Opposition and the punters.

Rudd and Swan, knowing that this truly is a global financial crisis and that for the most part it is beyond Australia’s control, are erring to the negative side at the moment. Although we could perhaps do without some of the “Great Depression” hyperbole, I am not sure this is necessarily a bad thing given the reality of the situation that Australia faces. When the United States sneezes, we need to do what we can and hope for the best, because we simply don’t have the economic equivalent of an influenza vaccine on hand.

A great big blob of ego speaks

That’s all I could see when in the middle of A Current Affair this evening, the head of Malcolm Turnbull appeared suddenly to deliver this somewhat nebulous message to the nation. It’s fascinating that Turnbull seems to already think himself the Prime Minister elect after less than a month in the job; as well as the right person to be lecturing the nation on the causes of the financial crisis the world finds itself in. Of course, true to form, he could not resist the opportunity to have a half-hearted jab at the government during his address:

Regrettably, Mr Rudd’s Government missed the warning signs at the beginning of the year and talked up inflation, and consequently interest rates, at precisely the wrong time.

Eh? Regrettably, it seems the Turnbull Opposition didn’t really have anything to say to the nation in this instance that necessitated a public address, apart perhaps from satisfying the Opposition Leader’s ego. Rudd’s address to the nation explained the stimulus package his government was introducing, and neglected to make any petty digs at his political opponents. Nor did the Prime Minister take the opportunity during his address to attack the Liberal Party for the inflationary snake’s nest it left behind when it left office last year. That’s called statesmanship, see. Someone should inform the Member for Wentworth that getting your mug on television in primetime does not in itself constitute statesmanship.

The Turnbull Opposition have already agreed to support the government’s stimulus package without amendment or suggesting any alternative measures. In other words, as is apparent if one reads the transcript of Turnbull’s address, this stance doesn’t really leave much for the Opposition to say to the nation. This leaves me thinking… has there ever been a televised address to the nation by an Australian politician with less substance or purpose than this one from Malcolm Bligh Turnbull?

Defending the prime tourist

The new Federal Opposition Leader’s opening gambit on the populist rhetoric front has been to attack the Prime Minister over his decision to attend the annual meeting of the United Nations General Assembly. For my money it is a cheap and uncompelling shot, for all except perhaps the Liberal Party’s most sour-faced and envious supporters. Rudd has reportedly been on eight foreign trips over the past nine months, which to this taxpayer at least, does not seem excessive. Unlike the comparatively unilateralist era that was ushered in by the previous government, Australia under Federal Labor is once again interested in engaging the world with open arms, lead by a man who understands global politics arguably better than anyone who has ever held the position. It would be a waste for Rudd not to use his not inconsiderable diplomatic talents and experience on the global stage as much as possible; indeed it would arguably be contravening Australia’s national interest not to in most circumstances.

In any case, Rudd himself responded more than adequately, methinks, to this related question from Kieran Gilbert of Sky News:

GILBERT: You’re heading off to New York this afternoon. You’re going to miss the rest of the week in parliament. Why do you need to go?

PM: Well, this week in New York the annual meeting of the UN General Assembly will have heads of government from 122 countries around the world including the heads of government from 13 of the world’s 15 major economies.

There’ll be one subject, one core subject on people’s mind, and that is the global response to the global financial crisis.

And there are two schools of thought here. Either you can go down the populist road, the opportunistic populist road, which is what various people in politics are championing at the moment and not go, or you can act in the national interest. My judgment is that my responsibility as Prime Minister is to act in the national interest, which means working through with other heads of government the best response to this global financial crisis.

Australia has to have a seat at the table, not just sort of hang out to one side an expect everyone else to kind of solve it. That’s not how it works.

Apparently Malcolm Turnbull would prefer to bury his head in the sand and let the rest of the world discuss these sorts of pertinent problems without his, or Australia’s input.

Will Malcolm Turnbull be a stable leader of the Liberal Party?

As I have previously commented, I don’t think too many people are surprised that Malcolm Turnbull has succeeded Brendan Nelson as the leader of the Liberal Party. There has been no real indication throughout 2008 that Doctor Nelson was eventually going to cut through and threaten Kevin Rudd as a genuine alternative Prime Minister of this country. It is not so much that Brendan Nelson has a divisive personae for the Liberals, but rather just that he failed to threaten the government to a significant enough extent. There was little question that the Rudd Labor Government would secure a second term in office in 2010 if Nelson was left holding the reins.

The interesting thing about Malcolm Turnbull, of course, is that he does have a divisive personae for the Liberal Party. In a political sense he is well to the soft left of the vast majority of the Liberal parliamentary caucus, and one would imagine that he has little time for the agrarian socialism of the National Party. He came to the party late and reportedly only after being denied a position in the Senate for the Labor Party during the 1980’s. In this respect, there are no doubt quite a few members of the Liberal caucus who resent the fact that Turnbull has swept in from the wings to the leadership of the party without having to go through the day-to-day political grind that they had to endure.

It’s worth considering for a moment the results of the leadership spill vote. For starters, Turnbull only was victorious by a margin of 4; if three caucus members had decided to instead plump for Nelson, than Turnbull would have failed to secure the leadership again, and his immediate future prospects would have been reasonably assumed to be in tatters. Ironically, it appears that several conservative members of the caucus may have delivered the vote to Turnbull. Tony Abbott, Alex Hawke, Bronwyn Bishop and Louise Markus all voted for Turnbull; presumably not because they agreed with his political views or indeed particularly like him, but rather because they wanted someone who they thought would be a little more effective in the leadership role.

This is of course a very Howardian way of thinking. The substance of Malcolm Turnbull in a political or policy sense was not what has elevated him to the top job; what has elevated him to the top job is his charisma, eloquence and marketability. If Turnbull does a reasonable enough job of competing with the government and doesn’t try to be too progressive, this won’t be a problem for the Liberals. As it was with the Howard years from about 2000 onwards, if the electorate warm to Turnbull then the Liberal caucus will undoubtedly warm to him, even if they don’t actually agree with him. It’s the poll figures, not the policy, stupid.

Clearly the jury will be out for some time and Turnbull has a lot of convincing to do. While you have traditionally Liberal-affiliated groups like Australians for a Constitutional Monarchy sobbing into their English Breakfast tea, and leading conservative columnists like Miranda Devine still hopelessly longing for an utterly implausible return of the Liberal Party’s great woulda-coulda-shoulda ex-Treasurer, you just know that there will be a few more twists in the tale of this story yet.

A hard life for some

What has looked like the inevitable for the past nine months or so has finally now come to pass, with Malcolm Turnbull assuming the leadership of the Federal Liberal Party from Brendan Nelson, after a 45 – 41 party room vote. I think I will write some more about Turnbull a little later this week, but for now it’s probably worth reflecting on this opening salvo from the Member for Wentworth:

“I do not come to the position of leader of the Liberal Party from a lifetime of privilege,” he said at his first press conference.

“I know what it’s like to be very short of money. I know what it’s like to live in rented flats.

“I know what it’s like to grow up with a single parent with no support other than a devoted and loyal father.

“We know that this is a tough world and our job as Liberals is to ensure that our society is a fair one. A society of opportunity. A society where people can, like my father and I, be able to take advantage of those opportunities, to seize those opportunities and with enterprise and energy and good luck and hard work, do well.

“We are a party of opportunity and this, my friends, is a land of opportunity.”

The emphasis above is mine. Turnbull is clearly going to have to watch his millionaire mouth in check if he doesn’t want to swiftly alienate a lot of the voters he is trying to impress. To think the poor boy had to actually rent an flat! Oh,the tragedy! Oh, the humiliation! Oh, the frightening closeness to the everyday, normal reality for millions of people in Australia!

This is going to be interesting.