A month is a long time in politics for TurnbullMalcolm

TurnbullMalcolm, 5:07PM, April 5th 2010:

I have announced I will not recontest Wentworth at the election this year

TurnbullMalcolm, 7:41PM, April 30th 2010:

Have announced today I will run again in Wentworth.

Turnbull is framing his backflip as a response to the Prime Minister’s backflip on the ETS:

Over the last two terms of Parliament, whether as a backbencher, a Minister or as Leader of the Opposition, I have always stood up for my political convictions.

With the exception, it would seem, for April 2010, during which he was determined to give the game away.

The very name of Malcolm Turnbull’s albatross

Malcolm Turnbull’s memoir of his participation in the Australian Republican Movement’s campaign for a republic, Fighting for the Republic, was published in 1999. I wonder, when he was writing the words below, whether he had even the slightest inkling of what the coming years would bring (p.4):

When we launched the ARM, the monarchists quickly retaliated by forming a group called Australians for Constitutional Monarchy (ACM). Its chairman was Lloyd Waddy, a Sydney barrister, and a number of well-known conservatives were among its founders, including Dame Leonie Kramer, Chancellor of Sydney University, and, more improbably, Michael Kirby, very much a small-‘l’ liberal and President of the New South Wales Court of Appeal.

The ACM was pretty ineffective until it hired Tony Abbott as its executive director in 1993. Abbott had been a speechwriter for Liberal leader John Hewson and was an energetic, if somewhat erratic, advocate of the status quo.

And there is this (p.26):

The monarchist campaign was largely directed by Tony Abbott, who had now left his job with the ACM to take up a seat in Parliament. One of the strategy documents prepared by Abbott encouraged the monarchists to attack me personally. ‘As their public face Turnbull is arrogant, rude and obnoxious – a filthy rich merchant banker, out of touch with real Australians. He is the Gordon Gekko of Australian politics.’

Strong words. I wonder how both parties view their interactions during the late 1990’s now? Certainly Abbott would likely view them with a healthy dose of triumphalism. It seems that the life and times of Malcolm Turnbull for the past fifteen years or so have been bookended by two quite separate and quite personal defeats by the Federal Member for Warringah.

The Member for Wentworth’s last huzzah

Let’s try and be fair and reasonable for just a moment. The Member for Wentworth is a pretty damned talented individual. Despite his predilection for despotism and bloody-mindedness, and his tendency to carp in Opposition, I think that most people would agree that Malcolm Bligh Turnbull had the capacity to make a significant and lasting contribution to public life in this country. With the announcement of his resignation today, however, all that seems to lie purely in the realm of small-l liberal fantasy about “what might have been”.

When the unifying influence of John Howard disappeared from public life in November 2007, the division inherent within the Liberal/National Coalition was laid bare for all to see. The demands of government are quite different to the demands of Opposition. Without the binding force of an electorally successful leader, the underlying rabble re-emerged. Turnbull’s own aborted stint as Opposition Leader was troubled, but hardly without merit. He was crushed between the popularity of a competent political operator in Kevin Rudd, freshly ensconced in government, and a party riven brutally along ideological lines. He needed an issue that he could run with; to nail his colours to the mast. Perhaps unwisely – he decided that issue was the government’s ETS. This invited those demanding action on climate change to view the Opposition Leader as something of a flawed hero. Those favouring inaction viewed this only as the final straw.

The closeness of the ensuing leadership ballot that deposed Turnbull and elevated Abbott indicates the extent of the Coalition’s political disintegration. If Turnbull had not nominated for the leadership, it seems almost certain that Joe Hockey, his small-l liberal compadre, would have won the ballot. As it happens, he nominated, splitting the small-l liberal vote and defeating his popular colleague. Turnbull then lost the run-off ballot to Abbott by a single vote.

With his opponent still clinging doggedly to his position on the ETS months after the fact, Abbott evidently felt that he could not allow his adversary to return to the front bench, even when a plum opportunity emerged for a reshuffle last week.

It seems that things could so easily have been different for Malcolm. The times, as it happens, did not suit him.

Just what is Malcolm Turnbull playing at?

As a Labor supporter, perhaps not entirely surprisingly, I prefer Malcolm Turnbull to Tony Abbott as the leader of the Federal Opposition. This is not just because Turnbull agrees with the Labor Party on climate change, and it’s certainly not because Malcolm Turnbull laid bare the ideological chasm between the liberal and conservative wings of his party – a divided and ineffective opposition is in nobody’s interests. However Turnbull, at least on some issues (e.g. climate change, the republic), offered the electorate a glimmer of hope that concrete bipartisan progress was not impossible, and that the nation is capable of moving beyond the one-eyed partisan bickering that characterises our political system, even if just for a moment or two. Turnbull showed promising signs of understanding that the job of an Opposition is not always to oppose; it is to present an alternative vision for the nation and to back that vision up with policy. Sometimes it is better to be constructive. This is a lesson that Kevin Rudd adopted in Opposition to mighty effect, cherry-picking policy from the government whilst magnifying points of differentiation in other areas. Abbott, in contrast, appears to be set on the “oppose for opposition’s sake” approach. Perhaps he should have a bit of a chat to his mate Peter Debnam on that topic.

Despite all this, I am still a bit shocked at how Malcolm Turnbull has behaved since he was defeated in the leadership ballot last week. Immediately after the ballot, Turnbull asserted the following, as Ben Packham reports in the Herald Sun:

“I am not going to run a commentary on Tony Abbott. Lots of people ran commentaries on me when I was leader but I’m going to be more measured in my backbench remarks,” Mr Turnbull said yesterday.

I guess it all depends on what one considers “more measured” to mean, but a week has been proven once again to be a very long time in politics. Today, less than a week after those remarks, Turnbull posted a strident attack on his leader’s position on climate change on his blog, which quite frankly has to be read to be believed:

While a shadow minister, Tony Abbott was never afraid of speaking bluntly in a manner that was at odds with Coalition policy.

So as I am a humble backbencher I am sure he won’t complain if I tell a few home truths about the farce that the Coalition’s policy, or lack of policy, on climate change has descended into.

First, let’s get this straight. You cannot cut emissions without a cost. To replace dirty coal fired power stations with cleaner gas fired ones, or renewables like wind let alone nuclear power or even coal fired power with carbon capture and storage is all going to cost money.

To get farmers to change the way they manage their land, or plant trees and vegetation all costs money.
Somebody has to pay.
So any suggestion that you can dramatically cut emissions without any cost is, to use a favourite term of Mr Abbott, “bullshit.” Moreover he knows it.

If Turnbull continues to undermine Abbott’s position in this way, it will lay waste to the Liberal Party. This is, make no mistake, a running commentary on Tony Abbott’s leadership qualities, and it is a commentary that promises to continue well into the New Year. Abbott is already going to find it frightfully difficult to produce a policy on climate change that reduces emissions without significant costs. Even if a so-called “magic pudding” policy is found, it’s hard to imagine it being a dessert that the divided Coalition caucus is going to be happy to eat (insert “just desserts” pun here).

Seriously, how is the Coalition going to be a competitive force if its spurned leader – a media darling – feels able to fearlessly criticise his party’s policies in this way? It is, simply put, unsustainable.

On the Liberal Party, schisms, and curious steampunk machines

In considering how events have played out with respect to the leadership of the Liberal Party, a certain image springs to mind for me. For just a moment, picture the federal party-room of the Liberal Party in your mind’s eye as an elaborate, archaic, steampunk-ish contraption giving off heat and billowing steam, emitting all manner of clanking and wheezing sounds. There’s brass, there’s rust, there’s lint, there’s probably even some asbestos in there somewhere. It is an engine that has survived beyond its time and in some dubious way evolved, with strange, artificial improvements bolted higgledy-piggledy around the exterior. If you squint you might just make out what appears suspiciously to be microchips “growing” under a moist alcove, or what could well be a miniature LED screen replaying the tumultuous events of the last week or so over and over again, on silent repeat. Needless to say, despite the odd snatch of modern bling, this is a machine that doesn’t hum like your new home computer; it sounds kinda like a Datsun that hasn’t been serviced since 1982.

This curious machine has taken all the ingredients generated by the ructions of the last week and spat out a response to the leadership question, but it is the wrong response. A 42-41 decision is hardly a decision, particularly given that three likely Hockey/Turnbull supporters could not vote (Kelly O’Dwyer, Paul Fletcher, Fran Bailey). It doesn’t seem to be the response a majority of the party-room actually wanted. It doesn’t seem to be the response the eventual victor expected. It is, practically speaking, an non-sensical result. I am not sure that it really matters if the Liberal Party primarily blames Turnbull’s virtuoso but unconsultative approach to the CPRS for what they have now, or Hockey’s bizarrely principled vacillation on the precipice of his triumph. Oddly enough, both men proved their mettle and that they were worthy leaders since late last week, but still failed. What matters in the wash-up is that the moderate, liberal arm of the Liberal Party was holding all the cards over the conservatives and indeed had done so for most of the period since November 2007, but in a collective brainfart of truly epic proportions, they’ve managed to trade in all their aces for zippo, in one fell swoop.

The climate change issue has proven to be the most sublime wedge issue imaginable for the Rudd Government. Numbers-wise, the Coalition has been riven effectively right down the centre by the government’s CPRS, with the liberals and conservatives who played so nicely together during the Howard years now at each other’s throats. The marriage of convenience that holds the Coalition together has been ruthlessly exposed by the government as the shemozzle it really is. There is no effective consensus position for the Liberal Party on climate change, and no successful leader to call the shots first and sticky-tape the party together later, like there was during the Howard Government years. Dennis Glover does a fine job in today’s The Australian of spelling out why this issue so lethal for the Coalition, and why the Abbott Opposition needs to work out a credible position on climate change, and fast:

The evening news reports of the retreat of Greenland’s ice caps and the advance of solar power projects across the deserts of California will have far greater electoral effect than any theories Nick Minchin or Andrew Bolt try to sell on Lateline or Insiders.

Even cautious politicians such as Kevin Rudd are helping voters join the dots when the temperature gets above 40C.

For the coming months, a few predictions. I am extremely doubtful that we will see a double dissolution election. The Prime Minister, already sensing he has been gifted the upper hand by the Coalition’s bungling and the public’s goodwill, will not risk the ire of the electorate by pushing for an early climate change election. The Nationals and the Minchinites, having surprisingly emerged victorious with their candidate, are now perhaps just a little unsettled. Their “Anybody But Turnbull” approach has yielded the cut-through candidate that most gels with their own political philosophy, but has arguably as much capacity to polarise the electorate as anyone in the party. I sincerely doubt the Liberal Party pollsters are thrilled by the collected wisdom of the party-room. The first “post-spill” polls that emerge will be very interesting.

The moderates within the Liberal Party, having fielded two not unpopular candidates in the spill but still managed to lose, are now too enfeebled to challenge the leadership result or pursue the matter further. They will not speak up in support of the government’s CPRS. They will have to grit their teeth and mumble the Howard-era lines that they don’t actually believe in until the leadership changes again. Some may even decide to walk away from the party at the 2011 election. The rest of them will be hoping, of course, that their junk-tech party-room machine can, with a hiss and a puff of brackish smoke, spit out the right candidate for a modern Liberal Party the next time that the opportunity presents.

Which, in all likelihood, will be after Tony Abbott loses the next election.

Our very own red rooster and his big red numbers

Over the course of the last week, the expression on Treasurer Wayne Swan’s face has been even more deadpan than usual; so deadpan, in fact, that its as if someone from Treasury has swung an almighty great frying pan across his gloomy mug. In a sense, that is of course just what has happened. There is no tougher gig to have at the moment. Even before one considers all the election promises that Rudd Labor made back in late 2007, and the bold stimulus measures introduced during the past six months in an attempt to ward off the worst of the GFC, the government is starting behind. The tumultuous financial conditions have reduced profits, spending and incomes across the country, wiping a sizable $210 billion from the government’s anticipated revenue. Let’s be clear: whether the federal government was headed by Labor, the Liberals, or anyone else, it would have delivered a budget in the red in 2009-10 like the Rudd Government has. The buck must stop with the Treasurer, (if not he, then who else?), but its fair to say that a significant portion of the big red numbers being bandied around are not Mr. Swan’s or indeed Federal Labor’s fault.

Casting a considered eye over the opinions flying around in the mainstream media, it would seem that this is a Budget that is hard for people to support. It mixes almost evenly boosts and blows, to the point that some commentators believe it to be a confused budget, a budget that tries to stimulate the economy even as it withdraws funds from some, possibly lulling it back to sleep. There are welcome measures, such as the significant increase in payments to single pensioners, the introduction of parental leave (even if it is delayed until 2011), and the urgently needed $22 billion package of infrastructure measures. On the flip side of the coin, there are a few downright bafflers. The planned lifting of the pension age to 67 is a positively nutty idea, and gives credence to the accusation that Treasurer Swan is living blindly on the teat of the bureaucrats in Treasury. The means testing of the private health rebate is a questionable measure, given that it is likely to encourage people to ditch private health insurance and increase load on the public system. For once, Malcolm Turnbull might be on the right track by suggesting that raising excise on tobacco is a more sensible measure and can deliver the same amount of revenue.

It will be interesting to observe how Messrs Rudd and Swan react to Turnbull’s suggestion, and indeed to see how the public reacts to the Federal Opposition’s constant carping about the level of national debt. One does get the sense that the broader public is quite concerned about the hundreds of billions of dollars of public debt that Australia is now swimming in. This is a real concern, but it is a concern that is being simplistically tended by the Coalition. For his part, Malcolm Turnbull seems determined not to utter a word about the possibility (nay certain fact) that his team would also find itself in billions of dollars of debt if it were in government now. What remains to be seen is whether or not the sheer magnitude of the red numbers here are enough to get some people to lose faith and start to consider the opposition as a viable alternative government.

Make no mistake, this is the start of Malcolm Turnbull’s big chance.

Is the emissions trading scheme doomed?

After months of earnest assertions to the contrary, the Rudd Government has finally caved in to the pressure and postponed its emissions trading scheme. Although the nation’s worsening economic situation no doubt accounted for a substantial component of that pressure, its certainly fair to say that the government’s backdown represents a political victory for the Opposition. For some time now Malcolm Turnbull has been promoting the postponement cause, and despite the fact that his party has engineered yet another schizophrenic change of mind on the issue, refusing to back the government’s revised approach to emissions-trading even though it owes much to its own, it would appear that he has won this little stoush with the Prime Minister.

Personally, I think there are credible cases that can be made for either side of the debate. It goes without saying that while the economy was getting a pummeling, introducing a new, somewhat risky mechanism that threatened to impact profitability and therefore jobs for thousands of Australians was a politically dubious step to take. While I accept the fact that the climate change science demands swift and effective action, most people (myself included) instinctively feel that a delay of a year or two is probably not going to end life on Earth as we know it. In ideal conditions I would love to see action now, but we are living in far from ideal conditions. The government has already spent billions of dollars during the past nine months, stimulating the economy and sending the country into a significant amount of debt in the process. It must have a serious concern that it commands neither the requisite economic or political capital to launch the emissions-trading scheme during this time of crisis.

On the flip side of the coin, one really does have to question the Rudd Government’s commitment to climate change. The science calls for bold steps, not delays or a pragmatic watering down. I frankly don’t understand why the government has only now decided to cave in to the Opposition on this issue. If it really is the case that the economic situation is so dire that implementing the ETS would be unsustainable, the government should have known this six months ago. When economists the world over were saying six months ago that it is likely going to take over a year to get out of this slump, the government should have been paying attention and started sounding the alarm bells then. Instead, it continued to glibly peddle the line that the ETS would be implemented as scheduled, despite the fact that the global financial system was crumbling all around it. Putting the science aside completely for just a second, we would have to conclude that this exemplifies poor judgement.

While we have an Opposition full of climate change sceptics and opportunists and a government with such a wavering commitment to the issue, it’s hard to be very confident that we are eventually going to get an outcome. At this rate, I would certainly not be putting money on a functioning emissions-trading scheme being implemented in Australia any time soon – whether 2010, 2011 or 2012.

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.

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?