Comfortable on the international stage: Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull with US President Barack Obama in Washington this week. Photo: Andrew Harrer Illustration: Jim Pavlidis
Malcolm Turnbull did more in Washington this week than put his stamp on Australia’s most important alliance. He articulated an approach to leadership that is likely to define his prime ministership this election year.
“This is a time for creative pragmatism and a recognition that difficult compromises will be required,” Turnbull declared in an address that combined thematic continuity with his predecessors and nuance with personal authenticity.
Turnbull coined his “creative pragmatism” in the context of finding a political settlement in Syria, but he could have been addressing any of the myriad challenges that lie ahead at home, from fixing the budget and reforming the tax system to workplace reform and ending the suffering of asylum seekers on Nauru and Manus Island.
Now he is back on home soil and, it seems, intent of taking the high road to political judgment day: going full-term and seeking a mandate for substantial change in the form of a blueprint for jobs, prosperity and growth that will be cast as fair but involve shared pain.
It’s a dangerous path because Turnbull would be assured of winning if he went to an election early and eschewed risk; because many who have watched their superannuation nest eggs take a hammering have already reached their pain threshold; and because it exposes Turnbull to the kind of negative scare campaigns that helped propel Tony Abbott to power.
Underpinning the high-road intention is the Prime Minister’s belief in his power to persuade and his conviction that this is the approach the country needs and the people want.
This is demonstrated in his insistence that “every option should be on the table”, including a 50 per cent hike in the GST, and encapsulated in the Martin Luther King quote Turnbull used to conclude his speech in Washington to the Centre for Strategic and International Studies. “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience,” King declared, “but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”
This is such a time. Huge difference between perceptions and reality
One hazard for Turnbull is the huge difference between perceptions and reality in Australian politics as the year begins. The perception is that Turnbull’s ascension marks the return to what used to be the norm, with new prime ministers given at least a couple of terms to prove their worth.
The reality is that the problems that bedevilled his predecessor in the first two years of this government have only intensified since Turnbull was sworn in on September 15. The ability to fund initiatives to boost growth or even sustain living standards is even more constrained, just as the will of his colleagues to be brave on tax or on even modest workplace reform is even more drained.
In one sense Turnbull is a casualty of his own rhetoric. His central proposition is that adversity, volatility and disruption can be transformed into opportunity, so long as they are approached with confidence, agility, imagination and enterprise. It invites high expectations that will be extremely hard to realise when one of the principal drivers of prosperity, the Chinese high-growth era, is running out of steam.
The contradiction is reflected in qualitative research by Ipsos which shows that, on the one hand, Australians feel pessimistic about the future, believing that the country may have peaked and, on the other, that they have great faith in Turnbull to turn things around.
Laura Demasi, research director of the Ipsos Mind and Mood Report, says a constant theme of group discussion over the past four years has been that Turnbull’s business background and wealth are strong positive attributes, prompting comments such as, “If he can do that for himself, what could he do for the country?”
“There’s a sense of confidence in him as an economic manager and a general belief that, if anyone can turn things around, it’s him,” Demasi says. “It’s going to take a lot to erode all of that goodwill, expectation and hope.” The Abbott factor
Another hazard on the high road is the propensity of some in the Coalition to seek out any opportunity to undermine the leader who is ideologically closer to the US Democrats contending to succeed Barack Obama than any of the Republican candidates, especially by painting him as weaker than Abbott on terrorism.
Then there is Abbott himself, who is expected to announce his intention to re-contest his safe Sydney seat, but has a bigger decision to make. Does he take the high road back to a serious contribution? Or does he opt instead to be a lightning rod for conservative disaffection inside the Coalition partyroom?
If Abbott wants to be considered for a return to the ministry, the onus is on him to tell Turnbull that he intends to be a team player and to contribute to the return of a Turnbull government. That would not mean forsaking his conservative views, or even the ambition of one day returning to the leadership (however fanciful that ambition might now seem), but it would mean submitting to the discipline Abbott demanded of others and generally was afforded when he was Liberal leader.
The alternative path is the one Abbott appeared to be setting before the Christmas break: to position himself as the champion of conservatism at home and abroad, especially in the context of debates on asylum seekers, terrorism and Islamic extremism.
Any notion that this could be a path back to the prime ministership is, frankly, preposterous and Abbott’s recent silence suggests he understands that, if there is one lesson from recent history, it is that the vast majority of voters don’t like political infighting and recoil from radicalism, whether on the right or the left.
The reality of Turnbull’s first four-and-a-bit months in office is that there has been plenty of activity but little in the way of big decisions. He has been assured in Parliament and comfortable on the international stage; has prevailed on one minister to quit and another to stand down; has re-positioned in some areas and presided over the release of the royal commission report on union corruption and a new policy on innovation. But that’s about it.
Assuming he is intent on taking the high road to re-election, the journey has only just begun.
Michael Gordon is political editor of The Age.
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