Turnbull follows the Howard blueprint

Turnbull follows the Howard blueprint

Australian voters have had only two weeks to observe Malcolm Turnbull’s new approach to government. But it is already clear he is a keener student of former PM John Howard than Tony Abbott ever was.

The first inkling that Turnbull had been paying close attention to the Howard way of doing things was in January when the then communications minister talked to an audience in LA about leadership:

Leaders must be decision makers, but they must also be, above all, explainers and advocates, unravelling complex issues in clear language that explains why things have to change and why the government cannot solve every problem.

Turnbull’s words echoed those delivered by Howard in June last year during an appearance with Bob Hawke at the National Press Club. Australia’s second longest-serving PM lamented that politicians sometimes lost “the capacity to respect the ability of the Australian people to absorb a detailed argument” and that Australians will respond to an argument for change and reform if they are satisfied it is in Australia’s interests and it is fundamentally fair.

If voters and political observers were tempted to think this was a happy coincidence, Turnbull returned to the theme in March this year, and it was also a key part of his leadership pitch two weeks ago.

Turnbull didn’t pull any punches, stating Abbott had not “been capable of providing the economic leadership our nation needs,” and arguing he offered leadership that “respects the peoples’ intelligence, that explains these complex issues, and then sets out the course of action we believe we should take, and makes a case for it”.

This is where the surprisingly engaging Scott Morrison comes in. Progressives are sceptical about the former border protection minister being the country’s chief spruiker on the economy, and conservatives remain cranky that he didn’t throw himself under the Abbott bus, but the new Treasurer is Turnbull’s best chance of fulfilling his commitment to reset the public conversation about economic reform in a more respectful manner.

In addition to committing to the Howard model of communicating with voters, Turnbull also flagged that he’d return to Howard’s administrative structures, declaring the Howard government “a great example of good cabinet government,” and “that’s what we need to go back to”.

The former PM gave some insight to that approach during an address in March. Howard noted that prime ministers who tell “the members of their cabinet via the newspapers or on the morning of the cabinet meeting what the decision is going to be get into a lot of trouble”. He warned that a prime minister is merely first among equals, and that:

The people immediately around you have got to be involved in the decision-making process. This idea that command and direction is what leadership is all about is substantially false.

Turnbull has committed his Government to being similarly consultative “with colleagues, members of Parliament, Senators and the wider public” and to put an end to “policy on the run and captain’s calls”. He appointed Howard’s former chief of staff and now Senator, Arthur Sinodinos, as Cabinet Secretary to put that plan into action.

It is fair to question Turnbull’s sincerity, given he is just another politician and his predecessor gave similar assurances about a collegiate approach. But Turnbull spent time in the wilderness before returning to the Liberal leadership, just as Howard had done. Sinodinos has argued that Turnbull, like Howard, has emerged from that time as a better leader because he’s reflected on mistakes made in the past. Sinodinos said:

(Turnbull) had virtually six years to reflect on the weaknesses and drawbacks of his first period of leadership, just like John Howard did when he lost in ’89 and came back to the leadership in ’95. Leaders reflect. They understand the messages from their first term as leaders and they try again.

Sinodinos could have also added that effective leaders surround themselves with good staff. Given Turnbull’s penchant for all things Howard it is hardly surprising the PM has brought back a number of former Howard staffers, at least on an interim basis, while the PMO is being established.

Perhaps most importantly, Turnbull has also reportedly decided to split the chief political adviser’s role from the chief of staff position, as was the case in Howard’s day, but was problematically a combined role when Peta Credlin held the position.

Given Turnbull’s determination to follow the Howard blueprint, it is also tempting to see his denunciation last week of violence against women as an attempt to replicate Howard’s stand against guns. For all its merit, Howard’s initiative positioned him as stepping above politics to do the right thing for the nation. It put Howard in good stead with voters who would not have otherwise considered supporting a Liberal PM. Turnbull’s domestic violence initiative could be seen in a similar way.

That is not to say the tyro PM’s early days have been blemish-free. For example, Turnbull’s appointment of Mal Brough to the ministry, despite an unresolved police investigation, seems to be a foolish oversight. It can only remind us of Turnbull 1.0 and his lack of due diligence when dealing with Godwin Grech in 2009.

According to former PM Howard, one of the most important attributes that leaders must have is the ability to learn from their mistakes. “You have to get the big things right,” he said “but people who think they will never make mistakes are deluding themselves.”

If Turnbull 2.0 is to survive the stumbles and pitfalls in the days ahead – and there will be many – this is the final lesson he needs to learn from Howard. Given the new PM’s unwavering self-confidence rivals that of even Abbott, it may well be the hardest lesson of all.

Turnbull bets his future on an ability to sell change

Turnbull bets his future on an ability to sell change

As a group, Australians are conservative and resistant to change. Major shifts in their everyday lives, such as the seemingly overnight decision to dump prime minister Kevin Rudd in 2010, can leave voters feeling bewildered and anxious. And as Rudd showed at the time, it doesn’t take much to convert such emotions into resentment and anger.

Former PM Tony Abbott made this inherent conservatism an advantage by playing up to the various manifestations of voter anxiety about our changing future. Now his successor Malcolm Turnbull plans to turn Abbott’s approach on its head, making change something that voters embrace rather than fear.

It is a risky, but not unsurprising, move for the entrepreneurial parliamentarian. And it will define Turnbull’s success or failure.

In trying to avoid the same fate as Rudd, Abbott relied heavily on voters’ conservatism to argue they were unlikely to throw out a first term federal government as long as there were no upheavals in the leadership. Abbott even applied the principle to his ministry, insisting on making only minimal adjustments to what was essentially a relic of the Howard era so that voters had a sense of continuity from those seemingly golden days.

In contrast, PM Turnbull has declared himself an unabashed fan of change, making much in recent statements of fresh starts and embracing the unknowables of the future. The new PM’s “21st century Government and ministry for the future”epitomises that mindset with a substantial injection of talented younger women and men. Only two of Howard’s Liberal Party cabinet ministers remain in Turnbull’s senior ministry – himself and Julie Bishop.

At least one commentator has already noted this is a new Government without having had to resort to an election – a perception that has undoubtedly been created by the Turnbull team to prepare the way for an overhaul of Abbott government policies.

Having “refreshed” the ministry, the PM is now pitching that policy change is a good thing. He attempted yesterday to head off any attempt by the media or Labor to characterise such moves as “a back down or a backflip or concession of some mistake”, stressing that agility is “vital for government success” and that it simply made sense to change policies if they were not effective or could be improved.

There is an attendant risk in creating such an expectation, particularly if the community becomes anxious about the magnitude and direction of change, whatever its merit.

Turnbull’s pitch to colleagues last week focused on economic leadership and the need for “advocacy, not slogans” (which is quite a good slogan in itself). So it’s not surprising the new PM has put one of the Government’s best salesmen, Scott Morrison, into the Treasury role. However, tax reform sits clearly at the centre of Turnbull’s economic repair agenda, evidenced by his promotion of the Assistant Treasurer role to Cabinet.

Noting that the role is “in effect the Minister for revenue and is responsible for the tax system which is at the very centre of our whole productivity agenda,” Turnbull stressed that Australia needs “a tax system that is fair, efficient and creates the right incentives so that we can get the gains in productivity we need”.

This is likely code for increasing or broadening the goods and services tax, among other reforms.

It’s tempting to draw a parallel between the ambitious, even “courageous”, tax reform agenda that former PM John Howard took to the federal election in 1998. It is Liberal folklore that Howard’s audacious move to replace 10 “inefficient” taxes with the GST helped turn around his Government’s flagging electoral fortunes. But in reality it is impossible to prove whether this is the case, or if the GST almost lost that election for Howard given Labor managed to secure the majority vote.

What we can be sure of, based on previous events, is that any Turnbull Government proposal to increase taxes will be ripe for a scare campaign. And it seems the Shorten-led Labor Opposition is just as willing as the Beazley-led one was in 1998 to play on voters’ anxiety about such a change.

The success or failure of the Turnbull experiment will therefore rest predominantly on his ability, and that of his ministry, to explain any proposed changes, why they are needed, and – perhaps most importantly given the 2014 federal budget – how they are fair.

Turnbull may be keen to capture voters’ imagination with his vision for an innovative, agile and changed Australia. But there is still something to be said for Howard’s vision, which was for a nation that was relaxed and comfortable. It was those laid-back voters who returned the wily PM to office, not once but three times in all.

It’s on? How Abbott’s leadership is in doubt … again

It’s on? How Abbott’s leadership is in doubt … again

It’s déjà vu. This morning voters will learn from their news devices that Prime Minister Tony Abbott is facing another rebellion from within the Government’s ranks and that his leadership has again become precarious.

Press Gallery elder Laurie Oakes reported on Sunday night that Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull was being urged by colleagues to challenge Abbott for the Liberal leadership. There were reportedly calls from Abbott supporters too, demanding that Turnbull reiterate his support for Abbott.

There is also a suggestion the spill be brought on this week, according to Oakes, due to a concern that Abbott may try to bring on a double dissolution election straight after the Canning by-election to head off any leadership challenge.

Oakes’ revelation is the crescendo of three days of escalating ministerial paranoia, initially brought on by a suspected leak from the Prime Minister’s office that listed ministers supposedly slated for retirement or demotion. While ministers would be horrified at the prospect of a downgrade, their dismay would pale against the terror of marginal seat holders contemplating electoral slaughter at a DD election.

News organisations were already reporting on Sunday morning that some ministers believed a leadership spill was “absolutely inevitable”, with later suggestions it would occur in the next six to eight weeks. Talk of a snap DD election would likely have strengthened the resolve of backbenchers.

And so Government MPs head into this parliamentary sitting week with the prospect of the ultimate political upheaval taking place in a matter of hours, days or weeks. Or not, depending on which leaks to the media one chooses to take at face value.

Just as it did seven months ago, dissent fomented over the preceding weekend as Government MPs weighed up their electoral chances under Abbott’s leadership compared with a hypothetical scenario in which the vastly more popular Turnbull is in the role.

Back in February, frustrated backbenchers tried to bring on the change but Turnbull refused to step up, knowing most ministers would stick with Abbott due to ministerial solidarity. The non-coup was the result of that standoff, with no declared contenders and a majority of Liberal MPs voting against opening the leadership to a vote.

This time things are different, with senior ministers reportedly concluding that Abbott must go. Along with their backbench colleagues, Liberal ministers gave the PM six months after the non-coup to get the Government back on track. Abbott managed to secure a temporary but expensive poll boost with a magic pudding budget in May, but despite trying everything else in the political toolbox – including going to war – he has not been able to budge the Government’s poor opinion poll ratings.

There have been grumbles aplenty from Government MPs about their deteriorating chances of re-election, but it appears nobody was prepared – until now – to bring matters to a head. Backbenchers were reportedly telling ministers that this time it would be their turn to act. And the dominant conservative faction of the Liberal Party stuck by Abbott, possibly because their alternative – Scott Morrison – was not ready for the role.

That factor has reportedly changed with former hardliners previously opposed to the moderate Turnbull now moving towards acceptance that the “warmist” leader they pulled down to install Abbott may now be their only chance of avoiding electoral oblivion.

Even without the threat of a snap poll, time is running out for the Liberals to change leaders. Turnbull may have a high public profile but he would still need time to bed down a new ministry, explain his vision to the Australian people and possibly even deliver a pre-election budget before heading to the polls.

As we have seen over past weeks, and even in past years with the destabilisation campaigns run by the revenge-driven Kevin Rudd, leadership campaigns depend to a large extent on the creation of a sense of momentum and inevitability. If managed effectively, predominantly through the media, there comes a point when wavering MPs jump on board for fear of being left behind.

But there needs to be a focus or tipping point for the momentum to create a critical mass of defectors. The Canning by-election has been deliberately framed by the anti-Abbott forces as that fulcrum, even though it’s arguable whether a swing against the Government in a seat that won’t materially change the balance of power should be the ultimate test of the PM’s leadership.

The additional problem with the Canning poll being the proposed pivot is that Abbott is expected to leave the country straight afterwards for a meeting with US president Barack Obama, and Parliament does not sit for another three weeks. It could be difficult for Turnbull’s supporters to maintain the rage that was ignited this past weekend for another four weeks, even if that anger is further oxygenated by the Canning result.

That’s why a leadership spill this week could be on the cards; all MPs are in Canberra, a regular party room meeting is already scheduled, and after the supposed ministerial hit-list published by the “Government Gazette” last week, ministers are reportedly red-hot for a pre-emptive strike against Abbott. Turnbull may assess this as being his best shot, particularly if the right is prepared to back him.

Of course, Turnbull – or any other leadership contender – would have to weigh up the risk of creating such tumult in the Government one week out from a by-election. The PM and his supporters have in the past tried to ward off a challenge by invoking the case of Julia Gillard, who incurred the wrath of Labor supporters for knocking off Rudd with little apparent warning or reason.

However, there is no parallel between the Abbott and Rudd scenarios. If the popular Turnbull were to replace the belligerent, antediluvian and gaffe-prone Abbott, all but the most rusted-on of Liberal supporters would accept it was the right thing to do.

And even if there were a backlash from the voters of Canning, who apparently have not been swayed after three weeks of campaigning by the Liberals, the loss of the seat would hardly put a dint in the Government’s lower house majority.

A pointer to whether the anti-Abbott forces intend to bring on a leadership spill this week could be the source of the leak to the journalist Simon Benson on Friday that set things off, or the one to Laurie Oakes on Sunday night that kept things going. Unfortunately for us, only the two journalists are in a position to judge their sources’ true intentions.

Such is the way of a leadership challenge; much of it is run through the media, and the motivations of the players aren’t always obvious. Whether “it’s on” or whether it’s not, only one thing is certain – very little of what we read and hear about leadership manoeuvrings are truly what they seem.