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.