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.