The five best political decisions of 2015

Given the omnishambles that was the past year in federal politics, it might come as a surprise to find there were some smart political decisions made in 2015.

In stark contrast to the worst political decisions of the year, the best ones did not come easily – many were contentious and challenged the way things are “usually done”. Accordingly, they were met with both acclaim and resistance.

That’s not to say the best political decisions of the past year were necessarily altruistic; very little in politics is done purely out of the goodness of someone’s heart.

But each strengthened the chance for the Australian polity to rise from the squalid mire in which it’s been bogged over past years; the base politics that has favoured the electoral sugar rush of a cheap political win over the much less headline-worthy collegiate approach that is needed to implement good policy.

Having sifted through the mire for the nuggets of political sagacity, here are this writer’s nominations for the five best political decisions of 2015.

Changing the guard I

It took most political watchers by surprise when the Greens emerged from an apparently everyday party room meeting to announce they’d just conducted a wholesale cleanout of their leadership group.

Even more unexpected was the victor in the shakeup, the mild-mannered Victorian Senator Richard Di Natale, who until that time had perhaps been best known as the be-spectacled Green who wasn’t Adam Bandt.

It quickly emerged that Di Natale had out-manoeuvred his doppelganger for the party’s leadership, and that this development foreshadowed a decisive move by the new leadership group away from the politics of protest to the politics of pragmatism.

Progressive pragmatism appears to be the cornerstone of Di Natale’s plans for the Greens to become a party of government.

The Greens leader unashamedly laid claim to voters looking for a sensible middle-ground in Australian politics, stating soon after his election to the top post that the Greens was “the natural home of progressive, mainstream Australian voters”.

Since then, the newly pragmatic Greens have agreed to a number of compromise decisions, allowing amended Government legislation to pass the Senate.

This has included changes to the pension asset test and increased scrutiny of multinational corporations’ tax arrangements, both of which have frustrated and sidelined the obstructionist ALP while causing some Greens’ supporters anxiety over the unaccustomed and less-than-purist approach.

While ill-intentioned pragmatism can be as deleterious as base politics, Di Natale’s practical approach appears as much focused on improving our political discourse as it is growing the Greens’ membership base.

This smart decision by Greens MPs provided a welcome – and much needed – addition to the Australian polity in 2015.

Changing the guard II

Equally shrewd was the decision by Liberal Party MPs to change leaders. Admittedly in so doing they won Australia the dubious honour of having five prime ministers in five years, but they also excised the source of political poison that had infected almost every aspect of the nation’s political discussion since 2009.

Not only did former prime minister Tony Abbott make a string of bad policy decisions during his short time in office – such as the 2014 federal budget, hanging on to the exorbitant paid parental leave scheme, and knighting an Englishman on Australia Day – he also deliberately created an atmosphere of suspicion, division and fear within the community in the desperate hope that anxious voters would turn to him for protection.

The tactic thankfully failed, but the residue of Abbott’s reign still taints the way contemporary Australian politics is conducted.

However, along with the change in approach precipitated by Di Natale’s Greens, the wise decision to elect Malcolm Turnbull as the new Liberal leader and PM has given the Government a chance to reset, drop its aggressive tone, lay off demonising convenient (but undeserving) political targets, and work towards policy outcomes that genuinely benefit the community, instead of just scoring a cheap political win.

Turnbull is a long way from proving to be the great prime minister he aspires to be, but in resetting the tone of our political conversation he’s made a good start.

Changing the language on Islamic extremism

Almost as soon as he became PM this year, Turnbull took advice from Australia’s security agencies and then made it clear the Government would change its language on Islamic extremism.

Adherents to the ways of Abbott were notably resistant to this approach, threatening peace-mongers with the wrath of their clay-footed idols freedom of speech and troops on the ground.

Their spiritual pace-setter has become increasingly shrill since being cast into exile. While Prime Minister, Abbott graduated from calling some Islamic leaders “foolish” for taking offence at his call for Muslims to join Team Australia, to calling for more Muslim leaders to describe Islam as a religion of peace more often, and mean it.

Now from the freedom of the backbench, Abbott has seemingly launched a full assault on Islam itself, demanding that it undergo a “religious revolution” because “all cultures are not equal and … a culture that believes in decency and tolerance is much to be preferred to one which thinks that you can kill in the name of God.”

In contrast, our nation’s leader will no longer single out a particular religion and call for it to be held responsible for the extremists who enact atrocities in its name. Instead, communities and families are to be embraced and supported in an effort to counteract the feelings of isolation and resentment, particularly within disenchanted young adults, that foment violent extremism.

Shattering the surplus myth

If the decision to take a non-aggressive approach to terrorists was an affront to Liberal conservatives, another of the smartest decisions taken this year would have been a slap in the face.

Ever since the Howard government years, a healthy budget surplus has been depicted (by the Liberals and Nationals) as the gold standard for good economic management. But in fact, all but the most one-eyed of economists would tell you that government budgets can run into deficit and end up with debt for very good reasons.

Keeping the economy afloat during a world-wide economic meltdown would be one of them.

Even though he didn’t do it for altruistic reasons, Treasurer Scott Morrison did the nation a service late this year by deciding to dispel the “deficit is bad” myth. In fact Morrison had no choice, given the Government’s own burgeoning debt.

In doing so, the Treasurer broke the stick that’s traditionally been used by Liberals to beat big-spending Labor governments and oppositions.

But he also unshackled himself, other politicians, economists and the media from mindlessly talking about the deficit and when it will end, leaving them to talk instead about the budgetary things that matter such as where and how taxpayers’ money is being spent.

Getting serious on domestic violence

Finally, the decision by Australian governments at the national, state and territory level to acknowledge domestic violence as a key issue this year was a very good one.

However, politicians’ fine words only go so far, and it would be fair to say many taxpayers would like to see more of their dollars go towards combating domestic violence given the horrifying rate at which women and children died at the hands of male partners and relatives this past year.

A strong contender for the best decision of 2016 would be an early commitment of funding for more beds in women’s shelters, and for better ways to be found for the police and legal systems to protect women and children at risk.

The five worst political decisions of 2015

Like any human endeavour, politics is never perfect, and politicians are prone to be fallible just like the rest of us.

Yet there are times when our elected representatives make decisions that are so gob-smackingly stupid we’d be forgiven for wondering how they ever made it out of bed each morning, let alone be capable of running the country.

Politics in 2015 presented no shortage of such ineptitude, and from this writer’s perspective, here are the top five.

Labor pre-selections

While Labor is certainly not the only party beholden to its factions, it did seem to be the one that let factional wrangling produce the most perverse pre-selection outcome this year.

The ostensibly progressive party may well point out it has achieved the ALP’s current 40 per cent quota for women in parliament, and that talented women such as the ACT’s former chief minister Katy Gallagher and Labor National President Jenny McAllister were both brought into its Senate team this year.

But the party seems oblivious to the message it sends female voters and potential party members when other talented Labor women are overlooked so that predominantly male union timeservers can be rewarded with parliamentary sinecures.

This was particularly the case with factionally unaligned shadow climate change spokesperson, Senator Lisa Singh, who was unceremoniously thrown on the electoral scrap-heap to make way for union heavyweights in her home state of Tasmania.

While the party’s senior parliamentarians mobilised to save other Labor MPs from factional pre-selection deals, such as Gary Gray, no one has yet seen fit to save Senator Singh, who is undeniably one of the party’s better performers.

Choppergate

Nevertheless, the union movement’s apparent sense of entitlement to cushy retirement on the Senate benches pales into insignificance next to the self-indulgence exercised this year by the former madam speaker, Bronwyn Bishop.

Given that travel allowance declarations are now published on the Department of Finance’s website, and that alleged abuse of that allowance helped bring down a previous speaker, it beggars belief that Mrs Bishop and her staff thought it wise to clock up exorbitant travel and related expenses.

Similarly stupid was Mrs Bishop’s initial refusal to unequivocally apologise. The heartfelt apology remains the only way to extricate oneself from such sticky situations.

Only once it became clear that even the prime minister’s steadfast refusal to reprimand her could not save Mrs Bishop from her own foolish behaviour, did she belatedly concede that chopper-hopping between engagements did not conform with community expectations.

Abbott’s last stand

The then prime minister’s determination to stand by madam speaker was also emblematic of his misreading of the political tea leaves on his own fate.

Despite the near-death experience in February when Liberal MPs gave him six months to repair the Government’s electoral standing, and then comprehensively failing to do so, Tony Abbott reportedly told friends he didn’t foresee the Turnbull express train that ran him down seven months later.

The poor political decisions that contributed to Abbott’s downfall are so numerous they could fill a book. Indeed there’s a succession of tomes due out in the new year that will explore those very points.

However, the bad decisions taken by the PM can neatly be encapsulated in this way – they were based on the Abbott team’s deep sense of entitlement and infallibility, but engendered within a siege mentality culture.

This meant Abbott’s decisions were made (and likely still are) with no reference to the real world or exposure to viewpoints other than that of his sycophants.

Labor’s politics of envy

A similar lack of connection to the real world is the likely culprit for another of Labor’s stupid decisions this year.

On the ascension of Malcolm Turnbull to the prime ministership, some wit within the ALP’s ranks apparently thought it would be good politics to attack the multi-millionaire for being wealthy.

Perhaps this shoddy tactic was intended to be an extension of the apparently successful demonisation by progressives of rich individuals such as the mining magnate Gina Rinehart.

However, the tactic failed spectacularly, likely because voters tend not to begrudge self-made wealth. Labor seriously underestimated the extent to which PM Turnbull is a poster child for the ambitious and hard-working voters known as the “aspirationals”.

Appointment of Brough

Our new PM may well have become wealthy by making wise decisions, but as we have seen before, he can be particularly unwise when it comes to judging the character of others.

The Godwin Grech saga is a long time ago, and it may not be fair to measure the PM’s competency by the poor judgement he exercised at the time. But Grech has inevitably become a handy stick with which to beat the PM since he appointed Mal Brough, the man accused of being a co-conspirator in the Slipper saga, to the highest ranks of the Turnbull ministry.

Until the police finalise their investigation of Brough’s involvement in Slipper’s downfall, he remains a huge potential liability for Turnbull.

Like PM Abbott before him, Turnbull risks losing public credibility by standing by a discredited colleague. However, the cost of not doing so is to cause further instability within the Government’s ranks.

From climates to budgets, Turnbull is still working to distance himself from Abbott

In a matter of days the first act of the Turnbull Government will draw to a close, leaving voters to ruminate over the extended summer intermission about their new Prime Minister.

Such contemplation may not be a conscious act, given the many distracting delights of the holiday season, but even if it happens at a subconscious level, the electorate will be processing its observations of Turnbull 2.0 and his refurbished administration.

In the main, those assessments will be based on what Turnbull is not, rather than what he is. For all that Turnbull is intelligent, articulate and charming, his strongest electoral selling point to date is that he is not Bill Shorten. And he is not Tony Abbott.

Being neither of those political alternatives certainly leaves Turnbull with a lot of political and policy options to work with. However, the recent drop in the PM’s approval rating suggests otherwise-supportive voters are getting impatient with the seemingly leisurely pace at which the PM is differentiating himself from his competitors.

Of the two main contenders for his throne, the PM must particularly differentiate himself from former prime minister Abbott. That was Turnbull’s key selling point during his low-key campaign to regain the Liberal leadership, and it will be one of the promises on which he is judged at election time.

Political reality has required Turnbull to unveil his contrast with Abbott more slowly than progressive voters would have liked. But as we approach the 100-day mark of the Turnbull era, it appears the PM’s need to placate the Liberal Party’s arch-conservatives has lessened.

One by one, Turnbull is casting aside the previous government’s conservative shibboleths; dismantling the knighthood system; advocating inclusion not blame in response to terrorist acts; and setting aside the most Dickensian of the Abbott-Hockey budget measures and cuts.

Turnbull has also seemingly transformed the science-averse Abbott administration into a gleaming temple of innovation, in which science-based approaches, innovation and new technologies are not to be shunned but encouraged, supported and celebrated. Granted, time will tell whether this shiny edifice is anything more than aspirational apparition.

However, the events that occurred in Paris the past week have most clearly set Turnbull apart from his predecessor.

Issued with a fresh set of negotiating instructions from the Turnbull cabinet, Australian diplomats cast off their customary spoiler role during the Paris climate change meetings, and instead worked with like-minded nations to produce the admittedly still imperfect agreement that is being cautiously welcomed by climate experts and activists. What’s more, Australia was belatedly accepted into the so-called “high ambition” coalition, which would have been unimaginable under an Abbott government.

No doubt progressive Australian voters will also be cautiously optimistic in response to the Paris outcome. However, given that hip pocket issues have a bigger influence on voters than climate action, tomorrow’s release of the Government’s budget update will be the most important differentiation test faced by Turnbull yet.

Tactical leaks to the media suggest $7 billion in budget cuts will be announced by Treasurer Scott Morrison in the 2015 Mid Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook. These cuts will fund new initiatives announced since the last budget, including the $1.1 billion innovation statement, a deal with Labor to spend an additional $1.1 billion on regional roads, adding new pharmaceuticals to the PBS, and the dropping of some cuts to family tax benefits.

Given the MYEFO is being announced tomorrow, the Government has given itself no time to soften up voters before any budget cuts are unveiled. This suggests Turnbull and Morrison have a high level of confidence that most voters will accept the cuts as responsible, equitable and necessary.

This self-assuredness may well be an ominous sign that Turnbull is not so different from his predecessor. After all, the Abbott-Credlin-Hockey troika similarly expected a benign response from voters to their horror budget in 2014.

It was this unrealistic expectation that stripped the Abbott government of any goodwill from voters. The misjudgement also irrevocably fractured the trust that must exist between the elector and elected if a government is to function effectively.

Similarly, voters will look poorly upon any move by Turnbull and Morrison to “take out the trash” in the week before Christmas. It may be very tempting to try to minimise voter outrage by dropping any nasty budget cuts this week in the hope they’ll disappear amongst the latest reviews of Love Actually.

However, any perceived attempt by the PM to treat the voters like dopes will lead to the rapid conclusion that he’s completely like Abbott after all.

Abbott: the next Mark Latham

Abbott: the next Mark Latham

The Political Weekly: There’s nothing quite so pathetic as a self-deluded has-been politician, desperately trying to squawk their way back into the political spotlight, but in so doing only reinforcing the reason they were relegated to feather duster status in the first place.

For The New Daily

 

Turnbull must whip his self-indulgent MPs into line

It’s a political truism that electoral honeymoons don’t last, but it would be fair to say Malcolm Turnbull’s reign wasn’t expected to lose its rose-coloured hue quite as early as it did.

Admittedly, Turnbull’s not insignificant problems presently remain the preoccupation of those who pay close attention to politics; the PM’s travails haven’t yet pierced the consciousness of the broader voting population, or had a consequential impact on opinion polls.

As the Insiders’ Barrie Cassidy noted on the weekend, this leaves us with a Government leading strongly in the opinion polls but bedeviled with internal problems, while the Opposition is comparatively calm and disciplined despite its leader being preferred by only 15 per cent of voters.

It’s tempting to see this disparity as proof that Labor has finally learned from – and cast off – the disunity of the Rudd-Gillard years.

This may be true in part, but it’s more likely Labor’s current lack of leadership jostling is due to no other Opposition MP wanting to be the one to lead the party to anticipated defeat at the next federal election.

In effect, Shorten has become Labor’s sacrificial lamb, the colleague that putative Labor leaders such as Tanya Plibersek, Anthony Albanese and Chris Bowen are willing to sacrifice at the ballot box so that they don’t have to remove him themselves in a leadership coup.

This approach leaves the MPs with the clean hands needed to compete for the party leadership after the election, just as Shorten and Albanese did after Rudd lost to Abbott in 2013.

Shorten would be lauded as the man who brought down a Tory PM, but it would be left to a more skilled and nuanced Labor politician to take on the Liberal PM who can dangerously woo progressive voters.

The calmness and discipline observed by Cassidy is therefore more likely to be Labor’s grim resignation that it must accept another defeat before being able to rebuild its credibility with Australian voters.

While Labor plans for the future, Coalition MPs seem incapable of seeing as far as election day. Apparently booking the Government’s current opinion poll lead as a guaranteed election win, Liberal and National MPs appear more interested in unedifying squabbles over the spoils of government than presenting an administration that voters might actually want to re-elect.

Guardian Australia’s Katharine Murphy described this late last week as political entitlement culture, writ large. As Murphy noted:

Australian politics has indulged a five-year temper tantrum at the voters’ expense. Many of our elected representatives now seem to feel total impunity in airing their petty grievances, conducting public pity parties and taking steps to avenge their honour.

Even though she does not restrict her withering assessment to Coalition MPs, we need look no further than the Turnbull Government to see three contemporary examples of the politically short-sighted self-indulgence that Murphy describes.

Tony Abbott’s ongoing petulance at being replaced, Mal Brough’s inept declarations of innocence in the Slipper affair, and Ian Macfarlane’s extraordinary dummy-spit defection to the Nationals, all represent the base political characteristics that voters most despise – disloyalty, deviousness, self-indulgence, and an inflated sense of entitlement that apparently knows no bounds.

Taken together, they also point to the most poisonous political characteristic of all – disunity – which was a key reason why voters ditched the Gillard-Rudd government (and elected Abbott) in 2013.

Conveniently for Turnbull, the end of this parliamentary year has come not a moment too soon. The voters who haven’t yet switched off for the summer break will have noted the ripples being caused by Abbott, Brough and Macfarlane. Inconveniently for Shorten, however, there is little opportunity outside the Parliament for Labor to convincingly build a case that the shiny new Turnbull Government is being wracked with disunity.

The next opportunity to do so will not present until February 2016, when the Parliament resumes and the nation heads into an election year.

The Prime Minister therefore has about two months to remind his Coalition colleagues about their public duty and the limits placed on its delivery if they are consigned yet again to the opposition benches.

It will be no easy task, but in doing so Turnbull must quash the conservative revolt (which is at the very least inspired, if not instigated, by Abbott), and quarantine himself from whatever else may emerge in the Ashbygate saga.

Neither act is simple nor straightforward – particularly if the protagonists have convinced themselves they can do pretty much anything without materially changing the Coalition’s re-election chances.

If Turnbull is unsuccessful, and Government disunity leads to a drop in the opinion polls, the Opposition could again have a real chance of winning.

This could lead to an accompanying reawakening of leadership tensions within Labor, and a resulting resurgence of “pox on both your houses” votes for the minor/micro parties and independent MPs.

Such a turn of events would be déjà vu for voters – and poetic justice for self-indulgent Coalition MPs.