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.