Weekly column for The New Daily.
If there was any doubt the Liberal Party’s conservatives had decided to run amok in the lead up to the release of the Turnbull government’s key economic report card on Monday, one needed to look no further than their pin-up boy George Christensen. (Image: @ellinghausen)
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.
News last week that a cross-party bill is being prepared to legalise gay marriage has unleashed the hounds of the conservative right. The baying beasts are doing their best to keep the Prime Minister in check, even going as far as to threaten his leadership, but what happens once Tony Abbott realises the hounds have no teeth?
It’s no secret Abbott owes his initial election as Liberal Leader to the hard right of the Liberal Party. Led by the godfather of the right, then Senator Nick Minchin, the arch conservatives backed Abbott in 2009 to bring down then Liberal leader Malcolm Turnbull and prevent any moves to support Kevin Rudd’s emissions trading scheme.
Yet the right have never really considered Abbott to be one of their own, partly because of his early days as a devotee of Bob Santamaria; then because of his proposed paid parental leave scheme; and later because of his refusal to go hard on IR reform, his backdown on reforming the Racial Discrimination Act and his continued support for constitutional recognition of Indigenous Australians.
At times, the conservatives have gone as far as to warn the PM through the media to stay true to their Faustian pact. As News Corp journalist Dennis Shanahan wrote just last week:
Liberal pragmatists can remember it was a Liberal Party branch revolt over supporting Kevin Rudd’s emissions trading scheme that brought down Malcolm Turnbull and ultimately put the Liberals back into government with an anti-carbon tax campaign.
Leaders need to know that you go home from the dance “with the one that brung you” no matter how nice you are to the others at the dance.
However, this time the right aren’t threatening to take the leadership from an uncompetitive opposition leader who is dangerously advocating progressive views. This time they are warning off an incumbent Prime Minister who still has a good chance of winning the next election to step away from another of the progressives’ totemic issues.
Until recently, the PM appeared relaxed about the prospect of a marriage equality bill successfully getting through the Parliament. He’d likely been comforted by the knowledge that Labor harboured its own objectors and that the numbers just weren’t there, even if Liberal MPs were granted a free vote on the matter.
And so Abbott had toyed with the expectations of moderate Liberals, reportedly agreeing with marriage equality supporter and Liberal MP Warren Entsch after the Irish referedum to “do something this year”. Abbott reportedly told Entsch to “talk to like-minded individuals, come back and have a yarn to me and we will say where we go with it”.
Meantime, the marriage equality lobby had gotten on with the job of persuading MPs to declare their hand – or even change their mind – and brought the numbers much closer to the line, thereby making the successful passage of legislation a real possibility.
It seems the Liberal right were initially as complacent as the PM, but once Abbott seemingly gave Entsch the nod to proceed and the numbers tightened, the conservatives became nervous about the PM’s perceived dalliance with the issue.
Columnist Miranda Divine wrote last month that the conservatives were “furious at what they see as an orchestrated campaign, with (Abbott’s) blessing, to sneak a change to the Marriage Act through parliament” and that they would withdraw their support from Abbott if he “doesn’t hold the line”.
Entsch nevertheless followed through with what he understood to be the PM’s imprimatur to obtain cross-party support for a new private member’s bill. This would fulfil Abbott’s declared requirement for any such legislation to be “owned by the Parliament” and not one party.
But once news of Entsch’s cross-party bill was leaked to the media, the PM took note of the warnings from the right and made it known that such private member’s bills rarely reach the voting stage in Parliament (remember Bill Shorten’s bill?) and so there was no need for a party room decision to allow a free vote.
Labor’s Penny Wong helpfully tweeted that six private member’s bills not only reached the voting stage but were also passed by the previous parliament. And that five were passed under John Howard’s government.
As the possibility of the proposed law being passed has moved from highly unlikely to not beyond the realms of possibility, the Liberal right have become increasingly shrill. So shrill in fact, that they’re beginning to rival the Great Unhinging of 2010. Since news of the Entsch bill has emerged, the lieutenants of the right have lined up to variously denounce gay marriage as the harbinger of bulk lot matrimony, our loss of face in Asia, a reason for ministers to walk the plank, an issue without momentum, and a distraction from the real issues of concern to everyday voters.
There is but one small problem with the arch conservatives’ determination to hold the PM’s hand to the fire on gay marriage – their capacity to punish him.
They could arrange for his removal, in the same way they dispatched Turnbull, but who would they replace him with? Some voters of the right have already made it known they’d rather lose the election with Abbott than win with Turnbull. Julie Bishop fancies herself a contender, but it’s hard to see the party described by Peta Credlin as having entrenched inequality in its ranks and processes putting a woman in the top job. The right also have their man Scott Morrison lurking in the wings, but he is not yet ready for the ultimate political promotion.
And even in the fog of their self-indulgence the right must also realise that, having been recently reminded of the Rudd-Gillard turmoil, the last thing voters want is another round of leadership musical chairs.
In short, there is very little the right can do to the PM, other than speak sternly to him. However, they can – and do – exert and maintain the very influence castigated by Credlin by pre-selecting candidates who toe the conservative line. This makes it risky for moderate MPs and potential candidates to speak out in support of marriage equality.
Liberal Teresa Gambaro is reportedly one such MP. According to Dennis Shanahan, she is “torn between appealing to a large part of her marginal electorate that supports same-sex marriage and an equally large Liberal stronghold that does not – and that includes the members of her federal electorate council”. Despite facing this risk, Gambaro is backing the Entsch cross-party bill.
This brings us to the voters, an overwhelming majority of whom support marriage equality. If there was to be an electoral backlash from the minority, which party would the Liberal supporters who oppose gay marriage vote for if Liberal MPs helped the law to be passed? The ALP, which has a policy supporting marriage equality? Or maybe the Greens, who also support gay marriage?
For all the talk (through the media) of the “absolute necessity” for Abbott to “be seen to be standing up for his conservative base” after “disappointing” them on free speech, there really is nowhere else for those voters to go. They’ll begrudgingly vote for candidates like Gambaro rather than give their vote to lefties like Labor and the Greens.
It’s time for the PM to recognise the hollowness of the Liberal right’s threats and to call their bluff on marriage equality.
The conservatives have no viable options to replace him, and their determination to pre-select candidates who reflect their own minority views could lose more votes than it wins. Conversely, the right should wake up to the fact that, at least until Morrison is ready to step up, the mostly-conservative Abbott is the best option they have to remain relevant and dominant in today’s Liberal Party.
Coalition MPs have woken this morning to an opinion poll that suggests voters are pretty unimpressed with the Government’s untidiness over the past week.
Today’s monthly Ipsos Poll is the first to be published since Treasurer Joe Hockey dug himself into a Sydney mortgage-sized hole over housing affordability, and the Prime Minister and his Immigration Minister couldn’t get their answers straight on whether people smugglers were paid hard cash by Australia to turn their boats back to Indonesia.
Iposos has recorded a 3 per cent drop in the Coalition’s primary vote (to 40 per cent) since last month, and an increase in Labor’s vote of 2 per cent (to 37 per cent), which after the allocation of preferences gives a two-party preferred result of 53:47 in Labor’s favour. Ipsos’s post-budget poll found the major parties to be at 50:50, and this latest poll brings it into line with the other published pollsters Roy Morgan(53:47), Newspoll (52:48), and Essential (52:48).
Whether or not these other polls will show a similar deterioration in the Government’s position when they are revealed in coming days, it’s fair to say voters don’t like it when ministers look incompetent. And while Treasurer Hockey might have kept it together for the initial salesmanship of this year’s budget, he’s been all over the place since then.
Even setting aside the mishandling of changes to paid parental leave by suggesting new mothers were rorters and frauds, Hockey has reverted to the Sloppy Joe of old, making up tax policy on the run, casting doubt on the PM’s iron-clad commitment not to tamper with superannuation, and opening up a debate on housing affordability that the Government really could have done without.
According to today’s Ipsos poll, 69 per cent of voters living in capital cities say homes in their area are unaffordable for first-time buyers. This amount increases to 80 per cent for Sydney-based respondents.
While the Treasurer hasn’t yet resorted to complaining about his lot, as he did last year when things got tough, his position is again being eyed by the more ambitious and impatient among his parliamentary colleagues.
Talk has already emerged about a possible ministerial reshuffle prior to next year’s federal election. However, just like the last time such talk surfaced in the media, this is more likely the work of ambitious MPs pressuring for change and jostling for positions than the PM flagging his intentions.
The fate of wholly-unimpressive Attorney-General, George Brandis, has been placed in the media’s sights by at least one anonymous backgrounder, while the extended absence of Government Senate Leader Eric Abetz to deal with a family matter has prompted others to suggest Finance Minister Mathias Cormann should be placed in the leadership role.
According to one commentator, “Abbott had always planned a big reshuffle in the second half of 2015, to take a fresh team into the 2016 election.” But that statement is more likely the wishful thinking of an over-looked backbencher than a reflection of Abbott’s current thinking, particularly considering the PM essentially brought forward the traditional pre-election ministry reshuffle to the end of last year.
Whatever the Prime Minister ultimately does about his ministry, the move will be inextricably linked with the state of his leadership within the Liberal Party. The hardliners within the party are reasserting their dominance, having seen off the leadership hopeful Malcolm Turnbull at the failed party room spill in February, and split the Turnbull-Bishop dream-team vote by cultivating the Foreign Minister’s own leadership aspirations.
Meantime, the hard-right’s heir apparent, Scott Morrison, has essentially swung in behind Abbott to bolster the PM’s position on two of the right’s emblematic issues: national security and same-sex marriage. The former Immigration Minister publicly backed the national security proposal, which divided Cabinet but has strong backbench and community support, to strip Australian citizenship from sole nationals who were found to be terrorists. As a possible alternative, Morrison also proposed suspending their residence rights rather than cancelling sole nationals’ citizenship altogether.
In doing so Morrison has clearly set himself apart from the Turnbull-Bishop “legal eagles” on the matter, and aligned himself with the majority of the backbench and the populace. He has also differentiated himself from Turnbull on gay marriage, an issue the hardliners are reportedly claiming could destroy Abbott’s leadership if he allows a free vote. Interestingly, Bishop has not yet declared her hand on the matter, although she has said in the past she’d consult her electorate if Liberal MPs were given a free vote on legislation to legalise gay marriage.
It’s hard to see how the pragmatists in the Liberal right would tear down a prime minister on an issue that has such strong support in the community, even if there are claims the Coalition could lose Senate seatsif it stops resisting the change.
Focus group research conducted last month showed that voters take a dim view of political instability. Given the choice between Turnbull, Bishop or Abbott, “Abbott is a long way last,” according to the market researcher who conducted the focus groups, Tony Mitchelmore. But if asked whether they wanted Turnbull, Bishop or stability, then “stability wins”.
This antipathy for government sloppiness and instability will be driven home as the televising of The Killing Season reminds voters that this was what they most despised about the Rudd-Gillard years.
Today’s opinion poll results are sure to cause anxiety in Government ranks, and throw fuel on the smouldering ambitions of ministerial and leadership aspirants.
But if there is anything to be learned from the poll dip, to the extent that there is one outside the margin of error, it is that voters want stable government. Any thought of throwing out an accident-prone Treasurer, who has privately threatened to cause havoc if demoted, must be carefully weighed against the public perceiving the Government as not being able to keep its house in order.
The tribute, if it could be called that, from Greens leader Christine Milne said it all.
Adding her words to the growing commentary on the death of former prime minister Malcolm Fraser, Milne said: “Fraser’s memory will never be free of the controversy and turmoil of the dismissal of the Whitlam government. But then and also in later years he courageously offered leadership in social justice and provided a vision for an Australia that truly embraced a fair go for everyone including refugees.”
In drawing the distinction between Fraser’s actions in opposition and then government (when he was vilified by progressives) and during his twilight years (when he became their darling), Milne attempts to reconcile the right-wing and left-wing philosophies espoused by Fraser as being from different periods of his life.
But is this an accurate characterisation? Can Fraser only be feted as a progressive hero because of what he did in his latter years? Or is the insistence on ignoring his moderate credentials while PM more a refusal to acknowledge that socially progressive views can sit comfortably with conservative economic views, as they once did within the Liberal Party?
Fraser’s political philosophy was always unapologetically of this nature: a lefty on social issues while staunchly right-wing on economic matters.
The Australian Conservation Foundation notes today Fraser was a committed conservationist back in the mid-1960s when he was an early member of their governing council. On coming to government he was able to realise that philosophy, ending sand mining on Fraser Island, proclaiming Kakadu National Park, prohibiting oil exploration and drilling on the Great Barrier Reef, and declaring the first stage of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park.
It was also as prime minister that Fraser first put out the welcome mat for refugees, fostered the beginnings of a multicultural Australia, and established the Human Rights Commission. His government introduced the family allowance for low-income families, indexation for pensions and unemployment benefits, and extension of the supporting mothers’ benefit to all sole parents.
However on economic issues, Fraser was a conservative – a protectionist who resisted his colleagues’ inclination to open up Australia’s economy to international markets, and a harsh critic of the trade union movement. He oversaw a period of high unemployment and inflation, and a drop in the real value of welfare payments. He also scrapped the universal healthcare system, known at the time as Medibank.
Milne and others who inhabit the left side of the political spectrum are not alone today in grappling with the allegedly dichotomous nature of Fraser’s politics.
The former PM is the third longest serving Liberal prime minister, yet his former party colleagues are having to tread carefully today to pay fair tribute to the man who brought the party back from the ignomy of defeat by the populist Gough Whitlam, but in recent years also very publicly disowned the Liberal Party as a hollow fraud.
Fraser resigned from the party he once led in late 2009, after arch-conservative Tony Abbott prevailed over the moderate Malcolm Turnbull by one vote in a leadership ballot, due to concerns the party had lost its way and no longer represented traditional liberal values.
Once Fraser’s resignation became known, conservative MP Andrew Robb dismissed it as unimportant, noting, “We’ve become used to Malcolm disagreeing with our positions on many issues for nearly a quarter of a century,” while the progressive Petro Georgiou (and former Fraser staffer) said the former PM’s resignation “should be viewed with a great deal of sadness. It should be viewed as the action of a man who takes his convictions very seriously.”
Fraser’s criticisms of his former party have ramped up since then, particularly on human rights’ issues and the Coalition Government’s treatment of asylum seekers. In recent times he took to the progressives’ favourite medium, Twitter, to share these views. And in his last opinion piece, published just last month, Fraser defended the Chair of the Human Rights Commission against the Government’s attacks on her integrity, saying the HRC is more important than ever to safeguard our existing freedoms.
It would be wrong to characterise these as the words of a former conservative ‘destroyer’ now seeking redemption through progressive utterances. On the contrary, the man who brought down the Whitlam government is the same man who until yesterday railed against the injustices of the Abbott Government. The same man with the same deeply held conservative beliefs on economic issues as well as progressive beliefs on social matters.
Considering the state of today’s political landscape, it would be fair to say most of Abbott’s Liberals are as uncomfortable with a Liberal holding both those views as Christine Milne appears to be.
Former Liberal PM John Howard stuck to the safe territory, quoting political chronicler Paul Kelly on Fraser’s contribution in government:
Fraser was a very good prime minister, much better than people would have suspected in 1975. He ran a government of above average competence by Australian standards with acumen, dedication and professionalism.
On the more thorny question of the former PM’s contribution to political life after government, PM Abbott could only bring himself to note, “In a long and active retirement, he maintained a keen interest in our country’s direction.”
And so, typically, we must revert to the once-great Liberal Party moderates to hear tributes befitting the man.
Fraser government minister Fred Chaney said the former PM’s death had caused the nation to lose “one of its great moral compasses”, while Georgiou noted “he brought into the centre of our life that we were a diverse society and that diversity should be respected”.
It’s no coincidence both Chaney and Georgiou retired as Liberal MPs when they could no longer endure representing a party that refused to accommodate the mix of social progressivism and economic conservatism that Fraser and they believed in.
The death of Malcolm Fraser is a poignant reminder of a time when it was not considered weak or permissive to be a progressive in the Liberal Party; a time when a Liberal politician and a government could be economically as well as socially responsible.
Such a combination should not be a relic of the past to be wistfully remembered, but a feature of today’s politics. The sadness of Fraser’s death is magnified by his loss as a role model for modern Liberal progressives.
One of the challenges posed by the unofficial contest for leadership of the federal Liberal Party is that contenders don’t want to be seen as actually campaigning.
To do so would invite accusations of Rudd-like destabilisation and treachery.
But when you’re running for the leadership of a party, people want to know what you stand for, and perhaps even more importantly, what you don’t represent. This is particularly a conundrum for one time Liberal leader, Malcolm Turnbull, whose progressive views on climate action were seen as a bridge too far by arch-conservatives in the party, and one of the main reasons for his removal.
Turnbull has spent the years since being deposed in 2009 rebuilding his reputation with the broader Australian community, but has been less successful in convincing Liberal supporters and MPs that he’s no longer the lefty tyrant they distrust and fear.
At last count, 38 per cent of Coalition voters still prefer Tony Abbott as prime minister compared with 30 per cent for Turnbull, although a 17 percentage point gap between the two has shortened to eight points since November last year. And there’s new evidence today that Abbott is on the nose in the pivotal electoral heartland of western Sydney.
This has left the Communications Minister with little choice other than to eke out a leadership manifesto, piece by piece through media and other public appearances, in the hope of assuaging the concerns of the right while not scaring off the bulk of his progressive support base.
The “righting” of Turnbull started with his appearance on ABC’s 7.30 almost a fortnight ago, ostensibly to discuss proposed changes to Australia Post’s mail delivery service. During this interview the Minister didn’t exactly shy away from leadership questions, and in response to a query about whether his progressiveness was at odds with the bulk of Liberal supporters, Turnbull stressed he and the Prime Minister were not that different on some social issues, such as marriage equality:
The reality is that Tony Abbott and my position on gay marriage is very close. Both of us believe the party room should decide whether there should be a free vote … So you know, the idea that there’s this massive gulf between us is quite imaginary…
Former assistant treasurer Arthur Sinodinos backed up this assertion during an appearance last week on Lateline, emphasising the Liberal Party was a broad-based party “made up of a number of broad strands” including moderates and conservatives, but that the party was not defined by any one part of its base:
So it’s a furphy to say that X or Y is somehow outside the mainstream of the party. The fact of the matter is, Turnbull is a capitalist, he believes in market principles … he’s “socially progressive”, in inverted commas, on certain issues, but so are many others in the party and others are more conservative.
Having made the threshold attempt on 7.30 to re-adjust the right’s perception of him as a rabid lefty, Turnbull has stepped into the fray several times since in further attempts to “rightsize” his reputation.
Last week he defended the Prime Minister against attacks over Abbott’s “lifestyle choices” comment, claiming no other non-Indigenous member of the Parliament had “more involvement with, or more understanding of, Indigenous communities than Tony”, and that there should be a rational discussion of the issue “without turning it into a let’s-give-Tony-Abbott-a-belting occasion, as often people like to do”.
This statement sits in stark contrast to Turnbull having essentially given Abbott an implied belting just weeks earlier when he defended Human Rights Commission president Gillian Triggs against criticisms from the PM and others, saying “I don’t want to get into that. Other people can do that if they wish”.
And then there was Turnbull’s deliberate intervention last week in support of last year’s budget, which is still being championed by the right (and the Treasurer) as the cure for the nation’s future economic woes.
In a speech that was an appeal to those, either in his own party or the conservative commentariat, who believe he’s too soft on economic issues, Turnbull talked tough on economic reform, stressing the budget was not a failure but that “we clearly haven’t been able to achieve the degree of fiscal repair and reform that was and is needed”.
The social progressive flicked the switch to economic conservative, claiming the unpopular budget was simply misunderstood and that this could be rectified with an “evidence-based, spin-free, fair dinkum debate about the budget position and what we should do to fix it”:
Once you’ve explained an issue often enough that people understand there is a genuine problem and “something” must be done, you can have an intelligent discussion about what that something might be – and just as importantly, your opponents will face public pressure to come up with their own “something” if they are not prepared to support yours.
Given this speech was all about self-promotion, the Communications Minister then went on to explain how his management of the NBN and Australia Post reforms was the model for successful implementation of the budget’s unpalatable reforms.
In short, the speech was intended to add the missing economic reform chapter to Malcolm’s Manifesto for Leadership. Yet read in its entirety, the speech also presents uncannily like a budget address from the Treasurer.
Perhaps the speech forms part of Turnbull’s Plan B: to secure the Treasury portfolio as a consolation prize if the Liberal leadership goes to one of the conservatives’ preferred candidates, Julie Bishop or Scott Morrison. For let’s face it, Turnbull has been willing to play the long game for the past five years, and perhaps is prepared to wait out the tenure of the next Liberal leader if he could further consolidate his leadership credentials as Treasurer during that time.
Whatever Turnbull’s plan, there’s no denying there is one, even if his resolute determination to avoid being seen as a spoiler means we are afforded only glimpses of what that plan entails. Whether he’s wooing the conservatives, or attempting to wedge Abbott on media reforms, everything Turnbull does is a move calculated to progress his leadership campaign just that little bit further.