Abbott’s legacy is a hairball in the throat of the body politic. Can Turnbull dislodge it?

February 9, 2015

by Tom Bentley

While I was working for Julia Gillard in 2012, I was told the Labor party should make Malcolm Turnbull its leader. One unasked-for adviser said the Liberal party would never do it, but since Malcolm was so naturally the leader Australia is waiting for, it would be worth Labor’s while to help him along.

Recent opinion polls suggest that my acquaintance was not alone. This week many, including the Coalition party room, are asking whether Turnbull has what it takes to lead Australia into a new, more constructive chapter of national life.

Tony Abbott is a spent force. Monday morning’s bulletin, that two-fifths of his party room wanted a spill even when no challenger had come forward, simply hobbles him further. Whether he loses the leadership this week or some other, he has nothing left with which to change the game.

Abbott is the Liberal party’s fourth longest-serving leader after Menzies, Howard and Fraser. His political legacy will be that he abandoned all principle in pursuit of the prime ministership and then threw it all away in little more than a year in the job.

Personal arrogance, inflexibility and hypocrisy all played a part in Abbott’s demise. His inability to adapt to the demands of office stem from the fact that he is, fundamentally, a creature of the past.

Those who helped Abbott along in recent years, including some in the ALP, could use his implosion to reflect on whether they also want to be remembered for this degrading Australian episode, and whether they are capable of changing their behaviour in a way that Abbott is not.

Turnbull’s ascension would be a good thing for Australia. It might begin to retract us from the rabbit hole down which Abbott and Chris Mitchell, editor of the Australian, have tried to take the nation over the last five years.


Turnbull’s popularity is partly explained by the success he has achieved as an outsider, a buccaneer who conquered the worlds of law, finance and technology before entering politics.

This is one reason why so much speculation is focused on his prospective leadership rather than Julie Bishop’s. While she has positioned deftly, it is more likely that she is gunning to remain in the deputy leader and foreign minister spots if Abbott goes down.

Knowing how to stick it to the British establishment, as Turnbull did in the Spycatcher case, appeals very broadly to Australians, a fact which demonstrates the epic scale of Abbott’s misjudgement over knighthoods.

Turnbull’s entrepreneurial flair gives him an aura comparable to Richard Branson’s, another person who appears to win while having fun and challenging hide-bound incumbents. Hilariously, on the weekend that Abbott was preparing to flunk his “make or break” press club address, Turnbull was test-driving a Tesla in California.

A self-made man, comfortable in his own skin and the modern world, fits neatly with what many want to believe about Turnbull’s political leadership: that he could successfully combine social with economic liberalism, moderating the scarier fringes of the Coalition while modernising Australia’s market-friendly economic policy framework.

Turnbull’s urbane charms are considerable. But his advancement may also be explained by other characteristics. When he was a member of John Howard’s cabinet, Turnbull was known by impartial observers on the inside as the worst minister in the government (and that is saying something), for the simple reason that he was incapable of hearing or accepting any other opinion than his own.

Turnbull lost the Liberal leadership in 2009 not just because of his virtuous advocacy of carbon pricing, but because he tried to dismount Kevin Rudd with a single blow, using the “Ute-gate“ allegation against the prime minister that quickly turned out to be delusional.

He maintains that he has learned from this episode, and the 2009 carbon meltdown. He deserves an open mind on that score. But his more recent performance as a minister also shows his barrister’s ability to take a brief, willingly using the communications portfolio to put together a broadband policy that reflects only the interests of the rich and powerful.

Turnbull has cheerfully signalled how different he is from Abbott over the last year, for example by taking on Andrew Bolt and Alan Jones, all in the name of being a “team player”. Whether he understands what team work means remains an open question.

The greater barrier to a successful Turnbull government, though, is the tangled knot of interests and claims surrounding the Coalition – a mess which Abbott and his backers have created and hardened, which will not be easily unmade.

The government is made up of so many different ideological strands that it is little wonder the Coalition sought to govern through slogans. Its various commitments to austerity budgeting and increased defence spending; greater surveillance of personal data and extreme freedom of speech; trade liberalisation and agriculture-led regional development; privileging of financial services and diversifying the economy; supporting families and deregulating the labour market; starting an infrastructure boom and reducing public debt; stimulating economic growth and reducing the deficit, reflect the hotchpotch of half-formed beliefs that have been allowed to stake a claim over federal policy at some time or other.

Together, they stack up to a giant hairball stuck in the throat of the body politic. A new federal leader will not be able to dislodge it easily, given that his or her primary task will be to calm the Coalition party room.

Changing direction quickly is also difficult in government. If Labor wants to win the 2016 election against Turnbull, it must shine a spotlight on these contradictions, while bringing forward a more coherent program.

The Coalition has found it far too easy to behave as if the global financial crisis never happened, and Australia can effectively be sealed off from the rest of the world (except, of course, for the purposes of free trade and currency speculation), so that there is no need for climate change, population movement and a global re-think of economic inequality to trouble us.

Yet these issues do trouble many Australians, on both sides of the aisle and none. The lameness of mainstream responses to them goes a long way to explain the splintering of traditional two-party support, a phenomenon also visible around the world.

Turnbull as PM would provide a more elusive target for Bill Shorten to aim at. On a deeper level, different Liberal leadership could help him avoid the fate that has just befallen Abbott.

Winning office by taunting a toxic political dynamic on the other side might be irresistible for any opposition leader. But landing the prime ministership without ever having to fully explain yourself, or to confront the vested interests in your own base, is a recipe for quick failure in office, as Rudd proved before Abbott.

Shorten is highly skilled at bobbing up on each political wave that washes across the Australian political scene, but he is yet to show that he can chart a course across the ocean. His instinctive grasp of big policy issues and the public mood are much greater than his zingers suggest.

Shorten needs to set out a structured purpose and mobilise a broader team to pursue that goal in contemporary Australia. In doing so, he will inevitably have to show at some key moments that he can succeed beyond the comfort zone of his own political support.

As the economist John Quiggin argues, recent volatility in election results actually reflects a very coherent and consistent view. Australians do not want governments that will further advance neoliberal economic reform as their central purpose and priority.

The public rejects the bargain that has been repeatedly proffered, of higher income and more funding for services at the cost of more privatisation, greater inequality, and further unravelling of an underlying sense of social solidarity. They will continue to spurn governments which attempt to go in that direction.

It is also obvious that retreating to a pre-1980s version of social democracy is untenable. The world has changed.

If this is true, then the central questions for politics are who can articulate a credible alternative path, and when will they do it? Political success certainly requires a touch of swagger and steel. But national leadership is more than a game for clever boys. In these times, it demands empathy, humility and substance.

What Australia needs is a contest of ideas – a long one, with an uncertain outcome.

As the nation gradually faces up to this, journalists do not serve the public interest when they behave as if good policies can be written overnight or instantly judged. Instead, they could spend more time explaining and testing ideas and their proponents from different angles to see if they stand up to scrutiny.

The race is to articulate a convincing agenda for smart, inclusive growth: a version of economic prosperity that works within the ecological constraints discovered by science, and includes every person in its reach.

There is no doubt that the public wants something different from the political diet it is currently being fed. Responding to that demand is actually not an individual, but a collective task.