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Will Turnbull be a long-term leader?

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By Malcolm Mackerras

There are political commentators who think the Australian people have stopped listening to Malcolm Turnbull who, therefore, has no chance of becoming a long-term prime minister. I do not think that. I do think, however, that he has only one chance in three to win the next election which I predict will be held on the first Saturday in March of 2019 with the New South Wales state election fixed for the last Saturday in March of that year. But, if Turnbull can survive that test, he could well become a long-term prime minister. What Turnbull needs is some good advice and, in that context, I consider the case of three people who want to give him advice. The first is a man, the second a woman and the third a man.

Tony Abbott's advice

The first is Tony Abbott. Until quite recently, I thought the advice he gave to his successor was well-intentioned. How naïve I was! What made me realise the error of my assumption was Abbott’s article in The Australian newspaper on Monday 30 January. It was titled Washminster’ gives us gridlock, not government to which the editor added this description: “Howard was right – let’s clear the way for our elected representatives to do their job”. In that article, Abbott dredged up a discredited reform to the Constitution proposed by John Howard in June 2003. It was a bad proposal to strip the Senate of its present power which Howard dropped like a hot cake – after well-informed criticism of it. I lack the space to describe it in detail but note that the chance of it being carried at a referendum would be zero. So, Abbott said he was being helpful, but surely he must have known he was trying to “put one over” Turnbull, not help him.

Then, on the evening of Thursday 2 March, the night before he launched the collection of conservative essays Making Australia Right: Where to from Here?, Abbott took to Sky News to declare that the Coalition would “drift to defeat” at the next election if it did not lift its game. He made a number of gratuitous comments the details of which I do not have the space to give here.

On Friday 3 March, he did the launch with these comments: “In short, why not say to the people of Australia: we’ll cut the renewable energy target to help your power bills; we’ll cut immigration to make housing more affordable; we’ll scrap the Human Rights Commission to stop official bullying; we’ll stop all new spending to end ripping off our grandkids; and we’ll reform the Senate to have government, not gridlock?” Almost every commentator noticed that none of those five policy positions was endorsed by Abbott when he was prime minister. Consequently, it is clear that Turnbull should turn a deaf ear to advice coming from Abbott.

Pauline Hanson's advice

The second person to whom Turnbull might listen is Pauline Hanson. I watched her on Insiders with Barrie Cassidy the Sunday before last, and note the rubbishing she has received from commentators for her observations on the vaccination of children, Vladimir Putin and Muslims. However, her statement which really offended me was this one: “If you look at what happened in the past, the Howard government changed the preferences from optional preferential voting in the 1998 election. That was the time when they colluded together, they agreed to get rid of One Nation and put us last on the how-to-vote tickets.” The first sentence there is an outright lie. Every election for the House of Representatives since 1918 has been conducted under the present system of full preferential voting, sometimes called compulsory preferential voting. The idea that Howard rigged the system against her is absurd.

For all her faults, however, Hanson did one good thing in that interview. Most people agree that the subject where Turnbull most clearly stands on the moral high ground is his attitude to the recommendations of the Fair Work Commission regarding penalty rates on Sundays. On that Hanson was clear. She supports the Coalition’s position. Good on her for that!

My advice

I am the third person to whom reference is made in the last sentence of my first paragraph, above. Hitherto, the only subject upon which I have given Turnbull advice has been Senate reform. He rejected my advice, went for his own reform, and the rest is history, so far. Having had my advice rejected once, why do I persist in giving him further advice? The answer is that almost everyone thinks he made a great mistake in rejecting my advice last year. He should not have gone for the double dissolution for which his Senate reform was intended to assist him. So, I now have three pieces of advice to give him.

First, since he so clearly stands on the moral high ground on the Fair Work Commission’s plan, he should be firm in his position. He should press the arguments he has made to date and not be intimidated by journalists or political opponents who think he is on a loser. I think he is going to win this argument and by the time of the next election the eggs will be scrambled to his satisfaction on this subject. A Shorten Labor government would not be able to reverse his win which would, of course, also be a win for the Fair Work Commission, Labor’s creation.

Second, he should emulate Julia Gillard in an important respect. She had a weak election win in 2010 just as Turnbull had a weak election win in 2016. She faced Rudd on the back bench and he faces Abbott in the same place. She made it clear that she would not resign the office of prime minister unless she was “blasted out” by her party. Eventually, she was blasted out, but it should be noted that Rudd was in a stronger position in respect of Gillard than Abbott (or any other contender in the Liberal Party) is today in relation to Turnbull. As I stated in my article posted here on Wednesday 24 July 2013 Why I admire Julia Gillard I supported very strongly the way she stood up to Rudd. I advise Turnbull to adopt the same strategy. Whereas Gillard was rolled and prevented from being Labor leader in the 2013 election campaign, I believe Turnbull will take my advice and be prime minister going into the 2019 election campaign.

Third, apart from criticising Turnbull’s horrible Senate voting system, my criticism of Turnbull has been that he has made too many concessions to his party’s right. Perhaps I have been mistaken there. After all, his duty is to keep his party united within itself and also to keep the two Coalition parties united together. That being so, I think he should make another concession to the right of the Liberal Party. I refer to section 18c of the Racial Discrimination Act which is loathed by many in Turnbull’s party. A useful reform along those lines was proposed by Senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells (Minister for International Development and the Pacific) in The Australian newspaper on Tuesday 7 March. It was titled We should put faith in ‘the man on the Bondi tram’ to which the editor added: “A ‘reasonable Australian’ will help us see what is worthy and what is wearisome”. Turnbull should read that and take notice!

(Malcolm Mackerras is Honorary Fellow of Australian Catholic University. malcolm.mackerras@acu.edu.au)

Published: Monday, March 13, 2017


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