Winners Are Grinners

It has now been over a month since Turnbull took to Australia’s highest office. Approval ratings remain high as 63 percent of voters rate the new leader as their preferred Prime Minister and the government leads two-party preferred polls at 52 per cent to the Opposition’s 48 per cent. Turnbull’s gamble for leadership has already reaped dividends and the government seems to rejoice in its new leader, despite the blood spilled in transition. The recurring theme of his new government is that “the greatest respect we can show someone is to listen.” A consultative and thoughtful era of politics, Australians have been told, signals a clear shift away from former Prime Minister Abbott’s erratic style of strong-man leadership and at times arbitrary decisions.
Whilst slow and measured steps are understandable as Turnbull navigates a complex narrative of change, there has been insufficient action on a number of key issues. Positive steps have already been taken in a renewed emphasis on increasing science and innovation and removing a discourse of fear from government rhetoric. However, the honeymoon bliss of a fresh face now requires substantive policy reform from the Liberal government. The shift in leadership has brought an eloquent speaker and more rigorous political rhetoric to the fore, but a concrete image of where Turnbull will steer the nation remains elusive.
Malcolm Turnbull is Australia’s fourth prime minister in just over two years, as recent chutzpah political history seems to mirror the intrigue and eclecticism of Joyce’s Ulysses. His three predecessors were all removed from office by their own parties, with only two out of the five last changes in prime ministership decided at an election by the Australian people. Looking back towards the Abbott government, many issues which plagued Abbott’s governance continue unaddressed.
Reformation Romanticism
Abbott and former Treasurer Joe Hockey attempted to bring about a smorgasbord of fundamental changes to the “lucky country.” The idea of reshaping time honored Australian values was Romantic, but could not connect with the electorate. At times founded upon high moral grounds, Abbott failed more often in method than in objective. Abbott was right to assert in 2013 that 20,000 asylum seekers arriving by boat to the nation, and countless dying on the perilous journey, was a national tragedy for both individuals fleeing horrors abroad and for the traditionally welcoming and prosperous community. However, his response was to deny all such seekers the right to resettlement on the Australian mainland and to process and resettle them in nations such as Nauru and Papua New Guinea. This shirking of the UN Refugee Convention and lack of adequate facilities, resources, and oversight in overseas detention centers was morally unconscionable and internationally decried. Australia’s pride in being a humanitarian and successfully multicultural nation was tarnished.
The government’s choice of tools in reducing government deficit were questionable in Joe Hockey’s mantra of “the end of the age of entitlement. ” The first federal budget could have brought with it a well-explained suite of incentives to increase labor force participation and stimulate productivity. Instead, the nation saw the negative political rhetoric of the need for an “age of personal responsibility” alongside decreases to key unemployment and student benefits. Coupled with a lack of sufficient engagement with the electorate on tough budget measures designed to minimize government deficit, such steps were viewed as draconian and unfair to the nation’s most disadvantaged.
A third key misplay by the Abbott cabinet was the higher education sector. The noble vision of improving Australia’s universities and increasing domestic education’s international competitiveness was fated for failure by the desire to achieve these ends through deregulating and uncapping university fees. Australians believe strongly in access to higher education that past generations have enjoyed through capped tuition fees and low-rate government loans available to fund studies. However, former Education Minister Pyne pursued almost relentlessly a policy of uncapping university fees and deregulating the sector. Too often citing the approval of the profit-fixated Vice-Chancellor, he and the government ignored the greater public’s discontent.
“History, Stephen said, is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.”
Joyce’s Ulysses captures the pseudo nightmare of the last eight years in Australian politics. The Australian people, in a collective and 21st century rendition of Joyce’s “nightmare” have lived for too long in the declining discourse and bloodlust of popular politics in recent years.
After the end of John Howard’s 11 year term in 2007, Kevin Rudd failed to connect with voters and in 2009, he was ousted by Australia’s first female prime minister, Julia Gillard. Unfortunately, rather than usher in a new period of good governance and long term changes, loose policy making with the wastage of taxpayers funds and flawed subsidy policies led to ongoing media vilification of her betrayal of Rudd.  Even after winning the 2010 election, leading with the people’s mandate failed to save Gillard from sustained disapproval ratings.
It was then, in a story almost too farfetched and laughable to be real, that the deposed Rudd was returned as Prime Minister. Australia’s political landscape was awash as Rudd’s reinstatement and failure at re-election in 2013 highlighted not only the inability of recent Australian politicians to effectively communicate policies with the electorate but also the apparently insurmountable fear of death-by-opinion-poll as members of Parliament scramble to protect their jobs.
Two years of low approval ratings by the Abbott government led Turnbull and the Liberal Party to pursue the very tact that they had decried with indignant horror just before the last federal election. Abbott’s deathbed proclamation that the prime ministership “should be something which is earned by a vote of the Australian people” became an ironic anachronism as he was ousted from office. Importantly, Turnbull’s ascension par coup has been normalized by the two leadership knifings of the previous Labor government and tempered by the swiftness of Turnbull’s pseudo-regicidal blow.
Australian politics across the last eight years has been united in its unwillingness to take on risk and unpopularity. The notion that opinion polls hold little weight until the months preceding an election has been deconstructed with spectacular aplomb. And whilst the sheer schadenfreude and tabloid-bursting nature of leadership challenges fuels media buzz, politics risks losing the trust and interest of an increasingly disenchanted public.
“I am tomorrow, or some future day, what I establish today. I am today what I established yesterday or some previous day.”
The current Turnbull government is a chance for true leadership and well explained, conviction policies. However, Joyce’s words highlight how it carries with it the weight of public memory and the internal divisions of the Liberal-National coalition government. Turnbull will well remember how he lost leadership of the opposition over his unwillingness to compromise and placate the harder right wing of the coalition, particularly on climate change policy. Turnbull’s personal belief in a market mechanism of a cap and trade emissions trading scheme is at fierce odds with the right-wing of the coalition. He has asserted that there will be no change to current climate change policy, nor any change on the decision to take marriage equality to a national plebiscite. A plethora of other policy settings demand attention and face similar issues of oppositional party factionalism.
Moreover, he faces an electorate within which many feel disregarded and inadequately represented. Consequently, Turnbull’s approach of listening and consulting broadly is a logical step on a slow progression back to stability. The prime minister is careful with his words, proselytizing that “there has never been a more exciting time to be an Australian” amidst global volatility and lagging business and consumer confidence.  He has branded himself as looking to the future, and able to ensure Australia’s ongoing prosperity. An easy to swallow message, yet one that has instilled a direly needed sense of optimism to the nation’s politics. The Malcolm Turnbull of today is shaped by the lack of compromise of his past and recent political history.
However, the shift in political discourse is not enough.
In order to end the tripwire ousting of leaders, Turnbull needs to not just usher in a new era, but break through a fourth wall which has emerged and engage voters with transparent policy explanations. With the election looming, the government of some future day in 2016 will be and needs to be defined by today and is currently still mired in its own past.
“Hold to the now, the here, through which all future plunges to the past.”
Australia needs a tide of new ideas and solutions. On asylum seekers, Turnbull has merely agreed to continue considering different options for resettlement of boat arrivals and improvements in detention centers. The rejection of many international Refugee Convention obligations seems set to continue as asylum seekers coming via boat will continue to be denied resettlement in Australia. While Australia is taking in 12,000 Syrian refugees through UN channels, an overall revision of its humanitarian intake is still lacking. The government at present still has not addressed the issue of thousands of seekers making the dangerous journey through Pakistan down to Indonesia, and the xenophobia and poor living conditions facing those resettled in Nauru and PNG. Australia needs clear moral leadership to restore its international commitment to refugees the world over.
Future budget measures remain unclear as the government continues to listen and consult. How Australia will recuperate from the ebb in foreign investment as the mining boom moves firmly into its production phase alongside falling commodity prices globally remains a key source of uncertainty. Although recent announcements on financial sector reform are a welcome positive sign of changes to come, new solutions to structural unemployment potential changes to superannuation, taxation, and social services all remain in a vacuum of consultation.
On post-secondary education, the government has shelved its deregulation policy. It is not scrapped, but rather simply deferred until after the next election. If the current government remains in power, will this policy be revived and universities deregulated despite direct and broad objection? If Turnbull is truly listening, the policy in its current incarnation should never again be proposed to Parliament. In a recent Guardian interview, Turnbull’s apology; “I’m sorry, I just don’t want to go into any more detail about that” became a motif across many policy settings.
If he is the conviction politician that Australia so desperately needs, the tempering of progressive views by Party rifts must be surmounted by having the courage to win over public support enough to make detractors into allies. Malcolm Turnbull is currently likely to win the next election merely because the leader of the opposition is comparatively unpopular and so far unable to mount an effective counter case, with only 17 percent of Australians listing the Labor leader as their preferred prime minister. Turnbull appears confident he seems to have escaped vilification after the normalization of prime ministerial turnover.
But if he is to lead the nation into a new bright age of politics, the community demands more than eloquent speech and consultations. Turnbull has ended the perpetual cycle of negativity in politics and is able to be Australia’s next great reformer. But, in order to be truly voted in by the public’s support and wrest longevity from miserly hands, Turnbull must propose a suite of new solutions. Current responses have been found to be unsatisfactory by both Australians and global observers, with limited time to convince voters of large policy shifts. A government that listens is a welcome breath of fresh air. But now is the time for a whirlwind of action that will instill the nation with conviction leadership and uplift the Australian public.
Image credit: ITU Pictures/Flickr

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