It used to be that in order to you change the country, you had to change the government, but these days all you need to do is change prime minister. The incompetent, fear-mongering and doctrinaire Tony Abbott regime already seems like a bad dream the country is quickly awakening from. Just over a week into office Abbott’s replacement Malcolm Turnbull looks relaxed and assured as prime minister having ushered in his new front bench, promising a return to cabinet government with him as “first among equals”. Turnbull is a patrician and the first real born-to-rule prime minister since the previous Malcolm in the job, Fraser.
The overthrow has happened with the minimum of fuss, indeed Turnbull has set the benchmark for future plotters: “30 bad Newspolls” (poll owner Rupert Murdoch will be delighted with the implied compliment, if unhappy at the outcome). Meanwhile Turnbull has attacked the job with gusto, seamlessly riding through the choppy waters of negotiating with his enemies in parliament (mostly Liberals and Nationals) while a hapless Labor struggles to keep up with the new realities.
Bill Shorten’s minimising of difference with the ousted prime minister has now spectacularly backfired: Turnbull is so much better at not being Tony Abbott than he is. Labor’s policy vacuum has left them looking lacklustre and bereft of ideas now that a substantial leader has emerged on the other side. Unlike the Rudd-Gillard stoush which was primarily a battle of personalities, Turnbull represents clear change from the hard right-wing social conservative style beloved of Abbott and his acolytes.
Liberal backers in the media are torn between denouncing the coup and applauding the bounce in the polls. The voters are far less split. They like Malcolm Turnbull. He has made the Liberals electorally competitive again swooping on Australia’s large swinging vote. The party was always capable of getting half the vote, they did so in 2010 and would have won government were it not for Abbott’s obstinate leadership and unpopularity.
Abbott had still not cured that by 2013, so much so that a desperate Labour turned back to a poisoned Kevin Rudd thinking his relative popularity could turn around the election. Abbott annihilated Labor in 2013, though Labor thanked itself it wasn’t worse. In five years Rudd had gone from saving the world to just saving the furniture.
With Gillard gone from parliament too (what Labor could do with her as leader at the moment), the stage was free for Tony Abbott to turn opinion in his favour. He failed miserably. His high point was the immediate handling of the MH17 crash but as that developed in to a lengthy judicial case, there were few shirt-fronting opportunities. His bluster also flopped at home where the Tone needed to be more subtle. He ruled initially with the support of Clive Palmer whose senators celebrated wildly when the carbon tax was repealed. When Palmer’s group disintegrated and Abbott had to corral any six from eight, he was less successful. The end of entitlement budget was the beginning of the end of Abbott’s entitlement giving the party dismal numbers to match the leader.
Remarkably Malcolm Turnbull comes to the top job as a cleanskin, despite his long record as a minister in the Howard and Abbott governments. He managed to always keep his distance from Abbott’s pratfalls though NBN’s failures may yet burn him. His cabinet looks a lot more promising than the fossilised collection of old men that Abbott had around him. Arthur Sinodinos as cabinet secretary and Tony Nutt as “director of transition” will guide the government in a controlled yet consultative way that the obsessive PMOs of Abbott (and his Labor predecessors) could not manage.
Turnbull’s biggest attributes will be to articulately sell a positive message and work with the cross-benches, including the more middle-ground Greens under Richard Di Natale. He has paid off suspicious Nationals with the water portfolio and kept the new darling of the right (Scott Morrison) inside the tent. There will be some tricky tight-rope walking ahead, especially as he delicately disengages from some of Abbott’s more egregious policies without alienating the base. But he will have plenty of goodwill and an energised party, especially when those bad Newspolls disappear. A Liberal election win in 2016 was a prospect that seemed utterly unlikely two weeks ago. Now the Liberals will enter the next election against a muddled Labor Party with renewed vigour and optimism.