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Turnbull’s 'caretaker' prime ministership: a looming electoral defeat?

By Glen Anderson and Alan Berman - posted Tuesday, 12 April 2016


A little over six months ago Malcolm Turnbull wrested the Prime Ministership from Tony Abbott amidst high expectations. Turnbull was viewed by all sides of the political spectrum as a fresh, capable and invigorating leader who could address the Liberal Party’s policy hiatus and provide electoral momentum heading towards the 2016 general election.

Initially these expectations were realised. Turnbull employed a new positive vocabulary of “opportunity”, “innovation” and “exciting times”, which was warmly received in light of Tony Abbott’s perceived negativity.  Traditional Liberal Party and centrist voters switched their allegiance to Turnbull, believing that Australia’s all too apparent fiscal problems and policy challenges would be steadily surmounted. And their expectations were not unfounded: Turnbull, with his redoubtable business achievements and diversified career background was seen as a timely answer to Australia’s collective financial woes. Added to this, the newly appointed Treasurer, Scott Morrison, was widely viewed as a talented political partner who could assist Turnbull in these endeavours.   

Most pundits predicted that the switch to Turnbull had positioned the Liberal Party for an electoral victory.

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Fast forward to the present and the political forecast looks decidedly different.

Instead of an electoral victory, at the very least, there is electoral volatility, and even a hint of Turnbull fatigue. Rather than trusting Turnbull with another election cycle, segments of the electorate (including even the pro-Liberal commentariat), appear to be losing interest and contemplating a Shorten Labor government. The latest Newspoll reveals that the Labor Party now enjoys an outright majority of 51 percent on a two party preferred basis. The “feel good” factor of Turnbull’s Prime Ministership seems to have dissipated and is now being rapidly replaced with scepticism and ennui.

How has this happened?

First, there is the steadily encroaching perception – rightly or wrongly – that Turnbull’s leadership is more about form than substance. This stems from the government’s failure to announce meaningful and long overdue policy reform. For many years now, the electorate has been bombarded with phrases such as “budget emergency”, “budget crisis” and “budget deficit” and yet so far the perception is that Turnbull is failing to tackle Australia’s economic challenges head on. Moreover, the reason commonly attributed for this failure is Turnbull’s fear of incurring the electorate’s wrath, as happened to former Treasurer, Joe Hockey, after his maiden budget. With an election pending, Turnbull is right to be cautious, but it is feeding a perception that his Prime Ministership lacks policy substance.    

Compounding these difficulties is that Turnbull has not stamped his own authority upon the government’s policy direction. Turnbull is, after all, well known for having divergent views to many of the conservative MPs he depends upon for support. Aside from welcome innovation initiatives, little policy change has been effected by his leadership. Nowhere to be seen are flagship environmental announcements, such as the introduction of an emissions trading scheme, which the Prime Minister formerly supported. Nowhere to be seen is an authoritative position on marriage equality, the issue instead to be decided by a financially prohibitive plebiscite after the general election. Nowhere to be seen is an announcement on Australia becoming a republic. This has meant that although Turnbull has the mantle of leadership, he has been hamstrung by his own party from meaningfully exercising it.

A further problem besetting Turnbull and the Liberal Party is that many formerly dependable political plays have become moribund. No longer can a Liberal government claim with any believability that the Labor Party has a monopoly on economic mismanagement and deficit blowouts.

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Claims about Labor infighting and disunity are also moribund in light of the Liberal Party’s own internal feuding. 

The government’s attempt to play union politics and lay the trigger for the early double dissolution election at the feet of a Senate obstructing the Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC) bill is similarly moribund. The point is not that genuine issues were not uncovered by the Royal Commission into Trade Union Governance and Corruption; they certainly were. Rather, it is simply that the formerly dependable political play of “union demonization” is no longer resonating in a post GFC world. It has become a tired political bell, which when rung no longer reverberates as it once did in its Howard year’s heyday. Moreover, most reasonably minded observers realise that governance and corruption issues are not uniquely confined to trade unions.  

The failure of union demonization to gain political traction is intensified by the fact that Turnbull is the last Liberal politician who should be selling this reform. As if to underscore the inappositeness of his salesmanship on this issue, in a recent address he affably stated that he was not anti-union and that unions serve an important role in society. As balanced, honest and commendable as this was, it leaves the impression that Turnbull does not really believe that the ABCC bill is a pivotal political issue. Rather, it does seem to many observers that the ABCC bill is a purely conservative agenda which Turnbull is having to half-heartedly sell. This feeds the perception – already obvious in other policy zones – that Turnbull’s Prime Ministership is devoid of personal conviction.

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About the Authors

Glen Anderson is a lecturer in law at the University of Newcastle. Dr Anderson researches and teaches in the areas of international law, equity, company and property law. He has formerly taught Australian and international politics.

Dr. Alan Berman, an Adjunct Research Fellow of the Socio-Legal Research Centre at Griffith Law School and a Senior Lecturer in Law at Newcastle Law School, teaches and researches in the areas of crime and Australian society, international human rights law and sexuality and the law.

Other articles by these Authors

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All articles by Alan Berman

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