I’m a political junkie. There feels something shameless in that given the present state of our political process, but I can’t help myself. Much as I’m a passionate Australian wanting the best for Australia, and with definite ideas of how might be achieved, I’m also drawn to the theatre of it. As dispiriting as Australian politics often is, there’s certainly no absence of theatre.
It’s no surprise then that on Monday when the spill motion against Tony Abbott was announced I was glued to the TV watching as the scene unfolded and developed, switching channels when the news began to drag, and back again, barely pausing to eat dinner.
I heard the news at about 4pm. By 4.02 the TV was switched on and I was sitting in front of it. Turnbull had finally moved against Abbott. It was something that had to happen, and was always going to happen. When finally it did happen there was a sense of relief – and modicum of hope. Truly, the Abbott government was terrible beyond belief. Anything would be better.
It’s front page on yesterday’s newspaper now that at 9pm Monday a formal ballot was held, from which Turnbull emerged victorious 54-44. He was the new PM.
It’s hard to imagine a bigger contrast to Abbott than Turnbull. Where Abbott is a right-wing conservative Turnbull is a progressive, small l, moderate. Abbott is painful to listen to, repeating himself and speaking in slogans and clichés. Turnbull is a masterful media performer, articulate, charming, witty, relaxed and engaging. Abbott is very much the limited man, incapable seemingly of flexible thought, stuck in old ways and entirely without imagination. Turnbull is a progressive in the true sense of the word, enterprising and ambitious, a man who sees a bigger world, and greater opportunities. Abbott is the back bench bovver boy somehow made good. Turnbull is a statesman.
At the very least we now have a leader we won’t be embarrassed by.
For all that Turnbull is a paradox. He led the Republican movement back in the day, and always a prodigy, it was said he was undecided which side of politics he would join to. A man of immense ability, not to mention style, he has also presided over the terribly disappointing deployment of the NBN. He is one of us – that is moderate, reasonable, intelligent, compassionate Australia, and that’s what gives us hope.
Unsurprisingly the election of Turnbull has led to a reversal of fortunes for the Labor party. With Abbott as their leader the LNP were languishing far behind Labor; with Turnbull’s ascension have now surged well ahead. That’s to be expected. There will be a huge sense of relief in the community now that he’s PM, and not just with Liberal voters. That’s a swell that lifts the Libs in the polls, but which will subside at least partly when the honeymoon period ends.
For all his popularity Turnbull has a tough road ahead. Reasonable Australians may look at him and think he’s one of us, but the practicalities are that he must cleave to the conservative policies of his predecessor. That’s the price he pays for being made leader. He can’t change – not yet anyway – the direction set by the right-wing of the party. That will be frustrating to him, and also to the electorate. Expect some points to be shaved from his popularity as time goes on. In fact I think Turnbull’s best option is to call an early election while he’s still riding high, clear the air, and set out with a mandate of his own and his own policies to deliver. That won’t happen either though – I’m betting part of the deal he’s done precludes anything but a full term of office – another 12 months.
It presents the ALP leadership with a problem. They’ve cruised along twiddling their thumbs reliant on Abbott stuffing up, which has been pretty much a weekly occurrence. They’ve been risk averse, cheating on their policies and trying to minimise a point of difference. It’s lame politics, and not a little shameful, but that pretty well sums up Bill Shorten – a political opportunist and serious mediocrity.
A few days ago they had a big, election winning lead in the polls. Today they trail badly. What do they do?
It’s this question that highlights why it was so necessary that Abbott was replaced by Turnbull. The Liberal party has been hijacked in recent years by hard-line right-wing ideologues. Their policies do not reflect Australian values or attitudes. They’ve shifted the Liberal party from being a decent alternative somewhere a little right of the middle, to somewhere on the extreme loony fringe of the right. The Libs may not know it, but it’s costing them, and will cost them more as they go along. Like Labor, they have lost part of their constituency, which is why the Greens have emerged so strongly in recent years. For the good of the Liberal party, for the good of Australia, they need to return somewhere towards the moderate middle. Turnbull is their best chance of achieving that – which is why they hate him so.
If it’s true of the Libs it’s also true of the ALP. It’s a party of different views, but the direction they’ve taken in recent years is independent of their moral compass. As the Libs have cribbed to the right, so to have Labor (it’s this left vacuum the Greens have expanded into). It’s been more important to play pragmatic politics than stay true to their traditional Labor values. It’s a small target strategy that overlooks the fact that it leaves so many supporters disaffected and disillusioned, and defecting to the Greens. (And totally ignores the grassroots mood reflected in elevation of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader in Britain – an old-fashioned socialist).
For the moment Labor can still point to some policy differentiation in terms of climate change and marriage equality, but the moment Turnbull becomes true to his beliefs that differentiation is lost. It’s an open question then as to which side of politics will be more progressive. When they lose that advantage they’re left to personalities, and in a contest between Turnbull and Shorten there’s no competition.
So then, if you’re Labor, what do you do?
If you’re smart you look again at what you stand for to start with. Perhaps it’s time to re-state Labor values, and reclaim the identity of the progressive and decent working man’s party. Stand for something. Conviction will impress many by itself, when now there is no conviction at all.
The second thing they need do is look at their leadership. Shorten doesn’t cut the mustard. They can’t win with him running against Turnbull, simple as that.
They have good candidates in the wings. Albanese (Albo) is an old-fashioned Labor type – passionate, committed, authentic, smart. He’s a warrior, and a man who has the respect of the Australian public. Plibersek is the starker option, a truly formidable woman of great intellect and steely resolve. I admire both, and either would be a big step up from Shorten.
This is the opportunity. If Turnbull reforms the Liberal party, as I dearly hope for, then the potential domino effect hopefully forces the ALP to reform also. Adapt or die. This is what should happen, for the good of the country. Do I expect it? In time I think Turnbull will get his way with the Libs. I have less hope for the ALP.