A Year Of Malcolm Turnbull: What Has He Done?

Twelve months of Malcolm, but don't expect any anniversary celebrations.

14/09/2016 11:51 AM AEST | Updated 14/09/2016 11:51 AM AEST
Fairfax Media
Even though it's his anniversary, he shouldn't expect any gifts.

It is a full year since Malcolm Turnbull executed the gambit he had arguably been planning since the moment he was ousted from the Liberal leadership by Tony Abbott in 2009. On the afternoon and evening of September 14, 2015, Turnbull resigned from Cabinet, called for a spill of the leadership, gathered his troops and was duly elected as leader -- and, the next day, officially named as Prime Minister.

It was the most dramatic day in Australian politics since Kevin Rudd had done the same thing to Julia Gillard in June 2013, which in turn was the most dramatic day in Australian politics since Gillard did the same thing to Rudd in June 2010. Turnbull's ballot victory over Abbott, 54 votes to 44, capped off months of speculation that the silver fox from Wentworth was angling for the top job, just waiting for the perfect moment to strike as Abbott blundered from mistake to mistake. He took his shot and it came off, ushering in what many Australians (Turnbull recorded a 68 percent approval rating and 67 percent preferred Prime Minister score just weeks after taking office) expected to be a golden age of moderate leadership, quick action on climate change and marriage equality, and a Prime Minister who could go several weeks at a time without tucking into a raw root vegetable.

On those measures, at least he delivered on the last one.

Because for all the hopes and dreams of a moderate-progressive Australia under Turnbull, it quickly emerged that Turnbull had signed away many of his supposed pet causes to gain the support -- or, at least, avoid the ire -- of the conservative wing of his party. To win and keep the leadership, Turnbull was forced to tone down many of the ideas that made him so popular in the first place. As that situation slowly revealed itself, like a creeping rot or damp, it began eroding Turnbull's incredible poll figures to the point where he scraped an election win with a one-seat majority, lost 14 seats from the 2013 poll and suffered a 3.3 percent swing against his Liberal Party.

A year on, Turnbull lists 15 major achievements of his Prime Ministership on the Liberal Party website. Not bad for one year. But several of the biggest -- including getting children out of detention, signing the China free trade agreement, the defence white paper -- were largely done during Abbott's tenure, with Turnbull simply giving them the official stamp. Some others, like the Senate voting reforms and the abolition of the road safety tribunal, would struggle to be considered major barnstorming or inspiring victories. It was highlighted during an interview that former Abbott chief of staff Peta Credlin gave to Sky News last week, where she struggled to name a single achievement of the Turnbull government.

Where did it all go wrong?

Fairfax Media

Maybe it was when he didn't go to an election soon after ascending to the top job, as some speculated he would, to take advantage of his sky-high popularity and lock in his government's future for the next three years. That opportunity came and went. In hindsight, it would have been a great move, but the opportunity was squandered, and with it, any chance of having the big majority he needed to get through the centrist policies he had previously championed.

Maybe it was when he announced he would lead a "traditional Cabinet government" and be far more consultative than his predecessor, who was infamous for his 'captain's calls'. Any hope that Turnbull would spearhead a more moderate Liberal Party, dragging his conservative colleagues to take meaningful action on climate change or marriage equality, were dashed when Turnbull promised to make decisions based on his team's feedback.

Maybe it was when relatively obscure policy -- like the Australian Building Commission and Construction bills, which triggered the double dissolution election, or abolishing the Road Safety Remuneration Tribunal -- suddenly became priorities for the government, and those issues championed by the 'old Malcolm' were pushed to the side.

Maybe it was when people started realising that Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull was not likely to sway much from the policies of Prime Minister Tony Abbott, having agreed to keep Abbott-era commitments like the marriage equality plebiscite in order to keep his conservative backbenchers happy.

Maybe it was when even his catchphrases and slogans weren't original, let alone his policies.

But the election came and went, and Turnbull did the job he was meant to do; he steered his party to a victory. The Liberal National coalition remained in government, Labor remained in opposition. The knives were out for Turnbull, however, with conservative colleagues like Cory Bernardi and Eric Abetz openly criticising how the election was run.

"People should examine their conscience, think about their contribution to this disaster and then I would prevail on them to do the right thing," Bernardi said two days after the election.

"When you have had such a big kick up the pants, as we have had as the Coalition, and especially the Liberal Party element of the Coalition, then I think it is worthwhile to ask the question; 'Why did we haemorrhage so many seats? Why did we haemorrhage so many votes?'," Abetz said two weeks later.

There is, of course, another conservative backbencher who has stayed largely quiet, but spoken up at crucial (and inconvenient) times --Abbott himself. His supporters openly angled for him to be returned to the frontbench as a Turnbull peace offering to the right-wing of the party, but the PM resisted.

Abbott's modus operandi is to quietly sit at his bench in the House of Representatives, sifting through a large pile of correspondence, glasses perched on his nose, steadfastly concentrating on his papers. The rare time he looks up is when his name is mentioned, usually during an attack on the PM from the opposition, when he sometimes gives a wry smile before returning his attention to his desk.

Then again, sometimes he is far more forthcoming. He pops up in the media now and again, usually to give a casual observation on some aspect of Turnbull policy. Recently, while Turnbull was in Asia attending leaders' forums, Abbott gave exclusives to two newspapers -- one criticising the government's cashless welfare card trial, the second putting pressure on Turnbull to reform political donations -- and later spoke on radio to criticise the government's response to the Don Dale detention centre scandal. Is Abbott hoping for another tilt at the leadership?

It's a year of Malcolm Turnbull, PM. It has been tough. But even though it's his anniversary, he shouldn't expect any gifts. The next year will be tougher for Turnbull, faced with a razor-thin majority, a conservative element unhappy with his conduct and a progressive element just as unhappy; Abbott who is seemingly just biding his time, and an opposition looking to exploit any momentary lapse or mistake -- as they did on the first sitting week back, forcing through several embarrassing votes, the first time a government had lost a vote in decades.

It's game on.

More On This Topic