Why Turnbull Could Become One Of Australia's Shortest-Serving Prime Ministers

20/04/2016 2:07 AM AEST | Updated 15/07/2016 12:51 PM AEST
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Malcolm Turnbull, Australia's prime minister, delivers the annual Lowy Institute lecture hosted by the Lowy Institute for International Policy in Sydney, Australia, on Wednesday, March 23, 2016. Turnbull earlier today announced support for two clean energy bodies, seeking to burnish his government's green credentials with an election in Australia potentially just over three months away. Photographer: Jeremy Piper/Bloomberg via Getty Images

A prime minister holds a special position within the Westminster parliamentary system. He or she is responsible for coordinating the cabinet and setting the government's agenda. Integral to these processes is "the narrative", the big-picture message of what a government stands for and should be trying to accomplish.

Since wresting the Prime Ministership from Tony Abbott approximately seven months ago, Malcolm Turnbull has struggled to articulate a narrative. This means that with an election looming, many voters are unsure why the Turnbull Government should be returned to office.

The exercise of political power for its own sake, the continuation of the political status quo or a superior polling performance to leadership rivals are not suitable narratives. Rather, something more intellectually proactive is required which informs voters why they should extend their support, and why their vote will foster constructive change for Australia's future. Ideally, the narrative should be positive and inspirational, responsive to social and economic realities, and be communicated consistently by the Prime Minister and his or her senior colleagues.

Although there is a sense of "positivity", "opportunity" and "exciting times" seven months into Turnbull's Prime Ministership, much about the narrative remains unclarified. Does Turnbull represent a break from Tony Abbott's government or a continuation? Does Turnbull represent a progressive recasting of the Liberal Party? Does Turnbull intend to seriously address economic reform, particularly the burgeoning budget deficit?

In some respects, Turnbull's failure to articulate a narrative is explicable by political circumstances. Upon assuming the Prime Ministership, Turnbull was hamstrung by conservative MPs from implementing a reinvigorated post-Abbott policy platform. This naturally curtailed any inclination he might have had to embark upon a reformist agenda.

Turnbull took the reins of leadership with an election looming, and was thus prevented from announcing bold policy initiatives which might undermine his party's chances of re-election.

Added to this, Turnbull's Prime Ministership has been saddled with internal feuding. Loyalist Abbott supporters have created the impression of a Liberal Party which is tolerating, but not enamoured, with their new leader. Abbott continues to have a high media profile, causing a subtly destabilising effect.

These problems have no doubt preoccupied much of the Prime Minister's focus behind the scenes.

Turnbull has also been hamstrung by Australia's deteriorating economic position. With the decline of the mining boom, unusually low iron ore prices, the continued off-shoring of value-adding manufacturing jobs, huge financial outgoings across a range of government sectors, and a sluggish world economy, Australia's ability to fund a new round of policy measures such as the Gonski education reforms and the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) is substantially hampered.

Inheriting these less-than-favourable economic conditions, Turnbull has started slowly. Thus far, he has produced an innovation policy centred on start-ups, campaigned for the reintroduction of the Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC) bill and has committed himself to a new rhetorical positivity.

These efforts, however, are unlikely to win an election.

Turnbull must set forth his reform agenda, particularly on economic matters, and articulate why he and the government should be re-elected. Without doing so, voters may turn their backs come polling day. If Turnbull fails to articulate a narrative soon, it is likely that the public will ascribe him one. What might this narrative be? There is a very real possibility that it will be less than flattering.

Here are some reasons why.

Already there has been a litany of policy backflips since Turnbull became Prime Minister. An increase in the GST was proposed, only to be shelved due to its unpopularity. Cuts in income tax were floated, only to be sidelined due to their unaffordability. Simplification of tax returns to reduce burgeoning workplace tax deductions was mooted, only to be dropped. There were rumblings in favour of a company tax cut, but this seems to have been jettisoned. There was the proposal to transfer responsibility for income tax to the states which was ultimately shelved.

There have been recent intimations from the Education Minister, Simon Birmingham, that university fee deregulation -- dropped when Turnbull became Prime Minister -- may now be back on the longer-term agenda.

On infrastructure, the Prime Minister enthusiastically endorsed the concept of high-speed rail, including detailed discussions about "value capture", only to retreat from the proposition soon thereafter.

This record suggests that any narrative ascribed by the public may be less than effusive. The longer Turnbull delays in clarifying his political vision, the weaker his position will become.

Labor leader Bill Shorten has already seized the policy initiative by floating reforms to negative gearing. Although these reforms cannot of themselves be a panacea for unsustainable housing prices, they nonetheless represent a credible first step to address the housing affordability issue. Shorten has proposed raising taxes on the superannuation of the very wealthy, thereby introducing greater taxation equity. Shorten has announced support for a royal commission into the banking and financial services sector, thus wedging the government over its double dissolution ABCC bill. Shorten has committed to a parliamentary vote on marriage equality thereby obviating the need for a financially prohibitive plebiscite. Shorten has committed to continued funding for the tertiary sector, thus avoiding a future spike in university fees. Most recently, Shorten has devised a six-point plan to save Arrium Steelworks at Whyalla, to prevent the further erosion of Australia's value-adding jobs.

Together these policies form an emerging narrative of equitable tax reform, education and jobs.

A brief examination of recent history reveals the importance of a narrative. Successful Prime Ministers such as Bob Hawke, Paul Keating and John Howard all had one. With Hawke, it was the desire to achieve market driven economic reforms and to unify Australia under the Accord. With Keating, the economic reforms continued, along with a greater engagement with Asia, and the pursuit of social-justice issues such as indigenous reconciliation and land rights. With Howard, the narrative was one of economic prudence, budgetary surplus, low interest rates and strength on national security.

Turnbull must now craft his narrative or at best he will be returned with a slender majority come polling day. At worst, he could become one of Australia's shortest-serving Prime Ministers.

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