Malcolm Turnbull’s dispatch of Tony Abbott from the prime ministership settled a score that had been festering from the moment Abbott became opposition leader. They are very different people.
Unlike conservative Abbott, Turnbull appeals to the fashionable Left. He is a postmodern kind of guy, more at home in inner-city cafes than in budgie smugglers and firefighting uniforms.
In no time, Turnbull has signalled his soft liberal credentials. Tax increases for the rich are back on the table. The Renewable Energy Finance Corporation has been given an immediate reprieve with a new board and new ideas for wasting money.
Climate change policies are receiving fresh attention. The Bureau of Meteorology has been freed of accountability and can now peddle its dubious data without scrutiny.
University spending cuts have been deferred and fees have escaped competitive tension. Industrial relations reform will be, at best, marginal. Turnbull will take a softer line with the Islamic community and intends to pursue a UN Human Rights Council membership from 2018. Another tilt at the UN Security Council is a 2030 ambition.
The republican movement can expect royal treatment and, subject to a pesky public vote, same-sex marriages seem likely to be fast-tracked.
What’s not to like?
There remain, of course, things such as Australia’s slowing growth rate, declining living standards, rising debt, falling terms of trade, chronic balance of payments deficits and low business investment, but Turnbull encourages us to “embrace the future with enormous optimism”.
He held a snap “mini summit” of peak bodies that agreed to embrace Abbott’s infrastructure initiatives and “to go for growth”.
These high-powered groups will co-operate with government to help it centrally plan new job initiatives and consider ways to improve productivity. Pressure will be applied to the states to continue the Abbott policies of reducing business regulatory costs, inefficiency and waste.
This meeting of big government, labour, social welfare and business had only consensus in mind. Contentious issues such as industrial relations and welfare reform were shelved rather than slowing progress overall.
You know that free-market capitalism has run its race when a Coalition prime minister believes consensus and co-operation are the keys to economic growth. Sadly, you also know that abridgment of individual liberty will follow close behind.
Turnbull acknowledges “big challenges” and in true Franklin D. Roosevelt tradition is trying to talk up confidence. His problem, as FDR explained, is that “confidence thrives on honesty, on honour, on the sacredness of obligations, on faithful protection and on unselfish performance. Without them, it cannot live.”
Unfortunately, most Australians don’t associate those values with politicians.
Today, fewer Australians are rusted-on party supporters. They have become cynical and shop around.
While we don’t operate a presidential system, the anecdotal evidence says they are strongly influenced by the party leader at the time of the election. Local representatives are important, but the leader sets the tone and voters know it.
A mid-term change in prime minister, which denies them their perceived right to pass judgment, is a serious affront.
Voters also have become politically savvy. They watch the reaction of political parties to opinion polls and some admit to gaming them. If policy direction can be influenced without changing government and a sympathetic media conflates policy and voting intentions, so much the better.
But when a range of issues and emotions come together in “the only poll that counts”, the outcome may confound the pundits.
Take the fateful Canning by-election. The commentariat informed us a Liberal loss would bring down Abbott. Media reports advised the result was “on a knife edge”. Internal Liberal Party polling was optimistic.
The actual vote confirmed the leadership change made no measurable difference, but the counterfactual can never be known because Abbott was toppled five days before Canning. Dismissing prime ministers because of unfavourable opinion polls may be acceptable inside the beltway but, even in a society where the Ten Commandments are increasingly honoured more in the breach than in the observance, it is still seen as treacherous and repugnant.
Once it was only the Labor Party. Now, both major parties are guilty of Machiavellian plotting and behaviour unbefitting of high office.
And it’s not just leadership changes. In the eyes of the public this simply conforms to a pattern where abuse of privilege is commonplace. People believe power has corrupted politicians to the point that they are undermining the integrity of the system of which they are custodians.
A recent Roy Morgan poll asked how you would rate the honesty and ethical standards of people in different fields. Federal MPs ranked 25 out of 30.
That may sound amusing, but what moral authority do politicians expect when they demand others behave in a way they don’t? No wonder only 39 per cent of 18 to 29-year- olds think our democracy is worth defending.
The Liberal Party coup has wider ramifications than a simple transaction swapping one leader for another. It is one more blow to the credibility of leaders and the moral compact between the government and the people.
It makes voters less likely to listen to pleas from government for noble sacrifices in the common good.
It suggests, absent a significant turnaround in our terms of trade, the tough decisions and long lead times needed for economic and fiscal recovery are likely to be defeated by the electoral cycle.
That prospect is more certain if next year’s federal election results in further support for minority, single issue and other independent parties.
We could see an even more sclerotic parliament and a continuation of the current fractured political process. In that scenario, a crisis is inevitable.
Milton Friedman says: “When the crisis occurs the actions taken depend on the ideas lying around.”