Malcolm’s Still in the Middle

According to the Australian Election Study conducted at ANU in 2014, 40 percent of the population are not satisfied with democracy in Australia. The 2017 parliamentary year, of course, is still in its infancy, but we have already seen frustrating stalemates on policy issues concerning energy and social security. The theatre of question time that facilitates fruitless bickering has also contributed to voters’ disillusionment with both sides of politics. And, one other key factor consistently said to be causing discontent with voters, is Prime Minister Turnbull’s lack of authority.

In the press conference held just before his seizure of power in 2015, Malcolm Turnbull invoked John Howard by praising his dedication to a thoroughly traditional cabinet system of government. This was the first indication of what type of government Turnbull sought to lead, and was a welcome announcement from disgruntled and frustrated colleagues.

It is undeniable that if Turnbull was looking to emulate a former Australian leader, it would be that of John Howard. Whatever your personal politics, it’s hard to deny the stability that characterised this period of Australian government – a tenure of 11 years explains as much. It was clear that when he took over the leadership, Turnbull sought to present himself as the son of Howard. So, 18 months into his prime ministership, how is he stacking up?

Throughout his tenure, John Howard strove to present himself as tough on issues by identifying a policy concern and pursuing it with full conviction – an approach many politicians are resolved to avoid. Where would Australia be without our tight gun laws, pursued by the Howard government in the face of immense opposition from constituents of the Liberal party’s coalition partner? While Turnbull acknowledges that he is the leader of a broad church, Howard dealt with what was arguably a more contestable and controversial issue – he had the responsibility of arguing the merits not only to the Australian people, but to colleagues whose careers depended on their elector’s support.

Another clear example of Turnbull’s emulation of Howard can be seen when examining the issue of border security. In the midst of the 2001 election campaign Howard famously stated, ‘we will decide who comes to Australia and the circumstances in which they come.’ Similarly, Turnbull recently mimicked this line, albeit concerning foreign investment, when he stated, ‘we decide who invests in Australia and the circumstances in which they invest.’ It is clear that strong language bolsters the population’s trust in their leader, however, this rhetoric hasn’t been manifested through the actions of the current government. Over the course of his prime ministership thus far, Turnbull has done the opposite of what strong leadership embodies.

While a consultative leader seems ideal, Turnbull appears to have taken this proposition a little too far. His tendency to back down on policy when faced with backbench pressure – such as in the climate policy debate late last year – does not instil confidence in his leadership. Of course, this can’t be a criticism pointed solely at Turnbull, given that he is caught between the competing wishes of the broad party that he leads. When prompted to respond to Donald Trump’s controversial immigration ban earlier this year, for example, Turnbull continually stated that it was not his job to comment. But surely we can expect our prime minister to have an opinion and to express it?

Interestingly, Turnbull now finds himself in a similar post-election position as Howard did. The LNP suffered a close election result in 2016, just as they did in 1998. Both leaders would like to attribute this to opposition scare tactics – the ‘Mediscare’ in 2016 and the GST contention in the late 90’s. The question is, how was Howard able to turn a tight result into a convincing win in 2001? Here is something that would surely be useful for Turnbull to consider if he is to reverse the trajectory he is currently on in time for the next election.

It is certainly true that conservative leaders are constantly on damage control, with their success being measured on how successfully they diffuse problems, rather than their legislative achievements. While border security issues rose to the top of the political agenda during the Gillard years, the same debate was also at its height just before John Howard’s 2001 re-election. The reporting of this issue in recent years has given the impression that the period we are currently in is to be regarded as a severely blemished period, and that Australia is sacrificing its international reputation. However, it is this rhetoric that was being used to describe the political environment during this crucial time in Howard’s prime ministership.

The arrival of the Tampa created a situation of genuine uncertainty concerning the level of Australian border control. Whatever your opinion on the moral implications of the Pacific Solution, its swift implementation by the Howard government presented an image of control and strength. Appearances matter in politics. And ultimately, when it was time to make a decision on the leadership of the nation, Australians trusted Howard’s government to make quick and decisive calls.

It would be remiss not to acknowledge the contrasting political climates that these leaders both faced. Above all, however, history has shown that if a prime minister is to be successful, the policy issues they focus on need to be prosecuted fully and with conviction. While Australian political history – for the most part – has shown that it is foolish to predict the outcome of an election too far in advance, I will still say that the next election won’t end ideally for Turnbull unless something changes.