‘These,’ said our exuberant new leader, ‘are the most exciting times in human history.’
Well, perhaps; but as the Chinese could have told him, exciting times can be a curse as well as an opportunity.
The last incoming prime minister who promised what he called ‘a touch of excitement’ led us into the recession we had to have. So it may well have been prudent that Malcolm Turnbull, after a burst of fireworks and dancing, spent the next couple of days hosing things down.
The maintenance of Tony Abbott’s ultra-conservative policies on climate change and same-sex marriage was predictable and inevitable; it was the price Turnbull had to pay for his resurrection to the top job. It undoubtedly disappointed the aficionados, but no one else: any major changes of policy will have to be slow and measured, not an immediate revolution.
But his immediate cave-in to the bluster of the National Party, and in particular to its rambunctious deputy leader Barnaby Joyce is a major retreat. Joyce was, we are told, threatening to break the coalition agreement, to lead his troops out of their long-established partnership with the Liberal majority. But where would they go? Hardly to Bill Shorten and Tanya Plibersek and long reviled Labor Party.
Their only refuge would be to the cross benches, where they would almost invariably vote for Turnbull’s legislation anyway. But in doing so they would have to abandon all their perks; the subsidies, handouts and pork-barrelling that placate the demands of their rural constituents. The fact is that the Nationals always need the Liberals more than the Libs need them, and Turnbull could have and should have called their bluff This was not conciliation but capitulation and neither his friends nor his enemies in his own Liberal Party will applaud him for it.
The ultimate irony is Turnbull’s commitment to turn over the responsibility for water policy to Joyce: it was, after all, his own entry to the ministry back in 2000 when John Howard appointed him as his personal water boy. Now Turnbull has sold out his birth-right, and tossed in a lazy one or two billion dollars as an additional sweetener. Not necessary and not smart, and some of his more hard-headed Liberal colleagues are not happy.
But their real rage is directed not at Turnbull but at the perennial deputy leader Julie Bishop, and it must be said that they have a point. Everyone knew where Turnbull was coming from; he might not have been actively campaigning himself, but his supporters certainly were. And they were perfectly entitled to, even those within the ministry.
Ministers were appointed by Abbott, but they were not his vassals; they were expected to show solidarity in matters of policy, but they were free to pursue their own agendas when it came to what they saw as the greater good of the government or even out of pure ambition. Christopher Pyne, George Brandis, even Scott Morrison, who apparently had an each-way bet on the outcome, should not be blamed.
When the plot to depose Abbott hardened, Bishop was aware of it for at least three days and probably longer, but she did not warn him to take countermeasures; she kept quiet, even conniving in the preparations for the coup.
But Bishop’s position was different; she was not appointed but elected by the party, and not just as a senior minister – that went with the job – but as the leader’s chosen deputy. Her responsibility, her duty, was not to be loyal just to the corporate cause, but to the man; to guide, protect and support him at all costs – crucially to watch his back.
When the plot to depose him hardened, Bishop was aware of it for at least three days and probably longer, but she did not warn him to take countermeasures; she kept quiet, even conniving in the preparations for the coup. Only when it was ready to roll did she walk in to his office to tell him that the numbers had been counted and it was all over: he was finished.
This was simply unacceptable and Abbott and his supporters have every right to feel outraged and betrayed. It was at least as bad as what Julia Gillard did to Kevin Rudd and far worse than what he did to her. Politics need not be played entirely fairly, but there are rules and conventions to be observed, and Bishop crossed the line.
However, she is unlikely to suffer for it, at least as long as Turnbull prospers, and for the majority of his Liberal colleagues – indeed most of the electorate – the prospect appears benign.
The Canning by-election is done and dusted, the ministry is settled and most importantly the polls are up, which has been the whole point of the traumatic exercise. It has, by any reasonable account, been a satisfactory start, even if the enthusiasts regard it as a cautious, even timorous one.
This, it appears, will be the line the hapless Bill Shorten will pursue, at least in the near short term: Turnbull is not really the future. He is just a snazzier reincarnation of an Abbott Liberal, committed to the same old divisive and unfair policies that brought down his predecessor. It might work, eventually; Shorten’s best – indeed, probably his only – hope is that once the honeymoon wears off, Turnbull will turn unto the stereotype his enemies predict: an arrogant, disdainful Mr Moneybags, so far up himself that he will eventually disappear from view.
But in the meantime, there is a palpable sense of relief; we are ready to shrug off the years of bickering and insults and look with hope for a political climate that will be sensible, civil and worth repairing.
And we finally now have a prime minister who does not appear to be struggling with English as a second language. Gone are the embarrassing pauses, the constant hesitations of er, ah, and um, the endless repetitions and the malapropisms – who can forget the suppository of all wisdom? Our new leader may be a touch too smooth, too glib – but he is coherent, and that will at least be a good start.