By Mungo MacCallum
Malcolm Turnbull’s Christmas message was on the wonder of unconditional love – and boy, does he need some.
Even conditional love would do – love with plenty of strings attached. But at present it appears he has the tangle, but not the affection – only grudging acceptance, if even that.
The recalcitrant right is, if anything, more antagonistic than ever as the season of peace and goodwill drags on. Eric Abetz, Cory Bernardi, George Christensen and pack are baying louder than ever, and Tony Abbott, with the kind of chutzpah only he can muster, is producing homilies about the pressing need for Turnbull to unite the party.
And of course beyond the bounds of the party room, the barbarians are on the march. Pauline Hanson is striding across the wilds of Queensland, with Bob Katter and the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers, not to mention the ever threatening troops of Bernardi’s Conservatives, picking up whatever scraps of loot they can find. The nightmare for Turnbull is that they somehow unite in an axis of evil to pillage not only the rural and regional Nationals, but march into the citadels of the Liberal heartland.
The possibility is remote; the aspiring leaders are all megalomaniacs and would start ripping each other apart in seconds, as the renewed example of One Nation has already demonstrated, and even last week Abbott and Bernardi engaged in an undignified spat over who was really calling the shots. But even a brief alliance under the banner of whichever clay-footed idol emerged would be enough to wreak serious damage on what is left of the Australian political establishment and the consensus that somehow the centre must prevail.
But these were not the headwinds to which Turnbull referred in another little sermon, this time on New Year’s Day. The worries he wanted the voters to keep in mind were not domestic – or at least not intra-party, which is where the headlines have been. And he refused to be specific about where the headwinds were coming from; all he would reveal is that there could be a few surprises.
But our Prime Minister is being far too coy. As he, and every serious observer knows, the immediate threat is coming from the east: a cloud no bigger than a dyed orange coiffure has appeared across the Pacific and Trumpery is, for the moment at least, regarded as if not entirely respectable, at least the new reality. And no one, most of all Turnbull, has the slightest idea of how to deal with it.
To be fair, he is hardly the only one: the general view appears to be that the way to go is to cross your fingers and hope for the best, however unlikely that outcome might be. That is certainly what the world’s financial institutions are doing: they are optimistically bullish about Trump’s promises of tax cuts and infrastructure spending, but prefer to remain in denial about his threats to set up a new regime of protectionism, let alone the prospect of a trade war with China.
And speaking of China, which we would much rather not, a military confrontation over the South China Sea, or, far worse, Taiwan, has been firmly on Trump’s agenda. It should be a matter of urgency for the Australian government to at least acknowledge that terrible possibility, and to attempt to prepare a plan B; the mantra that an unbreakable military alliance with Washington can accommodate friendly and profitable commercial ties with Beijing is hardly a given in the age of Trump.
But Turnbull has shown no visible signs of movement. He has, of course, performed the obligatory rituals of obeisance to the incoming president, with the fervent hope – and it is no more than that – that decades of slavish obedience to Washington will be sufficient to secure the blessings of Australia from the Donald. But there are no guarantees of that: the only expressions of unconditional love the president elect has evinced are those for Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu, two similarly belligerent and unpleasant leaders who are more prone to escalation of tensions, not to mention expansion of their borders, than harbingers of the peace and goodwill for Turnbull yearns.
So in Australia at least we are starting the new year in the same way we finished the old one: unprepared, indecisive, slightly scared and insecure in the fervent belief that all will be well, and if it isn’t, then something will turn up. After all, we are the lucky country: Turnbull repeatedly tells us that we are the envy of the world. But even if that is true it is hardly reassuring. Being an object of envy is not the safest place to be in a restive and increasingly unpredictable global environment.
And so we wait, with little conviction, for our glorious leader to reveal the blueprint for 2017: the challenges and the promises he has foreshadowed in his chat outside his harbourside mansion. The fear – the likelihood – is that they will be more of the same: jobs, growth, innovation and agility, the same trite slogans perhaps rejigged in a shinier spin. But we deserve better than that, and there are times when we have been offered it.
Last weekend’s release of the 1992-93 cabinet documents reminds us of what serious government could be about. In the wake of the High Court’s Mabo decision, Paul Keating embarked on a passionate, brave and determined plan to secure native title. He was opposed fiercely by many powerful forces, including some within his own government, but he never wavered in his conviction that upholding Mabo and the wider consequences that followed it was both necessary and right. And eventually, after many weeks of tortuous negotiation, he won.
Like other great reforming leaders, his career was all too brief; a couple of years later the electorate wanted someone they believed would be more relaxed and comfortable. But when Paul Keating was defeated, he died on his feet. Malcolm Turnbull is struggling to survive on his knees.