Some Implications of Changing Leaders

Turnbull to Win Election?

Many who support the Coalition but have serious doubts about Turnbull becoming PM have nonetheless accepted his appointment  because they believe he should defeat Labor at the next election whereas the belief was that Abbott had reached the point where he could not. On the surface that certainly appears to be the case, although the latest opinion poll of an improved 51/49 TPP taken after Turnbull’s appointment still suggests a close call if  an early election (which some  suggest) were to be held. Similarly, the Liberal win in the Canning by-election with a swing of “only” 6-7% to Labor does not suggest a Turnbull “bounce” (a 5% swing against the party holding the seat is “normal” in a by-election).  Liberal MP Cory Bernardi claimed on the Bolt Report that the swing is similar to internal polling before Abbott was challenged. One other welcome aspect of the result was the apparent failure of the unions to make any significant impact. This suggests that Abbott made a good decision in appointing Heydon as a Royal Commissioner to investigate union corruption and which has exposed their excessive power. But will the new Minister (see below) have the capacity to develop policies to reform the existing regulatory arrangements which are limiting the growth in employment and, in some cases, productivity too?

In short, early polling makes any early election most unlikely. A substantive lift in polling for the Coalition will require Turnbull to display genuine support for traditional liberal policies and not repeat his many mistakes when leader of the Opposition. Indeed, this is  needed if he is to maintain support within a Coalition which (including National party members) probably has a majority that is already sceptical and which includes members resenting those who initiated the Turnbull challenge.

Accordingly, Turnbull faces tests both within the Coalition and the wider community as to whether he supports traditional small government policies – or as he claims is needed, “advocates” them rather than simply relying on “slogans”, as he wrongly accused Abbott of doing. Abbott’s “stop the boats” slogan was most effective and was backed by policies to achieve it: while not fully comparable, compare with the current European situation. That aside, as communications minister Turnbull made no substantive “advocacies” in regard to the ABC – I don’t think the Q&A move has even occurred yet (might it be cancelled now that the appointment of Turnbull  was cheered when announced by Tony Jones?).

Relevant in this context is last Thursday’s question time during which Turnbull expressed support for the Abbott government’s past decisions. He left himself some ice to slide on by adding that “every policy of any rational, constructive government is always under review… our Cabinet will examine the challenges that we face, the policies that we have (and) we’ll develop new policies”. That is a perfectly sensible statement – but the test will be whether the advocacy/implementation of any “new” policies, such as on budget spending, workplace relations, a republic etc are Liberal or Turnbull. On climate change, for example, what will Turnbull say in Paris if he attends (almost certain) and is asked to sign up to a  policy that differs from the existing one. The “advocacy” of policies as a leader of the Opposition has different implications than their advocacy as a Prime Minister.

The appointment of new and the dismissal of some existing Cabinet ministers indicates he  already has a “new” policy on women to the one he adopted as communications minister, when he appointed only one woman to a board compared with his increased appointments to Cabinet from 2 to 4.  His “dismissal” of Andrews and Abetz reduces the views of “conservatives” in Cabinet and their little known replacements – Senators Marise Payne and Michaella Cash respectively – are unlikely to have reformist policies on their agendas. Ministers Hockey and MacFarlane will also go to the back bench although rumour has it that Hockey may receive a diplomatic appointment.

Turnbull also faces the potential media usage of the timeline document tracing the associations Turnbull  has had with the Labor Party, and the numerous criticisms he has made of Liberal Party policies and leaders. As Bolt noted today, this included a $25,000 electoral donation to the Labor Party.

Our Political System

Australia now runs second to Greece for the number of new leaders in the last 5 years. And the rapidity with which actual and potential leaders of parties are changing both  here and overseas suggests  a further period of changes because of the widespread electoral dissatisfaction with the operation of political systems. Depending on polling, which is playing an increased role, it cannot be ruled out that the Liberal Party might effect a further change before the next election. Alternatively, as Labor has done here and in the UK it might change the method of election to PM to give party members a vote. Comments on the Corby election in the UK, which does not look like a good result from a democratic viewpoint,  suggest that a Labor government under Corby cannot be ruled out.

I favour the current system by which party leaders are elected by members of the Parliamentary party. If some policies are being determined outside Parliament by a representative elected by the people, as in the US presidential system, there is likely to be confusion and uncertainty about government policies and an increase in the power of one man. Our system is much better than the US’s, where that one man (Obama) has exercised almost unchallengeable power for 4 years to determine defence policy, to use the executive power to strongly influence other “policies” such as regulations imposed by departments, most noticeably environmental policies in the US, and to not be open to debate in Parliament (or in the US case in Congress).

This is also relevant to the idea, which Turnbull supports, that Australia should have a republic, one version of which would be an elected representative head. Even if such a representative played only an “advisory” role, our constitutional monarchy is much superior. But Turnbull will be tempted to re-start the republic debate.

Australia has a PM who has been elected partly because he appears to be able to better handle Parliament than his predecessor but who has already had one go and failed dismally. His record as outlined in the paper  which I have circulated suggests he should not have been elected as leader of the Liberal Party. But that does not suggest the present system of election of PMs is wrong: he would have been elected by party members too.  The test will be whether Turnbull can apply the kind of policies which the majority of the party supported under Abbott but which Abbott was unable to deliver. Turnbull might succeed in defeating Shorten not because he applies “good” policies but because they are much better than Shorten’s. But would the Liberal Party hold together with the kind of policies Turnbull espoused in the past?

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