With reports of sensitive documents being leaked and rumours of numbers being counted, some commentators have started to liken former Liberal leader and prime minister Tony Abbott to Labor’s Kevin Rudd after he, too, was denied the leadership by his colleagues. While the bitterness that each has clearly felt over the way they were treated, the similarities stop there. The more Rudd-like character in the Liberal party is actually the current leader, Malcolm Turnbull.
The most outward manifestations of Turnbull’s Rudd-like characteristics are to be found in the rather odd way the current prime minister approaches the policy debate and a lingering sense that the leader, in demonstrating that he knows better than anyone else, flaunts political conventions and, in so doing, gets his team in to trouble.
The Ruddesque approach that Turnbull has taken to the policy debate includes his exhortation to optimism on the basis of modernism where his government promises to preside over a renaissance in technology and innovation. This policy exists mainly in the form of rhetoric and public relations, for few actual financial resources have been allocated to any new research and development program. Though lacking the quintessentially Labor practice of having a summit to bring all the stakeholders together, Turnbull’s signature policy is as lacking in substance as Rudd’s 20/20 Vision Summit.
Also like Rudd, Turnbull has demonstrated that he has no feel for electoral politics. With his government eddying over matters like tax reform, as one minister after another resigning amidst scandal and as forces loyal to Tony Abbott continue to leak against him, the prime minister is watching his impressive opinion poll lead over Labor before his eyes. Here Turnbull is suffering from the same malaise that Rudd suffered as a result of his inability to have the conviction to go to an early election.
To make matters worse, Turnbull has also allowed his political opponents to grab control of the electoral reform agenda apropos the electoral arrangements for the Senate. Turnbull is proposing to allow for optional preferential voting for the Senate – the very same policy Labor has instituted for upper house elections in the states where proportional representation is used. One consequence of this will be the prospect that the Coalition will find it very difficult to ever win an upper house majority in the future. Either Mr Turnbull is extremely magnanimous towards his political opponents, or he and his adviser don’t quite understand how the electoral system works.
Turnbull looks like he may be expending a lot of political capital to get this reform up. Presumably to only reason why the government would do this would be to try an impact on the configuration of the Senate, and this would require a double dissolution election. Yet, once again, there is a strong sense of Turnbull retreating from the early election option.
Frankly, Turnbull should have gone to the electorate almost as soon as he became leader in a bid to exploit the bounce in the opinion polls, to establish a mandate for himself and his government, and to do something about the Senate. Rather like Mr Rudd, however, Turnbull demurred on the early election option and keeps on prevaricating. With each delay the fault-lines in his government become all the more apparent and the opposition becomes more and more emboldened.
History records that Kevin Rudd did not call a double dissolution back when the Senate defeated his emissions trading policy and the Liberal party went in to melt-down when it moved to replace Turnbull with Abbott. With his opponents in disarray and with the opinion polls showing strong support for Labor and its policy, Rudd would have won that election. Instead of the early election, however, Rudd demurred and in a short space of time he lost the Labor leadership to Julia Gillard.
Malcolm Turnbull is at a very similar point in his leadership. As he prevaricates, the advantages of going early dissipates. Like Rudd, he lacks the courage to go to the voters early. He may yet suffer a similar fate.