Malcolm Turnbull as next Labor Prime Minister

With the current state of Australian politics where we have two party leaders at historically low popularity ratings, it is time to think of a new approach to our future political leadership. Tony Abbott’s LNP is well ahead in the polls, but Abbott himself is even less popular than the Prime Minister. Why is that?

Basically, Abbott is outside the mainstream of Australian political thought. Historically, Australian PM’s are generally builders of consensus, not deliberately divisive characters like Abbott. Abbott also has huge weaknesses as a leader: he is an ultra=conservative Catholic with social views well to the right of even mainstream Catholics, especially when it comes to the treatment of “women’s issues”, socially progressive policies, and contentious public policy issues like immigration, the treatment of refugees, and indigenous rights. He has seemingly no ability (or wish) to build a set of policies on which he can be judged by the electorate. He is relentlessly negative, putting into practice his maxim “that he will do ANYTHING to become PM” (espoused to the independents when they were negotiating their position after the hung parliament was elected at the last election). He is breathtakingly unscrupulous as shown by his rigging of the policy costings at the last election, and then seeking to blame treasury when they were shown, by the independent umpire, to be rigged . As the highly respected political editor of the Australian Financial Review, Laura Tingle, said at the time about Abbott’s behaviour and that of his party:

“There are two possible explanations for how an opposition presenting itself as an alternative government could end up with an $11 billion hole in the cost of its election commitments. One is that they are liars, the other is that they are clunkheads. Actually, there is a third explanation: they are liars and clunkheads. But whatever the combination, they are not fit to govern.”  (AFR, 3 September, 2010)

Abbott has done nothing since to suggest he has changed his stripes. In fact, his behaviour has got even more bazaar.

In policy terms (as far as we can make them out) Abbott is probably closest to the previous Liberal PM John Howard, but Howard rarely made the mistake of being deliberately divisive, and when he did (such as his utterances about Asian immigration in the 1980?s), he did have the political insight to realise if he ever were to become PM he had to be seen to be a consensus builder rather than a divider  Although it didn’t stop Howard from occasionally “dog whistling” on race (Tampa, indigenous apology, the history wars) when he was in power, he re-invented himself (Richard Nixon like) before he was re-elected opposition leader in 1995 prior to winning the election in 1996, subsequently describing himself as “Lazarus with a triple by-pass”. Abbott shows no such self-reflection.

Abbott also has serious gaps in his policy knowledge. He says himself he is not an economist (obvious to anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of the “dismal science”) which is a major gap for a would-be PM. He also says he has no understanding of technology, which he then demonstrates when he talks so dogmatically about such policy areas the NBN network, technology induced productivity improvements, climate change science, and even in Health, an area he should know since he was Health Minister for over a year.

He would be a disaster as Prime Minister.

So why is his party so far ahead in the polls? In short: Julia Gillard. Unfortunately, she has been a huge disappointment as PM and has proven herself to not be up to the job. She is accident prone, flip-flops on policy, is unable to argue a case, is dominated by, and beholden to, Union apparatchiks who put her in the job in the first place.  She appears unable to mount the political strategy which could neutralise Abbott. Although more principled than Abbott, Gillard does not have the gravitas needed from a national leader. The electorate has clearly made up their mind about her, and if she were to stay in the job up until the next election, Labor would be left with a football team of MPs.

Those inside the Labor Party seem to think their solution is to bring back Kevin Rudd. The problem with this is that the flaws in Rudd’s personality identified leading up to his demise in mid 2010 are still there. His character flaws, his inability to get on with people, his leadership shortcomings, his excessive secrecy, his treatment of staff, his ridiculously long hours, his arrogance, are still there. His inability to deal with Abbott (nerdy Kevin to Abbott’s school yard bully) was painful to watch last time, and will be again. Like Abbott, he shows no signs of a Howard-like self-reflection that may suggest he might behave differently if given another chance. He might, just might, beat Abbott at the next election, but the limitations of his first term will still be there.

So what is the solution to this “plague on both their houses”. In two words: Malcolm Turnbull. Turnbull will never be re-elected Liberal Party leader. He is too honest, too aware of good policy development, and too principled. In short, too liberal. The Liberal Party has had a taste of bully-boy Abbott and they seem to like what they see. The intellectual wing has been sidelined, the liberals have mostly not been pre-selected, and the relentless negative campaigning, road tested by the US Republicans, is here to stay.

In these circumstances, what is in it for Turnbull to stay around? To serve under Abbott and be expected to argue populist policies in which he clearly does not believe?  I don’t think so. He is too smart, too much of a policy wonk and much too liberal to have much in common with Abbott, Hockey, the Bishops (Bronwyn and Julie), Mirabella, and Morrison, just to name a few. He is also too knowledgeable about economics and business to have to argue for Abbott’s populist economic policies.

The best solution for Australia is to install Malcolm Turnbull leader of the Labor Party. It will have a number of effects: ensure Federal Labor easily wins the next election; keeps Tony Abbott from ever becoming Prime Minister; pushes the Liberal Party more to the political centre; partially disenfranchises the backroom factional heavyweights controlled by the powerful unions in Federal Labor; and provides a much better, more sophisticated, and progressive government than we have had any time since the Hawke/Keating years.

Many in the Liberal Party will hate the idea because of course they know under these circumstances they would have no hope of obtaining government for at least another two terms (and of course they would lose Turnbull’s marginal inner city Sydney seat); many in Labor would hate it too because it will upset the planned progression of many of the machine men such as Shorten and Combet, but at the end of the day, power does tend to change people’s perspective, and this move would just about guarantee power federally for Labor for several more terms. It will also bring to the end Tony Abbott’s destructive form of confrontational politics, hopefully forever in Australia.

And that, everyone should cheer about.