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Mar 4, 2016

The Abbott legacy: Turnbull heads for the worst of both worlds

The toxic legacy of Tony Abbott's approach to politics is undermining his successor -- even as the man himself directly attacks Malcolm Turnbull.


The political chattering class owes the people of Australian an apology. Nearly all of us, to a woman, were badly off-beam about the transformation of Australian politics last September.

We too were overcome with a sense of relief that the chaos and debacle of the Abbott era was over. Not that it didn’t give us a constant stream of copy. Nothing to write? Just wait five minutes and an Abbott minister, usually a senior one, would stuff up, or Abbott would say something outrageously dumb in front of 40 flags that topped his previous efforts, or there’d be a leak.

But beneath it all, there was a terrible sinking feeling that this was bad for the country, that we couldn’t continue like this.

Enter Malcolm Turnbull. Turnbull the adult, Turnbull the brilliant communicator, a changed Turnbull who had learnt his lessons from 2009 and would now lead a rational, mature, consultative government. He promised to give us a genuinely Liberal government, in contrast to the reactionary rabble he had just ousted, and he promised reform via an intelligent conversation with the electorate. The years of destructive, negative politics from Abbott, the years of internecine squabbling from Labor, were at long last over.

For a while it seemed to work. Turnbull was charming and, yes, Prime Ministerial. He refused to rule out reform options, insisting he was going to change politics by refusing to play those sort of petty games. He brought Martin Parkinson back to run PM&C and put his former departmental secretary into the role of chief of staff. A productive partnership between the public service and the government, rather than the attitude of unbridled loathing and oppression which existed under Abbott, seemed possible.

Then it went wrong. Turnbull’s government is adrift, there’s open warfare within it, and the only decent policy on tax is coming from Labor. It now appears the much-vaunted tax reform package will be barely worth the term “minimalist”, with almost every worthwhile tax reform now ruled out because of backbench pressure, the desire to run an uncluttered scare campaign or, most bizarrely of all, because — according to the Financial Review — superannuation is too complex. We’re not even going to get the relatively small but worthwhile efficiency gains of removing the current, dumb exemptions to the GST.

What we missed in the relief rally that accompanied Turnbull’s ascension was that merely because there was a new prime minister, that didn’t mean the underlying causes that drove Australian politics into the ground in the first place had vanished. They were still there, and still capable of damaging politics and policy.

Thus, Labor, which had suffered at the hands of Tony Abbott’s relentless negativity, was never going to give Turnbull and his statesmanlike call for mature debate a free pass. It mounted a scare campaign on the GST, one that never reached Abbottesque proportions — no cities were going to be wiped out, there were no python strikes and cobra squeezes (or was it the other way around) — but enough to so rattle the Coalition backbench that the government came under serious pressure to leave the GST alone. However, Labor partly made up for its sins by doing something Abbott never did — putting forward sensible, coherent but politically risky reform proposals itself.

But the Abbott approach to policy lingers on the Coalition backbench. That approach was characterised by politics first, help for favoured sectors next, and good policy — including dealing with the budget deficit — only after those options had been exhausted. There’s a clear aversion to any significant tax reform on the backbench, and no interest in addressing the fiscal challenge of getting the budget back to surplus — only in what tax cuts can be waved at voters to secure an election win. This was neatly symbolised by Tony Abbott this week standing up in the joint party room and, with a straight face, demanding the government cut spending and cut taxes. Under Abbott, taxes rose from 21.5% of GDP under Labor to 22.3% when he was ousted, and spending rose by a whopping 1.8 percentage points of GDP to 25.9% of GDP.

Indeed, incoming Treasurer Scott Morrison revealed spending had actually reached 26.2% of GDP in the early months of this financial year. Shorter Abbott: do as I say, not as I did.

But Abbott was always entirely uninterested in consistency, or logic, or evidence — the po-mo prime minister whose casual approach to the facts made him a dab hand at tearing things down but entirely incapable of doing the job of prime minister, which involves leading and building.

That aversion to reality in favour of whatever is convenient at the time wasn’t confined to Abbott. It infected his colleagues, indeed the entire party. It’s why Joe Hockey proved even worse as treasurer than many had expected. But it has also affected Scott Morrison, a man who has only been in politics since 2007 and whose shadow ministerial and ministerial experiences were almost entirely under Abbott. Yesterday’s debacle over the BIS Shrapnel report was beyond any gaffe Joe Hockey ever made as treasurer, and comes not long after a performance at key policy set-piece at the National Press Club that caused even the government’s media allies to savage him.

Morrison is yet to demonstrate any capacity to fulfill the basic political role of Treasurer — effectively arguing the government’s economic narrative and destroying the opposition’s economic narrative. But then, given his political experience, why would he have that capacity? His time as immigration minister was devoted to preventing any scrutiny of the government’s asylum seeker policies through the spurious invocation of national security, and in any event Labor was in hiding in that portfolio (and has one of its worst-performing shadow ministers, Richard Marles, in the portfolio). When Morrison was exposed to scrutiny, such as when Reza Barati was murdered, he bungled badly (who can forget Morrison insisting Barati had caused his own death by escaping?).

Like Abbott and Hockey, Morrison has never had to develop the skill of coherently arguing for a positive policy. Now that he needs to do it, he can’t.

That Abbott remains on the backbench emboldens Turnbull’s opponents, and he himself is clearly embarked on a campaign to destroy the man who replaced him. But even if Abbott had left politics after his ouster, the toxic legacy of his approach as Liberal leader remains and will continue to undermine the capacity of this government to govern rationally. At least while the Gillard government descended into a self-indulgent rabble it continued to produce policies like Gonski, health funding reform and an effective emissions trading scheme. This government has all the policy-aversion of Abbott and now has its own version of the Rudd-Gillard disaster.



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35 thoughts on “The Abbott legacy: Turnbull heads for the worst of both worlds

  1. Chris Meddows-Taylo

    A brilliant piece of journalism at its very best. Congratulations!

  2. browser

    Just waiting for Norman to say this is just a comment from the Crikey commentariat without a single argument justifying his position. Great article. I guess Norman is still at his kindergarden reunion.

  3. MJM

    Great article.

    [Turnbull] “would now lead a rational, mature, consultative government.” Trouble for him was that he inherited the same old ministry that Abbott had had and, to make matters worse, he was now beholden to many of them for making him PM.

    Then there is the “backbench pressure” coming from those who become skittish at the mere asking of a difficult question or a question that could have several answers.

    “They were still there, and still capable of damaging politics and policy.” Indeed they are.

  4. graybul

    Bernard, If we were to take all the above as a given, what then is required for Australia to avoid the possible inevitable, continuing decline under major Parties rule a la the American electorate’s despair/discontent with their political representation?

    Has the free world’s system of democracy now evolved beyond original structure/values to the point where fair and open representational access is no longer a reality? Have Political Elites successfully ‘gamed’ both system and access to system so that past broad social representation is no longer possible?

  5. James O'Neill

    One is continually reminded of the quote from The Lucky Country, that Australia is a lucky country run by third rate politicians who share its luck. After a series of bad policy (or non-policy) choices, it seems that even the luck is beginning to run out.

  6. Saugoof

    If it helps, I read all of Norman’s comments in Comic Book Guy of the Simpsons voice. “Worst. Article Ever!”

    This recent undermining/sniping saga from Abbott does remind me of an Anthony Albanese quote about the man though, “There is no occasion to big to demonstrate what a small man he is”

  7. JMNO

    Julia Gillard’s inability to sell her government’s programs to the media (and they didn’t bother to look very hard) plus Abbott’s successful negative campaigning (also not looked at very hard by the media) meant that the fissures in the Liberal Party have been hidden until now. I am not sure they are fixable, even by Turnbull winning an election decisively (if he does).

  8. Jaybuoy

    iL-Gelitino is about to do to the LNP what Trumpolini is doing to the GOP..How sweet it is.. “Lucky Bill” is on a roll..ALP $5.50 @ centrebet LNP $1.15.. for party that provides PM.. I reckon I’ll be having some of that..

  9. Iskandar

    James O’Neill @5: Donald Horne was slightly more generous to politicians than to call them third “rate”. His actual phrase was “Australia is a lucky country run mainly by second rate people who share its luck”. He wrote “Lucky Country” in 1964, and was disgusted how the phrase was high-jacked and mis-used in wrong context in the years that followed. In 1976 he wrote his follow-up “Death of the Lucky Country” after the Kerr-Fraser putsch. By now however I would agree that “third rate” is appropriate, even “bottom of the barrel”.

  10. James O'Neill

    Iskander@9. I stand corrected. I do however, respectfully adopt your final sentence.

  11. christine gibson

    excellent summary.

  12. Dog's Breakfast

    “It mounted a scare campaign on the GST”

    Yeah, sort of BK, but in Labor’s defence their ‘scare’ campaign was that it would hit the poorest sections of the community and not touch the big end of town (true) and that it would have no effect on the GDP/economic growth (true)

    There is a qualitative difference between that and Malcolm’s recent efforts saying the eliminating negative gearing and capital gains tax rorts will ‘smash’ house prices (complete and utter malarkey)

    Otherwise I can’t argue with this piece. Turnbull has a hell of a job ahead given that he is now sailing against the wind and tide.

  13. AR

    That was very well put and extreme in its moderation.
    I stand amazed that we have found ourselves, as a country, for motives often base, to be doing so badly with so much.
    Graybul, alas yes.

  14. zut alors

    Labor should condense those figures into a simplified catch phrase & repeat them often ie: under the LNP taxes rose almost 1%, spending increased by over 2%. And mention the independent source of the figures.

    For too long Labor has copped the accusation they are reckless spenders. It’s time for the facts.

  15. bushby jane

    I have been really annoyed with the political chattering class being so supportive of Turnbull, as I always disagreed with you all. In fact I think that you have installed his high approval rating just about single handedly. It still amazes me that polls reckon that the LNP are the better economic managers, Swan I thought did a good job.

  16. Venise Alstergren

    GRAYBUL: I’m afraid I agree with you.

    Of course Abbott had to go but I fail to see why so many people thought Turnbull would be any better. However, why should a PM be a great communicator and so-called nice guy? I don’t recall Paul Keating having these two labels leveled at him.

    Paul, where are you when you are most needed by your country?

  17. Venise Alstergren

    BK: An excellent article, thank you.

    The Libs are in terminal decline; led by Malcolm Turnbull. The great wall of China wasn’t built by using a deck of soggy cards.

  18. Bob the builder

    Bernard, you might have thought Turnbull was good, but I, and many others, were under no illusions. If anything I thought he’d be worse, because he’d provide a ‘sensible’ veneer to continue the same economic policies. Thankfully, though, he appears to be failing.

  19. tonyfunnywalker

    An excellent review of what has become a disaster for government and democracy in Australia – a position that Australia may not recover from for decades. The economic and societal damage created by Abbott is astonishing – where the basic tenents of Australia – fairness, benevolence and an egalitarian society is in ruin. Abbott killed the Australian dream in one fell swoop at the 2014 Budget which was not a budget at all but one of social engineering by impoverishing the already impoverished to enrich the already enriched in our society. It was blatant and cruel with the core attributes of our human capital defunded at rates never imagined when the electorate went to the pools in 2013. Abbott’s adoption of the IPA agenda — the Commission of Audit which was the document on which this henous budget was based comprised of a bevy of ideological misfits and where Abbott’s own advisor Maurice Newman was the biggest misfit of all. Turnbull promised to change of this– and with the exception of sacking Newman nothing else changed. Turnbull became the new champion of the IPA – pleasant face and soft spoken to better sell the poisoned chalice (confirmed by Abbott in the Party Meeting and Chris Berg in Fairfax). The promised relaxed period post Abbott has turned into an inferno that will escalate to make Rudd’s white anting look like a tea party. Gillard handled Rudd and got on with the job of governing ( most legislation passed even though there was a hung parliament ) whereas Turnbull is in gridlock — the lightest hint of upsetting the back bench its ” off the table”. Turnbull has ceased to govern — he has no authority over anything — is floundering as he did in 2009 — is susceptable to clutching at straws as he did with Godwin Grech and is (not) supported by a Treasurer who is worse than Hockey ( never thought possible) – a dysfunctional front bench ( Turnbull’s judgement has been woeful both with his choice of Minister’s ) and their lack of ” Innovation and Nimble Policy Development– in one word “pathetic” – a moribund rabble while the ” rats are still leaving the sinking ship” as electoral defeat is nigh. Roll on.

  20. Venise Alstergren

    TONYFUNNYWALKER: Godwin Grech ended up in a sad place. I can only hope Tony Abbott ends up in the same one.

  21. Draco Houston

    Excellent, journalists have caught up to September 2015’s news.

  22. Justin Harding

    I reckon it’s pretty straightforward. The Turngobble shackled himself to all of Tone the Toole’s vilest policies just for the prize. He may have been deluded and narcissistic enough to believe that merely lending the light of his countenance would somehow convince the punter that a gold-plated turd served by a liveried waiter was somehow superior to a turd au naturel served by a dickhead busboy in a dirty jacket. But it ain’t. He has walked away from every position of principle he once held – most particularly climate change and marriage equality. He has squibbed on tax reform, and offers nothing but platitudes on indigenous health. The man in a poor politician, the latest in a succession of failed prime ministers. But for all their faults, Rudd and Gillard made concrete achievements: the apology to the stolen generation, keeping Australia out of the global recession, carbon pricing and national disability insurance. Abbott destroyed carbon pricing and the mining super-profits tax, so contributing enormously to the deficit and the national debt. Nor did he stop the boats. Rudd’s ghastly, last gasp lurch to the right did that. And The Turngobble … ??? Zip, zilch and fuck-all. You reckon Shorten PM is an impossibility? Think on the late David Lange. He was elected as Prime Minister of New Zealand in 1984 with an approval rating less than 20 per cent. And never confuse our system with that of an executive presidency, the worst examples of which are the United States and the Russian Federation. In our “Washminster Mutation”, we have flexibility and the means to resolve deadlocks, as well as executive power being dependant on a limited degree of legislative authority in the lower chamber. It is far from perfect, but vastly superior to a system where the separate election for the President from the Congress makes gridlock more likely. And based on the last three decades, that seems to be pretty much the norm in the US. All of that is a roundabout way of saying individuals matter far less in a parliamentary system, and if of nothing else, Tone the Toole is a shining example of that.

  23. Graham R

    The most important Minister in a government is its Treasurer. Personally I think that Morrison will do far more harm to Turnbull than will Abbott.

    Like Hockey, I don’t think he has a clue.

  24. klewso

    It takes ‘special’ sort of person to think they could make silk purses out of Abbott’s pigs ears – and not end up in the swill?

  25. Duncan Gilbey

    I’m surprised that you find all this surprising, Bernard.

    Turnbull became PM on a majority of 54/44; hardly a ringing endorsement. A large section of the Liberal Party detest him, and if six of them change their mind, he’s toast.

    I assume your first few paras about the Sun shining a different colour on Turnbull’s ascension were intended as irony?

  26. sang froid

    Excellent Bernard. I, for one, now understand that the coalition backbench (esp Abbott) will never do what the country needs. As much as I detest Shorten and his union thugs, I cannot justify supporting the Libs much longer. The Greens, after Senate reform, will be the only winners

  27. Sense Seeker

    All good and agreed, but the GST exemptions are there for good reasons. Fresh food should not be taxed, and junk food should be expensive, to help people make healthy choices. And education is never wasted, whatever pundits and Sunday Mail readers may think of the social sciences and arts.

  28. drsmithy

    Bernard, If we were to take all the above as a given, what then is required for Australia to avoid the possible inevitable, continuing decline under major Parties rule a la the American electorate’s despair/discontent with their political representation?

    The ca. 2/3 of the population who only ever vote for their team, regardless of policy, to vote for someone else.

    FFS, it’s not like there isn’t a plethora of options out there.

    Has the free world’s system of democracy now evolved beyond original structure/values to the point where fair and open representational access is no longer a reality? Have Political Elites successfully ‘gamed’ both system and access to system so that past broad social representation is no longer possible?

    Our system never allowed for that. There are some that do (eg: Switzerland), but ours is not one – we have always been at the mercy of the political classes.

  29. CML

    Well said, Bernard!
    Like Duncan@24…”I’m surprised that you find all this surprising…”.
    It was always a disaster waiting to happen…except the MSM (and others) desperately wanted it to be different.
    And still people are bashing Bill Shorten and the Labor party, the only major party NOT involved in dirty deals…and the only party to have announced a large number of good policies.
    The ‘union thugs’ thing is just Liberal propaganda from the TURC. I am really surprised that people still believe that rubbish!!

  30. Xoanon

    I think the basic problem is that we have a system entirely geared to serving the neo-liberal consensus on market supremacy, privatisation etc, but the people have now seen through it and are deeply unhappy with it. Most want to live in a society, not a market.

    However, both major parties are wedded to the consensus and to serving the corporate and rich, particularly so on the Liberals’ side. So it’s become almost impossible for them to change tax rules, for example, in a way that impacts vested interests.

    One way of overcoming this would be to significantly tighten political donation laws in order to free parties of undue influence. Why they don’t embrace this themselves, I have no idea. They’d have less money for campaigns, but so much more freedom of movement.

  31. MJM

    @Xoanon – “Most want to live in a society, not a market.” I agree with you. And I think the late UK PM, Margaret Thatcher, has a lot to answer for with her statement that “there is no such thing as society”.

    The neocons seized on that statement and have been whittling away at anything that might support any idea that there is such a thing as society and that the market is somehow all-wise and determines what is valuable to people and what is not. The market sees only money.

    Personally I still do not know how MBT was able to get away without having to make any explanation about his wealth – $200 million being cared for in the Caymans was all were given. And the msm rolled over and let him tickle its collective tummy.

  32. rhwombat

    klewso@#23 & MJM@#30:
    So Lord Velveteen Ballcup is making a sow’s ear out of a silk purse?

  33. Charlie Chaplin

    Superannuation is too complex? Granted ordinary people’s minds boggle at the extraordinary amounts of money funding the lifestyles of the rich and infamous -would the cash fit in a fridge box, or would you need to build it a room of it’s own, or a house? – but most of us easily grasp 49 – 15 = 34.

  34. Strong UnionsStrongCountry

    Abbott will continue to undermine the Liberal Govt lead by Turnbull. He sees this as the way to return to the PM’ship.

    The issue is that it will first see the Liberals lose the election, and it is Abbott’s hope that this will provide the path back to PM

  35. colin skene

    A brilliant article, Bernard. No wonder I keep subscribing to Crikey. Stay strong and keep telling us how it really is.

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