Prior to the election, Crikey postulated that one of the most important reasons why Malcolm Turnbull would fall over the line was that voters were ready to give him a final chance. Despite their disappointment, they hoped once he was elected in his own right, he would emerge as the Old Malcolm of beloved memory, the leather-jacketed Turnbull who genially displayed his centrist views and good sense in glaring contrast to the hard-right ideologue Abbott. The Abbott coterie and far right would be put in their box, and Australia would, for the first time in nearly a decade, have a Prime Minister in touch with the electorate but capable of giving us the leadership we craved. Even Labor voters hoped that, in Turnbull, we’d finally have a real leader.
There was much wrong with that idea — Turnbull was never going to be able to live up to all those expectations, the far right was never going to fully knuckle under — and as it turned out the margin of victory, one lousy seat, was so thin as to undermine, not enhance, his leadership authority. The greatest problem, though, was the inherently implausible idea that a government that had started off poorly was going to dramatically improve, especially when the personnel were more or less the same.
Take George Brandis, for example. The Attorney-General has the reverse-Midas touch, with a long list of stuff-ups in government — 18C, data retention, the Man Haron Monis letter, the Triggs job offer, the threat to prosecute Witness K and Bernard Collaery, the attempt to control the Commonwealth solicitor-general. He was stripped of responsibility for counter-terrorism by Tony Abbott and then stripped of the arts portfolio by Turnbull ,but remained in his main job — and not unexpectedly the bungling has continued with the NT juvenile detention royal commission. Turnbull was right to move quickly, but should have taken into consideration Brandis’ terrible record. The failure to engage with indigenous community leaders or appoint an additional commissioner was a bad, but from Brandis, unsurprising, error; Brian Martin might have weathered claims of a conflict of interest, but criticisms from indigenous leaders made his position far worse in the absence of an appointment of another commissioner. Like Nigel Scullion, the NT indigenous affairs minister who hadn’t even bothered watching 4 Corners or expressed an interest in juvenile detention issues, Brandis let his Prime Minister down. It took Martin to display the kind of judgment Dyson Heydon so manifestly lacked, and step down to avoid undermining his own royal commission.
Then there’s the problem of Treasurer Scott Morrison, whose election campaign contributions are probably best forgotten. Morrison’s main efforts since the election have been attending G20 engagements overseas and commendably trying to hold the line against internal critics of the government’s planned superannuation tax changes. But today he broke cover to seemingly prematurely endorse a Reserve Bank cut at today’s meeting. It’s not exactly the gravest of sins, but nearly all Treasurers try to avoid any commentary on how the RBA sets interest rates, particularly on the eve of a meeting. It won’t do anything to assuage concerns that Morrison isn’t exactly growing into the most crucial role after that of PM, at a time when economic liberalism is under attack from left and right.
The greatest continuity, however, is that of the Prime Minister himself. His handling of the (entirely correct) decision not to nominate Kevin Rudd for the UN Secretary-Generalship has left him looking vulnerable to the right and as though he failed to support his foreign minister. For many months now, Turnbull seems to have struggled to keep his political footing. Both his internal enemies and Labor have given him no respite to balance himself and then take the initiative; instead, he’s had to react time and again rather than set the agenda. And his one big ploy to regain the initiative — calling a double dissolution election with new Senate voting rules — came a cropper both in cleaning out the Senate and in returning him with the smallest possible majority. Labor, in particular, has refused to sit back and let Turnbull gather momentum.
And then there’s Turnbull’s peculiar decision not to recall parliament until the end of the month. For a Prime Minister regularly accused of dithering, it’s an odd look for the long absence of parliament to continue for more than a quarter of the year, and suggests the absence of an actual agenda. But parliamentary sittings give a government greater control over the political agenda via legislation and greater physical capacity to control its message. Instead, we got several more weeks of political vacuum that will be filled by external events and opponents determined to make Turnbull’s life miserable.