Malcolm Turnbull

This was originally published on August 18, 2016.

If it wasn’t for the protesters who interrupted the Prime Minister’s address to the Committee for Economic Development of Australia (CEDA) yesterday, we might never have known the event occurred or that Malcolm Turnbull had given his first speech since the election.

The address should have been a big deal, setting the tone for the economic debate that will dominate the federal Parliament when it returns in a couple of weeks’ time. But no, the speech dropped like a stone into a dark pool, barely leaving a ripple and likely never to be seen again. It was mentioned only in media reports about the protest.

The non-event bears testament, yet again, to the lack of political nous being exercised in Malcolm Turnbull’s office. A deficit that, if not arrested, will lead to the PM’s certain downfall.

Political acuity is not something that can be judged during fair-weather times. It’s only when the going gets tough that we see a politician’s true measure. John Howard managed to extricate himself from some particularly tricky situations (travel rorts, children overboard), whereas Kevin Rudd (emissions trading), Julia Gillard (carbon tax) and Tony Abbott (2014 budget) were less adept at doing so.

It’s still less than a year since Malcolm Turnbull replaced Tony Abbott as PM, but this has been more than enough time for us to conclude that Turnbull doesn’t seem to have the knack either. In fact, Turnbull has proven to be less “agile” than his three predecessors combined.

Turnbull may believe that floating (and then shooting down) various thought bubbles is the way to conduct an “adult” conversation with the Australian community about options for economic repair. But voters did not respond at the election as if they felt they’d been respected by the PM with this approach.

And since polling day, we’ve had the NT royal commission bungle in the wake of the Don Dale scandal, the census fiasco and the leak of the Nauru files, all while Tony Abbott and his meagre fan club continue to run interference.

The sense of an ongoing omnishambles is exacerbating voter anxiety; not only do we not know what the Turnbull government stands for, we’re suspect it might not even be up to the task.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to work out that, in order to survive, Turnbull needs to take hold of the political agenda that is currently being shaped by Labor and make it his own.

However, this won’t be achieved by giving a ho-hum address to a bunch of corporates in Melbourne, instead of delivering an agenda-setting treatise to the media at the National Press Club in Canberra.

Opposition Leader Bill Shorten is awake to this reality and is booked in to address the NPC on 24 August, which is the week before Parliament resumes. As a result, Labor will continue to dominate political reporting and voters’ resulting perceptions of the government’s capability.

This is not good news for Malcolm Turnbull. Can he arrest what increasingly appears to be a terminal decline to fend off the seemingly inevitable tap on the shoulder towards the end of this year?

In theory, yes, but any improvement in Turnbull’s stakes depends on him getting better political advice than that which he’s currently receiving.

The PM would also need to sharpen the way he communicates his vision, and become proficient in delivering a series of vignettes that illustrate, in plain English, how that vision will deliver in material terms for everyday Australians.

He would need to go on a charm offensive, doing sit-down interviews with every journalist who matters, and tailoring the tangible deliverables of his vision to suit the interests of each journalist’s readership/viewers/listeners.

Each key debate in the Parliament should be preceded by a keynote address in the weeks leading up to the debate, delivered to the NPC or another relevant audience, to set the tone of the debate and establish the stakes for Labor if they use Abbott-like tactics.

The PM should also make it a priority to get some early legislative wins on the board — it doesn’t really matter on what — to build capital for when the Senate starts to flex its obstructionist muscles.

Once the PM and the government are seen by voters to be doing something, and seemingly know what they’re doing, voters will start to feel more confident in the government.

And as long as that confidence is reflected in the opinion polls, Malcolm Turnbull should be reasonably safe from the Abbott forces.