Stand and deliver: Voters are angry

James Riley
Editorial Director

As he stood before the nation nine months ago, flushed with the success of his perfectly executed party room coup Malcolm Turnbull, a man who had mastered everything he turned his hand to, had finally appeared to have found the key to the one thing at which he has struggled: Politics.

In the very first days of his premiership, his nerveless knifing of a streetfighter (in the shape of Tony Abbott) was followed by rousing promises of a program of innovation in the economy, government and politics.

Mr Turnbull’s best instincts were on display as he shaped the introduction to his leadership around innovation; specifically the vast opportunities that the digital revolution roiling the global economy offers and how Australia could insert itself into a sector with which, in various ways it has struggled.

Malcolm and Bill: Eight weeks is a very long time in politics, clearly

In politics, he showed an understanding that Australians were sick of the revolving door of the Prime Minister’s office – he was the fifth holder of the office and the sixth administration in just eight years

Yet he was in a delicate position because he too had come via a coup. But people seemed prepared to buy it – at least the honeymoon polls for about three months appeared to say – so sick were they of Mr Abbott.

But it became clear very quickly that his predecessor, who took little time in breaking his promises to shut up and pull his head in, breathing life into the still beefy right wing of the Liberal Party, who opposed the more moderate, socially liberal silvertail PM.

Mr Turnbull had promised to continue with Mr Abbott’s polices as part of his faustian pact to grab the job he had been seeking for so long, blinked in the face of ongoing internal opposition and the worm began to turn.

As 2016 came around, the realities of government appeared to shrink Mr Turnbull as he came to terms with the day to day grind of government and the relentless 24-hour media cycle of the digital age. Along with the opportunities, there was nagging political toll and it became clear that his sure-footed mastery of party room numbers was not translating into an ability to execute on policies, many of which his heart was clearly not in but he had cast his own die. It was too late to turn back.

If he wasn’t regretting by the end of February not calling an election almost immediately on gaining keys to The Lodge, he most certainly would be doing so now.

As he resolutely stuck to a largely unchanged policy portfolio, flattening his natural flair, the polls began to reflect that the public felt that he was not delivering on his promises, the quickest path to political purgatory.

Bewilderingly, no one in the PMs office seemed to twig to this central fact before the PM set an unstoppable ball rolling.

After months bumping along the middle, in May Mr Turnbull suddenly appeared to have regained his mojo with his snap decision to recall parliament and have it reject anti-union legislation, handing him the trigger for double dissolution.

Supporters once more praised his return as man of strong and decisive leadership. Yet as soon as Mr Turnbull pulled the double dissolution trigger inexorably setting the stage for an election 10 weeks ahead – a very long time in politics given he wasn’t managing the 24-hour media cycle.

And before the week was over this flash of the old Malcolm was looking very much like just that: A flash. It was to prove a massive miscalculation from both the PM, his office and the Liberal Party’s organisational apparatus.

Two weeks later, the concomitant howler of a beginner’s error: opting for an extremely long eight-week campaign should have been nipped in the bud by anyone who had remembered Bob Hawke’s similar move in 1986.

In the same way that  campaign served to humanise and legitimise the show pony Andrew Peacock, Mr Turnbull handed that opporunity to the until-then hapless Bill Shorten who, as we now know, seized the chance.

Part two of that beginner’s error was that Turnbull and Team Liberal made the age old error of underestimating their opponent, just as Paul Keating had done, fatally, in 1996 of John Howard. In turn Howard underestimated Kim Beazley in 1998 and hung on by a whisker, despite losing the popular vote.

Mr Turnbull had eight weeks to turn things around, but it’s much harder to convince voters to believe in you when you have already dashed many of their hopes.

There were two paths to take. One was to return to the promise of the new, of innovation for both Australia and its politics, the same message delivered in those heady hours and weeks after his elevation to the top job. The alternative was to run more or less dead on incumbency and the promise of “stability” of a platform largely shaped by Tony Abbott.

In other words very much politics as usual.

Politics as usual, when polls are a statistical dead heat, inevitably entail a shift to negativity and Labor and Bill Shorten were happy to join in the politics of sniping, carping and unchecked, outrageous accusations. This was never going to end well.

Mr Turnbull’s message of hope in the future remained in his regular stump piece, but he never quite got around to moving very far from the promise of the future, the detail and programs lacked the necessary heft and funding was almost token.

And both his innovation ministers Christopher Pyne and Wyatt Roy had genuine battles to save their own seats, and Mr Pyne, one of Cabinet’s genuine cut-throat performers, was increasingly needed on the frontline.

In any case, the voters had stopped listening or believing by the time mouthing the “three word slogans” typified by “stop the boats”. At the same, time the fatal singular flaw in the Turnbull Government’s innovation strategy, his very own handcrafted, expensive flop of a National Broadband Network Mark II had come into play.

As the weeks wore on, it became clear that foisting an eight-week election campaign on the electorate was good for nobody in the country, apart from perhaps Bill Shorten.

For too long Australia politics has been a cosy duopoly, mirroring the myriad, comfy duopolies in corporate Australian business, such as Coles and Woollies, Telstra and Optus television’ stations Nine and Seven.

As the digital world begins to fracture those sectors, Australian politics is also fracturing, stuck in a time warp of its own design.

Malcolm Turnbull promised us something new; and he failed to deliver.

The voters have spoken, it’s a pox on both their houses. Whatever happens next, politics as usual is certainly not an option available to the compromised “winner”.

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

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