Examining Life Under Prime Minister Turnbull

For a long time, Malcolm Turnbull has been seen as the people's preferred PM. But is he going to live up to our expectations?

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14 September 2015, 11:44pm

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No one could fault Australia for our skills at switching leaders, we can basically do it in under a day now. Yesterday we woke up with Prime Minister Tony Abbott. Today we wake up to Prime Minister-designate Malcolm Turnbull. Who knows who it'll be tomorrow! Scott Morrison? Peter Dutton? A bag of dirt with a face drawn on it.

The decline of Tony Abbott was a thing to behold. It was aggressive, wilfully determined and, ultimately, inevitable. The biggest thing Abbott had going for him was that he swept into office based on Labor ousting their own leader in the first term... twice. After years of mocking Labor's crippling ineptitude—something Abbott continued to do as late as yesterday in his final Parliament Question Time as PM—the Libs wouldn't dare do the same thing. But that's how bad things had become.

Turnbull has long been considered something of a progressive due to his stance on both gay marriage and climate change, in the sense that he believes in both.

Turnbull informed Abbott of his intentions yesterday afternoon, and by 9.30PM the party room had switched leaders. Now, as the country catches its breath, we're left to guess what a Malcolm Turnbull Prime Ministership will look like. Turnbull has long been considered something of a progressive due to his stance on both gay marriage and climate change, in the sense that he believes in both.

But we're unlikely to see an immediate change in the government's policies regardless of who gets in. Abbott's problems stemmed largely from his so-called "captain's calls"—his term for the non-consultative snap decisions that blindsided and angered his colleagues—and Turnbull is unlikely to repeat these mistakes by making calls of his own.

This means he'll probably say he's sticking to the proposed plebiscite on gay marriage at the next election. But that's a year off, and gives him plenty of time to shore up support for it in the party room and announce that the tide has turned and the party is ready to support it. Remember, the only reason the plebiscite was proposed was because Abbott went to great lengths to engineer the internal debate so no consensus could be reached. Turnbull may not have to do much to achieve party room consensus, and can claim this as an economic victory: the plebiscite would cost $160 million if held on its own, $44 million if held during the next election.

His leadership will at least have the feel of a more open government.

On climate change, Turnbull has said he's going to continue with the government's current policy. Not surprising for a man whose previous party leadership was lost (to Abbott) after he proposed a carbon reduction scheme. But there may be a few small victories: Turnbull could painlessly remove the ban that Abbott placed on the Clean Energy Finance Corporation investing in wind and solar energy.

But there won't be much of a difference when it comes to other issues, from the National Broadband Network to the China Free Trade Agreement. Turnbull believes strongly in those things—he engineered the current NBN policy himself, so don't expect any changes there—and will continue to push them. But he is a more erudite speaker than Abbott, more willing to engage in issues instead of slogans, and will surely consult more with his colleagues. So his leadership will at least have the feel of a more open government. And given politics is primarily about impressions over policy or result, this may make the country feel a lot better about things, even if it's really just business as usual.

Meanwhile, Abbott's exit has been slightly more painful than might have been necessary. Like any 80s cop film in which a detective is killed one day away from retirement, Abbott leaves office four days before achieving the minimum number of days required to receive the Prime Ministerial pension. That's pretty cold, although waiting until Friday could have been disastrous.

Abbott leaves office four days before achieving the minimum number of days required to receive the Prime Ministerial pension.

We are less than one week away from a key by-election. The seat of Canning, which became vacant in July after Liberal MP Don Randall unexpectedly passed away, is up for grabs. The Liberals are fighting to hold onto it, and the numbers say they probably will. But there is certainly going to be a massive swing against them, and that swing was being blamed on Abbott's performance.

Abbott knew that a poor result in Canning would most have likely triggered a spill, and was prepared to beat them to the punch by going to a double dissolution election. The reason we know this is that he consulted with Rupert Murdoch about it. Murdoch clearly thought it was a good idea.

A double disillusion would have locked Abbott in as leader for the election, and a defeat at the polls by Labor would have been less harmful than an internal take down. With these events largely inevitable, Turnbull decided to strike before the Canning result was in.

When the dust clears on all this, it's going to be difficult not to put this current kerfuffle down to a single unguarded moment. Last week, Immigration Minister and ideal human centipede middle section Peter Dutton made a joke about Pacific Islands not having much time left with "water lapping at your door". It was a joke that Abbott laughed at, until Scott Morrison, who was standing beside them, pointed out that a hovering boom mic was recording the whole exchange.

It's going to be difficult not to put this current kerfuffle down to a single unguarded moment.

Everything about this moment—from mocking people at risk of climate change, to the fact they were resisting real action on climate change, to the smug laughter, to Abbott's response suggesting the "subsequent Twitter storm" and not Dutton's comments represented "Australia at its worst"—acted as the last straw. It also proved what filmmakers have always known: you can't underestimate the effect of a good boom operator.

After the momentary celebration on social media by those who have always despised Abbott, the truth became apparent that a Turnbull vs Shorten election is probably going to go well for Turnbull. A lot can change in a year, but without a climate change denying leader to galvanise opposition, it's likely to be Labor and the Greens who will suffer in 2016.

In a broader sense, what we're left with are politics that are symptomatic of a turnaround culture that's constantly unsatisfied, forever looking ahead to the next thing. The last time an Australian Prime Minister served out a full first term was in the 20th century. And thanks to our arbitrary dating system, that was a whole millennium ago.

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