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Gordon Campbell on the rise of Malcolm Turnbull

Gordon Campbell on the rise of Malcolm Turnbull

Well clearly, the loss of Tony Abbott – the country’s official spokesman on Women’s Affairs - has left the women of Australia feeling distraught and directionless. A moment’s silence.

On other, less poignant stuff… supposedly, the elevation of Malcolm Turnbull to Aussie PM will tell us a bit about the export potential of the John Key model of governance. That’s because famously, at the close of his first press conference as PM-elect, Turnbull cited Key as an example of a leader who could execute significant economic reforms, while taking the community with him. Presumably, Turnbull was talking about (a) Key’s ruinous initial tax reform package and (b) the equally ruinous asset sales programme that was strongly opposed by the public, but which Key executed without suffering any significant political damage. We’ve been left to pick up the tab for what the Great Communicator has wrought.

What equivalent might Turnbull have in mind for Australia? He’s only got about a year until the next election - by which time he has to show some tangible results for the convulsion that the Liberal Party and the country have been put through. Asset sales won’t be it, since the next election will probably be decided by what happens to the marginal seats in Queensland, already the venue of some very unpopular experiences with privatization. As for tax reform, that’s going to be harder to sell in Australia than it was in this country, especially if Turnbull decides to remove the GST exemption from food. Queensland University economist John Quiggin recently summed up the selective nature of the ‘reform’ language and process:

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Tax reform doesn’t mean taxing mineral rents or carbon externalities or tax-dodging trusts and shell companies. In essence, it means taxing food and giving the proceeds to the rich. Anyone concerned with good policy should stop using this word in a positive sense.

Ditto, Quiggin adds, with the language used by the Abbott government and media elite with respect to alleged “ free” trade deals – eg the China/Australia FTA or the TPP - which have very little to do with freedom in trade, or information :

Most importantly, “Free Trade Agreements” are nothing of the kind. The key to the China deal is… to allow for 100 per cent overseas workforces. Even if you think that’s a good idea, it should be addressed in the context of immigration policy. There’s a startling contradiction between this stuff and Joe Hockey’s high profile persecution of Chinese buyers who are allegedly pushing up the price of Sydney houses.

The same is true of the other FTA’s this government has signed, and even more so of the proposed TPP. At most, the trade component of these deals consists of Australia selling its domestic policy sovereignty to foreign governments in return for the removal of their trade barriers.

Back to Turnbull’s options. He has to find something that’s do-able quickly, but still sellable as a game changer for the slumping Australian economy. Turnbull may be a more attractive salesman than his predecessor, but the same old bag of goods won’t do. Twelve further months of decline won’t be blameable on the vanquished team of Tony Abbott and Joe Hockey. Though this point has been over-stated in the last 48 hours, Turnbull is also under pressure to convince his colleagues that he really is a conservative, and not the closeted Laborite moderate that many of his hard right opponents in the Liberal caucus have always suspected him to be. Still, what are they going to do? Bring back Tony? The right of the party has nowhere else to go. Except to leak stuff, and knife him in the back, in which case they all go down with the ship.

Given his new post, will Turnbull use the prime ministerial pulpit to deliver on his previous support for tougher regulations on climate change, and allowing same-sex marriage into law without the need for a costly and divisive referendum on it? Probably not. That would be too… moderate wouldn’t it? In the meantime… what’s something quick, convincingly conservative, and popular enough with small business and the wider public to do the trick – on all counts, a fight with the trade unions just might be the ticket. Or maybe a tax reform package that voters will get only if they re-elect him. That would be very-Key-like.

As for this alleged exportability of the John Key model to Australia… that depends on how pliable the Aussie media turns out to be. Remember that abrasive Aussie journalist at Pike River, who wanted to know why the cops were running a mine rescue/retrieval mission? Turnbull will find it far harder to soft sell his message across the Tasman, in the face of sharper, more aggressively sceptical media scrutiny than Key has ever faced here at home. Here’s an example from only last week. Leigh Sales of the ABC put this little pearler to Abbott, who floundered:

"When Labor left office, unemployment was 5.8 per cent; it's now 6.3 per cent. Growth was 2.5 per cent; it's now 2 per cent. The Australian dollar was 92 cents; it's now around 70 cents. The budget deficit was $30 billion when you took office and now it's $48 billion. How do you explain to the Australian people that you were elected promising, in your words, to fix the budget emergency, yet in fact, Australia's economic position has worsened under your leadership?"

Mr Abbott responded: "Well I don't accept that. The boats have stopped. The carbon tax has ... "

Sales interrupted: "We're talking about the economy."

Meaning: Its pretty easy for John Key to be the Great Communicator when its one way traffic, everywhere except RNZ. And without Mary Wilson or Brent Edwards, RNZ is no longer what it was, only a few weeks ago.

For now, the main people lamenting the demise of Tony Abbott will be the Australian Labor Party, for whom Abbott was their best recruiting agent. Sure, Turnbull will be a tougher opponent for Labor, at least until he actually starts doing stuff – at which point he will probably need all of his silvery charm, and more besides. Julie Bishop was the kingmaker on Monday night – and her real animus was directed at Abbott’s much hated chief of staff, Peta Credlin - but the likely new Treasurer Scott Morrison will be the crucial lieutenant from here on in. Morrison aims to be Turnbull’s successor one day. While he’s young enough to be patient, Morrison can’t really afford to play simply the attack dog for his new boss, or be the mug who gets used to prove Turnbull’s conservative credentials. It should be an interesting next twelve months. Getting rid of Tony was the easy bit.

Communing With The Community, Part Two

This stuff from Turnbull about pledging to communicate with the public is of course, always one way stuff – he’s the decider and the explainer, they’re the passive vessels/vassals. (It's all about cajoling the serfs to toe the line, one way or the other.) On Monday night – while Turnbull was busy rolling Abbott – Act’s David Seymour was showing Victoria University students the blank face of Toryism. When the growing incidence of mental health and depression was brought to the attention of a panel of speakers, Seymour’s sole two word response – reportedly – was that students should ‘harden up.’

That’s quite a response:

[NZUSA] President Rory McCourt said official data showed that, between 2009 and 2014, there had been a nationwide rise of 24 percent of students getting counselling. At Victoria University the jumped by 45 percent to 2139 students seen last year. "We're risking creating a generation of highly-strung graduates. With rises in counselling sessions on almost all campuses, this is a real issue." Mental Health Foundation chief executive Judi Clements said Seymour's choice of wording was "unfortunate".

It gets worse. According to student Sophie Wynn - who went and sought clarification afterwards from Seymour - the Act leader confirmed his comment and said to her that students were over-medicated and inclined to choose the labels of anxiety and depression as an excuse not to be happy. (Wynn had asked Seymour if would tell someone to “ harden up” who had depression and was having a bad day. Yes, he reportedly replied.) Even allowing for the potential of something being over-stated/lost in translation here, the gist is unmistakable. To David Seymour, people choose to have mental health problems ; they’re just weak, and are back-sliding on their responsibilities.

Wow. How do people learn to think like this? Well, when you’ve got used to taxpayers knowing their place and keeping you in the manner accustomed, it's unsurprising that Seymour should feel it downright rude of the peons at Victoria University to demand a few signs of compassion, and a few more crumbs off the table. If they’re depressed now, he must be thinking, how are they going to be when they’re grinding away the years trying to pay off their student debt? That’s Seymour’s basic message : I’ve got mine but tighten your belts and stiffen your spines, boys and girls, because its not going to get any better for you for a long, long time. Now, where’s that limo outta here….

Songs Sung, Blue

In the general spirit of Aussie/Kiwi mind melds, here’s a hit song we once shared, about some wildlife we hold in common. Believe it or not, this was a hit on both sides of the Tasman in the late 1950s/early 1960s for the Webb Brothers.

And here’s another Transtasman hit of similar vintage: a live (and weirdly immobile) version of “One Small Photograph” by the splendidly-named Kevin Shegog. Soulfully expressive eyebrows, though.

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