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  • Gillian Whitworth

Deja-vu all over again: Malcolm Turnbull has been here before

Markovski, 2015

Photograph: Flickr / Veni Markovski

‘Here’ is leadership in Australian politics. As keen observers will note, new Prime Minister Turnbull was leader of the Liberal Party in 2008, and Leader of the Opposition, opposite then Labour Prime Minister Kevin Rudd. Both were then ousted from leadership by Tony Abbott and Julia Gillard respectively. Gillard enjoyed a brief stint as Prime Minister herself before Rudd returned to challenge her leadership.

As we all witnessed, the same pattern of events happened in September of this year when Turnbull reacquired the leadership from Abbott. Clearly, it seems the ‘revolving door’ of Australian politics may require closer attention. A few preliminary observations can be sketched out, however, Turnbull has been playing his policy cards close to his chest and so it is hard to predict a certain course that Australia will be guided along under his leadership.

One clear change is that Malcolm Turnbull is markedly not Tony Abbott: the latter’s right-wing views and strong leadership style have disappeared in favour of the new Prime Minister’s centrist, consensual stance. Abbott was famed for making decisive choices that were often met with controversy, such as his decision to bestow Prince Philip with a knighthood under the newly implemented Knights and Dames system this year, or refusal to ‘subsidise [the] lifestyle choices’ of indigenous communities in Western Australia. Instead, Turnbull has been adept at reading the social cues of the electorate and removed the Knights system that is ‘not appropriate in 2015’. Clearly, Turnbull’s reign as leader signified a populist shift in Australian politics.

Some would argue that this change has not come soon enough, given the tumultuous foreign policy environment into which Turnbull has stepped. Abbott’s opposition to climate change (referred to as ‘absolute crap’) was seen as outdated, given the growing weight of scientific evidence in support of the anthropogenic causes of climate change. Australia’s belligerent stance in G20 summits tended to frustrate international action on the problem, and indeed frustrated many foreign leaders themselves. Indeed, it is interesting that despite Turnbull’s notable opposition to Abbott’s climate change policies, he has preserved the latter’s Direct Action Plan until a plebiscite in the next election (September 2016). Again, perhaps this is not so surprising given the leader’s representative stance, and desire to preserve unity in a fractious Liberal Party.

In addition, Australia has become caught in the complex web of US-China relations, and Turnbull would do well to untangle his country from this promptly. After meeting with President Obama in Manila this month for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) conference, Turnbull expressed support for a ‘common purpose and a common strategy’ for Australia and the US in Syria. However, in 2011 the leader expressed criticism of a ‘doe-eyed fascination with the leader of the free world’ that prevents maintaining a ‘good friend in Beijing’. Turnbull has clearly remained aware of the critical need to protect the 60% of Australian trade that travels through the South China seas, given his ‘private discussions’ with the Chinese leader at the G20 Summit in Ankara. Whilst juggling these superpower relations, Turnbull must also address strained relations with other Asian countries such as Indonesia, in order to build metaphorical bridges and maintain a balance of bilateral relations in the region.

But Turnbull cannot privilege foreign policy at the expense of domestic policy, especially given the upcoming election next year. National security concerns are playing on the public’s minds, given several ‘close calls’ under Abbott (such as the Sydney hostage situation), the fatal attacks in Paris, and the recent murder of policeman Curtis Chang that has been acknowledged by police as a terrorist attack. Again, Turnbull has moderated the rhetoric on terrorism, stating it is important not to ‘overstate the threat’ just as it is ‘important not to underestimate it’. Although Turnbull moved on this policy issue after Chang’s murder by converging a counter-terrorism summit. It remains to be seen what concrete steps his administration will take in the coming months.

The leader has made solid policy promises when it comes to the economic and social agenda of his administration. Although he is seen as business-friendly, he has not closed the debate on raising the goods and services tax to 15%, and it will be interesting to see how the Prime Minister attempts to maintain this relationship in a shifting Australian economy. Furthermore, he has shown an unprecedented commitment to the concerning issue of violence against women in Australia, signing $100 million to a safety net for women and children affected by abuse. These bold political moves by Turnbull are rare, but demonstrate the issues that may be prioritised as he progresses further into his prime ministerial role.

So what wider significance does the ‘revolving door’ of Australian leadership signify? It seems to show an indecision amongst the political elite for what the Australian people want, and an attempt to have it all electorally. In an era of increasingly difficult policy challenges such as terrorism and climate change, both the Liberal and Labour parties will have to take stronger electoral stances and commit to their implementation under a leader. The constant instability in leadership has led to oscillating policy positions in a policy environment where only centrist, measured policies will alleviate entrenched problems. Let’s hope that Turnbull is the one to deliver this strategy in the next year, and that the Australian people recognise its value next September.

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