Tony must turn to Turnbull

Abbott and his supporters may hate it, but they need Malcolm Turnbull. The alternative for them is far, far worse.

With the Queensland election result a disaster for the Liberal-National Party, the media is now in a frenzy over whether Prime Minister Tony Abbott will be deposed by one of his colleagues.

Yet is the problem the personnel, which could be easily changed by a new face while maintaining the same policy agenda?

Or is it, rather, that the electorate understandably gets extremely angry when the government they recently elected makes dramatic changes they didn’t make any mention of before they were elected, or even flat out denied they would implement?

Did they really think the electorate was so dumb, that they’d be fooled that somehow these radical changes were never planned and instead just materialised out of the investigations of a commission of audit – an audit group led not by qualified auditors but rather a group of hand-picked friends of the Liberal-National Coalition?

This contrived approach to breaking promises reached comical proportions with the government’s review of the Renewable Energy Target. 

Before they were elected the government used vague language about their renewable energy policy that, for the masses, sounded like precisely the same policy as Labor. Yet for those close to the issue their vague language rather trickily left latitude for dramatic cuts to the Renewable Energy Target. Climate Spectator and policy stakeholders tried repeatedly to get the Liberal-Nationals to spell out their intentions more clearly, receiving reassurance but still wrapped up in ambiguous language.

Surely enough, once elected the government appointed a panel to “review” the Renewable Energy Target led by businessman Dick Warburton, who’d prefer to think meteorologists have got it wrong about global warming and who led the industry campaign against pricing carbon pollution. He is then ably assisted by an ex Howard Government bureaucrat, Brian Fisher, who had been hired by the gas lobby just two years ago to help them undermine the Renewable Energy Target. On Fisher’s firm’s own website was a speech where, for all intents and purposes, he said the renewable energy industry was like a leech on the mining industry. 

So clearly, no predetermined agenda here that the electorate could have been informed about prior to the election?  

Campbell Newman and Tony Abbott have made precisely the same mistake. Both were set to cruise into government. This was a prize opportunity for them to spell out their agenda to the electorate, and even if it was unpopular they still would have won. 

Yet the shadow of John Hewson’s release of his highly detailed Fightback policy manifesto and his defeat in the unloseable 1993 election acts to stifle the bravery (or is it the honesty?) of politicians in this country. So both these leaders said nothing of their plans (Labor’s Bill Shorten looks like he’ll make the same mistake, by the way).

So the disastrous polling results for the Liberal-National Coalition are an issue of policy approach, but the breach of trust means it is inextricably wrapped up in personnel.

However getting rid of Abbott would be a horrible look for the Coalition, and for Australian politics more generally. It will represent the ultimate triumph of personality over substance in Australian politics, coming on top of several leadership changes in other Australian governments.

Deposing yet another PM runs an extremely high probability of turning the electorate off politics completely. But something has to change to turn around the Coalition’s fortunes.

That must start with policy approach. However, it also requires some major change in personnel to give the electorate a clear signal things will change that they can readily perceive.

The government’s plunging fortunes can be traced back precisely to the Budget released in May last year. Joe Hockey as Treasurer holds primary public responsibility for the budget. Logically it is his head that would best serve as the sacrificial offering of a government admitting they got it wrong. It helps that he has done an appalling job selling the budget with a series of gaffes that indicate a wealthy man out of touch with the general public. Poor people do drive and you’d have to be exceptionally wealthy (and lack a competent accountant) to spend half the working year covering your tax bill.

Malcolm Turnbull would make an excellent prime minister, but now is not the time. The next best thing would be for him to replace Hockey as Treasurer, thereby taking on a more central role in the direction of the government.

He will moderate some of the extremists in the Coalition who are heavily responsible for the government’s troubled predicament. The first and easiest change he could drive would be to force the government to give up on their ideological crusade against the renewable energy sector. They could agree tomorrow to Labor’s compromise on the Renewable Energy Target and it would cost the budget and electricity consumers nothing.

In addition, Turnbull’s ability to communicate in more than three-word slogans will be essential to explaining why the government needs to make difficult changes to repair the budget. Managing the budget is the one area where the government holds a clear advantage over Labor. It will be central to their re-election chances. But a simplistic ideological approach of cutting expenditure without addressing tax loopholes will not fly.

Abbott and his supporters may hate it, but they need Turnbull. The alternative for them is far, far worse. 

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