When Kevin Rudd likened the effect of the global financial crisis on Australians to a rolling national security crisis, he was ridiculed by Malcolm Turnbull and the media, and cartoons of Rudd in fire-fighting gear soon appeared. But Rudd was right. The calamity facing us already has had more effect on most of us than 9/11 and any subsequent security scare. Turnbull accused Rudd of creating a scenario that would make him look like a knight in shining armour ready to save us from a fate worse than death. Even if that were so, it doesn’t negate Rudd’s metaphor.
So almost from the beginning Turnbull looked for and found what he believed were base political motives behind Rudd’s moves.
With that level of suspicion it is perhaps surprising that bipartisanship emerged at all, as indeed it did when the Government guarantee on deposits in banks, credit unions and building societies was proposed. The legislation passed through parliament without a murmur of dissent. But now all that bonhomie has evaporated. Why? Was it that some elements of the Opposition saw such statesmanlike collaboration from their leader as lacking the ‘mongrel’ needed to savage the Government? In a contribution to a new book Liberals and Power: The Road Ahead, Tony Abbott says: "At one level, the Opposition's most urgent job, between now and the next election, is to publicise the government's mistakes. Randolph Churchill once declared that oppositions should oppose everything, propose nothing and turf the government out. He was right in this fundamental respect: the opposition's job is to get elected. Intelligent oppositions have no unnecessary enemies. They make the government rather than themselves the issue by ensuring that everyone harmed by government decisions well and truly knows about it." Is it Abbott’s view of the role of oppositions that has changed Opposition tactics? Maybe, but what a pity it did not follow his other dictum: ‘have no unnecessary enemies’, instead of creating them as it has done this past week.
So after just a few days political expediency overtook the national interest
Turnbull began by sowing doubts in people’s minds about the merits of the proposal. Ideas of a ‘cap’ on the guarantee emerged, first Rudd’s $20,000, raised by Turnbull to $100,000, then Rudd’s unlimited guarantee, now modified with a levy applied to deposits over $1 million. Then, aided and abetted by an article in The Australian Turnbull attacked Rudd for not taking RBA advice which the paper insinuated had not been passed onto Rudd. As Ken Henry, Secretary of the Treasury and RBA board member was the conduit for such advice to the Government, Turnbull queried whether he had failed to pass on this vital information, and if this were so, would Rudd sack him? It was at that moment Turnbull lost the initiative he had been building. His propensity for barrister-speak overrode his need to stick to political-speak. Not only was that a damaging mistake, but it ‘gave permission’ to others to similarly attack a highly respected public servant.
So at Senate estimates we saw the unedifying and much publicized spectacle of Coalition senators Abetz, Coonan and Brandis adopting attack-dog tactics in a vain attempt to break Henry and get him to admit he had not passed on the RBA’s reservations. He refuted the story in The Australian saying it was W-R-O-N-G !, leaving that paper to scramble a defence and finally publish a ’letter’ setting out RBA concerns, but written well after the weekend meeting at which the initial decision was taken. The role of The Australian in this saga has been shabby, so much so that an editorial defending its actions had an unusually conciliatory tone, and Paul Kelly in his piece in The Weekend Australian of 25/26 October pointed to the misunderstanding the paper had engendered.
As if the Coalition was not in enough trouble over its attacks on Henry, Don Randall, a known loose cannon, came with all guns blazing to a doorstop where he accused RBA governor Glenn Stevens of putting up interest rates before and during the election and pulling them down afterwards to Labor’s advantage, and labelled the RBA as shambolic. Not only was this another damaging attack on a respected individual and institution, but suggested seething resentment that is likely shared by other Coalition members. The need for Randall to apologize further weakened the Coalition’s position.
So a situation that could have been used to the Coalition’s advantage slipped away as it resorted to attacks on respected individuals and institutions.
As well as criticizing the Government, Turnbull has used another tactic. Adopting Rudd’s approach when he was in opposition, he tries to anticipate the Government’s next moves and pre-empt them. If some of his suggestions, like seeds thrown into the wind, germinate, he can claim credit – I said that first – while those suggestions that never become viable can easily be ‘forgotten’.
As events unfolded, the retrospectoscope opened up opportunities to be wise after the event. On the ABC’s Lateline last Friday, George Brandis said that even as the Coalition was passing the guarantee legislation through parliament they were entertaining doubts. But none emerged during the debate. Why? Because the doubts emerged not then, but after the event. Now they’re all gazing through the retrospectoscope to condemn the Government’s moves. Malcolm Turnbull accuses Rudd of hyping the financial crisis, and asserts his solutions have caused irreparable damage, which no doubt Turnbull could have anticipated and avoided. Julie Bishop accuses Wayne Swan of a ‘blunder’, and of causing instability, but makes no mention of what would have been a better course of action. Joe Hockey asks in his inimitable style why the Government did not foresee what has happened. If it was so obvious, why was Hockey not alerting us?
What a pity it is that just when confidence is what is most needed the Coalition and much of the media are behaving in a way that achieves just the opposite. What has happened to working together for the national interest?
This saga demonstrates once again what has been asserted several times on The Political Sword, namely that when Malcolm Turnbull takes a statesmanlike approach in the national interest he sounds convincing and attracts kudos, but as soon as political expediency overtakes him, arguably as a result of pressure from within his party, he sounds less convincing, loses respect as he attacks those whom the people respect, and squanders the initiative. (See Malcolm’s at it again.) When will he learn? When will his party learn? With the likes of Tony Abbott stirring behind the scenes, that will take time.
Finally, Malcolm Turnbull should study today’s Newspoll and this week’s Essential Research Report. Over the last two weeks, Kevin Rudd, Wayne Swan and Lindsay Tanner have tackled the most profound financial crisis for decades, while Malcolm Turnbull and his party members have turned to adversarial sniping and trenchant criticism. Yet Rudd’s preferred PM rating has gone up 5 points to 59% while Turnbull’s is virtually unchanged. The gap has widened to 34 points. Essential Research has the gap at 41 points with Rudd on 60% and Turnbull on 19%, Nelson territory. The satisfaction ratings for both men in both polls tell the same story. In Newspoll, Rudd’s satisfaction has gone up 9 points to 65%, while dissatisfaction has dropped 6 points to 26%. By contrast, Turnbull’s ratings are virtually unchanged. Similarly, Essential Research shows Rudd’s satisfaction has gone up 8 points to 66% over the last four weeks and dissatisfaction has gone down 8 points to 22%, while Turnbull remains unchanged. And on the question of who is best able to manage the economy, whereas a month ago Rudd and Turnbull were virtually even in Newspoll, now Rudd leads Turnbull 50/35.
The message to Turnbull is that those polled in the two polls strongly applaud Rudd’s performance over the last two to four weeks, but have no applause for Turnbull’s actions during this time – he remains stuck where he was before. So all his posturing, his bipartisanship that morphed quickly into opposition, his party’s attacks on respected public servants and institutions, his carping baseless criticism of the Government’s actions and his sniping from behind the lines, has gained him nothing – zilch. But will his ego allow him to learn this pointed lesson, and thereby avoid repeating the mistakes of the last fortnight? Let's see.