It was just last Tuesday, 14 October, when Malcolm Turnbull announced the Coalition’s willing bipartisan support for the Government’s $10.4 billion package to stimulate Australia’s slowing economy. In a doorstop, he and his deputy added that the Coalition would not quibble about the details. ‘Quibble’ as a verb literally means “argue about a trivial matter”. By the next day that changed when he questioned the data on which the decision was taken and insisted that the Coalition, even the general public, had “the right to know” about it. The Government’s promise of the mid-term financial data in November was not enough; he wanted it now.
Then he convinced ABC TV to give him the ‘right of reply’ to Kevin Rudd’s Address to the Nation just prior to the 15 October 7 pm News, an unusual turn of events. If you missed it, it’s here. In it, Turnbull speaks well, looks authoritative, and for much of his address is statesmanlike. But he could not resist the opportunity to score some political points, first accusing the Government of missing “the warning signs at the beginning of the year and talking up inflation and consequently interest rates at precisely the wrong time”, a theme he’s often articulated. Next he raised doubts about the Government’s plan to guarantee consumer deposits in banks by saying “We are concerned to ensure that safeguards are put in place so that Government guarantees offered to banks do not result in taxpayers picking up the tab for bank losses”, although there has never been any suggestion that this could occur. He knows it’s easier to raise doubts, no matter how spurious, than to quell them. He ended by lauding the Coalition’s record, offering bipartisanship again, but expressing disappointment that this had been rejected. So in a few minutes he had exposure to a national audience and scored a point or two.
Then on the ABC TV’s Lateline the same day Julie Bishop elaborated on the Coalition’s concerns. Under intense pressure from Tony Jones to explain the change of rhetoric since the day before, Bishop looked uncomfortable, avoided being specific until pressed, and finally said if the Coalition was in government, they might have considered other design options. "We may well have looked at another composition, we might have looked at other issues, we might have looked at tax cuts," and "We might have reconsidered the first home owner matter, we might have got information as to whether or not this would be an inflationary package, and if you calibrated it another way." So now the theme was the threat of the package being inflationary.
Why the change? We can only guess why cracks are appearing in the Coalition’s bipartisanship. Is it the result of pressure from the conservative elements? It was Tony Abbott who claimed that the package was “politically motivated”, then yesterday Barnaby Joyce chimed in with a breathless “...if you pay people lump sums you can end up against the wall.”, a meaning not lost on discerning connoisseurs of Aussie slang, and today he described the Government's $10.4 billion spending package as "ridiculous" and criticised it as "policy on the run". He said “More questions need to be asked as to why the Government decided to spend the money before Christmas by handing out one-off payments to pensioners and some families.” and “It’s a peculiar way to do business – let's not just blindly accept – that's a dangerous way to do business."
So what started as a concerted effort by Turnbull to contribute to solving Australia’s worst economic situation for decades has degenerated into the same old partisan points scoring contest. Turnbull seems to prefer the collaborative approach on such significant events, and welcomes, even seeks the opportunity to be seen as a statesman, but each time he tries, even as he’s succeeding, he seems to be quickly pulled into line by elements of his party who, accustomed to taking the fight up to the opponent, eschew bipartisanship, and insist Turnbull enter the cockpit and fight till the blood flows. As said so many times in this blog, when Turnbull does his own thing and promotes his own views, he looks impressive and sounds authentic; but as soon as he’s forced to toe the party line, he loses his lustre and becomes an ordinary politician. Although no doubt the rusted-on Coalition supporters, like spectators at a cockfight, enjoy this political blood sport, the ones that really count, the swinging voters, may take a very different view. When will the Coalition learn? When will they realize that sometimes it’s better not to quibble.