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Magazine of Socialist Action in Australia

Turnbull at the helm: A change in style, not substance

Reading Time: 7 minutes

Last month Australians watched the spectacle as yet another sitting prime minister was overthrown in an internal party coup. This time around it took only a few hours from the confirmation that Tony Abbott’s leadership would be challenged to the moment Malcolm Turnbull announced himself as the new leader of the Liberal Party, and therefore, Australia’s new prime minister.

The speed of Abbott’s downfall in the party room was an indication of how long-awaited the event had been. When Turnbull challenged Abbott’ leadership earlier this year it was rumoured that Abbott had begged for six months to turn his government’s fortunes around. After 30 consecutive Newspolls showing support for the Abbott government in decline and the Liberals consistently trailing Labor on a two-party preferred basis, it became clear Abbott had failed. At this point even some of his closest supporters abandoned him to back Turnbull, in the hope of having a chance at the next election.

It is no accident that we’ve had five prime ministers in the past five years. It has been almost a decade since we’ve had a prime minister who finished a term they started. In keeping with the trend around the world, instability has become the new normal. While some commentators have sought to blame the fickleness of voters, the speed of the news cycle or even the influence of twitter, the cause of this political instability is much more serious and systemic. It is a direct result of the deep and ongoing impacts of a global economic slump.

Tony Abbott himself claims he fell victim to “death by opinion poll”. There is no doubt he will go down in history as one of the country’s most hated prime ministers. But Abbott’s unpopularity was not simply a result of his abrasive style and unappealing personal quirks, the most bizarre being his taste for whole, unpeeled raw onions. It was a combination of his out-of-touch conservative social views and attempts to ram through anti-worker austerity and reforms that led to his ultimate downfall. Recognising the two key factors where the Abbott government failed can give us insight into where the new Turnbull Liberal government will attempt to fare better and where it will ultimately falter.

The Abbott legacy

The Abbott legacy will mean different things to different people. For the conservative right-wing it will be remembered fondly as a time when the leader of Australia matched their own bigotry and helped fuel contempt for women, disdain for Indigenous communities, hostility towards refugees, distrust of LGBTIQ people and conspiratorial hatred of Muslims. Under Abbott, otherwise fringe figures like Senator Cory Bernardi and George Christensen MP became relevant as their ultra-conservative views were incorporated into official policy.

For the Labor Party, Abbott will also be remembered fondly as the opponent who consistently shot himself in the foot. Labor’s election winning lead in almost every poll over the past year resulted from Abbott’s own failings, rather than Labor’s credentials. Now, the gift of Abbott has been taken away from Labor, as has the almost guaranteed victory at the next election. So uninspiring is the leadership of Bill Shorten that in a snap poll immediately after Turnbull became prime minister, even Labor voters said they preferred Turnbull over Shorten!

One legacy Abbott can legitimately claim is pulling Labor further to the right. This is clearly the case in relation to refugees, with Shorten’s Labor now echoing Abbott’s mantra of “turning back the boats”. During Abbott’s rule he was backed by Labor on a number of despicable acts: the decision to bomb Syria, the refusal to legalise same-sex marriage, support for anti-worker free trade deals, among many others.

To many people, the legacy of Abbott will be the wake up call they got in the form of the horror 2014 federal budget. After decades of economic growth fuelled by a mining boom, it seemed as though the actions of politicians and the passing of budgets had limited impact on our lives. Suddenly the global financial crisis and the beginning of the end of the mining boom demanded governments either find new revenue sources or make drastic cuts to public spending. The 2014 budget, which provoked large protest movements across the country, was not constructed on a whim. It was a serious attempt to restructure government spending to benefit big business while undermining our standards of living.

Abbott’s most unpopular policies – university deregulation, Medicare co-payments, pension cuts, etc. – are not only Abbott’s policies. They are reforms demanded by big business to steel-up profitability during the economic downturn. In the minds of the business elite, Abbott’s failure wasn’t that he pursued these policies – it was that he failed to implement them effectively.

Abbott himself believes his legacy to be the significant cuts he did manage to get through parliament: “Having said all of that about the 2014 budget, the government was braver than the parliament and the fact is we did get $50 billion worth of savings out of the budget over the forward estimates…We were serious because we took very big political risks to bring cuts about” he claimed (The Australian, September 26, 2015).

Ultimately, the reason Abbott became unattractive to those who previously backed him was his inability to carry through the entirety of the right-wing economic agenda he had promised. Many business commentators had become openly frustrated by the political capital Abbott was wasting on policies and decisions not in service of the economic reform they demanded.

Turnbull’s turn

This is where Turnbull enters for his second chance as Liberal leader, first as prime minister. During his earlier stint as leader, the political climate had shifted decidedly to the left. The momentum that had swept John Howard from office and Kevin Rudd to power was one of optimism that progressive change was ahead. Union mobilisations and large rallies demanding action to address climate change and support for same-sex marriage rights were at their peak. Turnbull attempted to swim somewhat with the stream, branding himself and the post-Howard Liberal Party as socially forward-thinking, while remaining unashamedly neoliberal. At the time, there were many within the Liberal Party who refused this new brand.

Fast-forward six years, two failed Labor governments and the rapid ascension and self-destruction of Abbott’s ultra-conservatism, this optimism has turned to pessimism towards the political establishment. This means there is less expectation that a Turnbull government can affect concrete change on questions he had previously used to define himself, namely support for same-sex marriage rights and action to address climate change.

While expectations among voters have certainly been lowered, business leaders are after results. They turned against Abbott because he could not deliver the economic reform they want to instil confidence in the profitability of certain sectors of the economy. Switching to Turnbull will serve no use unless he can achieve what Abbott failed to.

The fact that the essence of the Liberal leadership change was more about the ability to carry through future economic reform, rather than past mistakes, can be affirmed by the lack of changes in policy that have accompanied Turnbull’s leadership. In his very first appearance in parliament question time, Turnbull made it clear there would be no change on climate policy or same-sex marriage policy. Those who had hoped Turnbull might represent something progressive were immediately disappointed.

Aside from a minor cabinet cleanout, Turnbull is essentially presiding over the same government with the same policies that Abbott was. This reality has not been lost on Abbott, who lamented “Whatever else the changes of last week were about, they plainly weren’t about policy.” In an interview following his ousting, Abbott pointed to the fact that his party’s “Climate change [policy remains] the same. Border protection policy, the same. National security policy, the same and if you listen to the Prime Minister and the Treasurer, they’re even using exactly the same phrases that Joe Hockey and I were using just a fortnight ago” (The Australian, September 29, 2015).

The test facing Turnbull, who has clearly made significant compromises to re-win the leadership, will be whether or not he can “sell” anti-worker cuts and pro-business economic reform better than Tony Abbott was able to. The political and business establishment backing him are hoping that a few token gestures in regards to women in cabinet, money thrown at the crisis of domestic violence and other popular initiatives will steel up the authority Turnbull needs to make the harsh economic reforms.

But the contradictions that led to the unravelling of the Abbott government remain under Turnbull. He faces a volatile electorate does not support the slashing of social spending. Turnbull and new Treasurer Scott Morrison are certainly not backing away from these cuts, with Morrison commenting that “we have a spending problem, not a revenue problem”. Whether or not they can sell their anti-worker, pro-business reforms better than Abbott could remains to be seen. Where former Treasurer Joe Hockey was unapologetic in his plans to punish the poor and lowest paid with his “end of the age of entitlement”, Turnbull is selling a positive vision of the future that he claims will “create jobs, drive innovation and stimulate growth’’.

Ultimately, it is a difference of style, not substance. It is a new approach to the sales pitch. Whether or not it can win the Liberals another term to carry out the project Abbott began will depend largely on Shorten and Labor. Unfortunately, whatever the result it will not protect working people from further attacks on our standards of living.

Abbott was an easy target. He was an out-of-touch social conservative presiding over brutal austerity and attacks on working people without a hint of tact. He only lasted as long as he did by whipping up Islamophobia and further demonising refugees so he could point to his harsh border protection regime as the fixer of all social ills.

A more subtle and sophisticated approach is to be expected from Turnbull. Though suave alone can’t resolve the underlying contradictions in the Australian economy that are demanding economic reform. Tax reform, changes to penalty rates, and cuts to social spending and health and education reform are on the agenda. Turnbull, a former merchant banker, is squarely on the side of big business and will ensure any reform is in their interests.

Whether these pro-business policies are wrapped in the social conservatism of Abbott, the “innovative 21st Century” rhetoric of Turnbull, or the dull bureaucratism and class collaboration of Shorten, the end result will see workers lose.

What working class people desperately need is a genuine political alternative to the pro-business policies of both Liberal and Labor. This needs to be built from the ground up, in both industrial and social battles. It is the renewed interest and openness to socialist ideas that will be crucial in helping us wage these battles ahead and begin the important task of constructing a workers’ alternative to the major parties. The Socialist Party will continue this struggle for working class representation as stridently under a Turnbull government as we did under Abbott.

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