MUNGO MacCALLUM. Baird and Turnbull.

Jan 24, 2017

Apart from his regret at losing the nearest thing to a mate among the premiers, Turnbull must be feeling more than a little conflicted, because the inevitable comparisons that will be made between the two leaders will not be in his favour.  

So the New South Wales Premier Mike Baird is gone – gone, but not forgotten, at least to his friend and fellow cornstalker Malcolm Turnbull, who has lost a trusted and dependable ally in the moderate faction of his factionalised state, as well as a personal friend.

The two have had their differences, notably over Baird’s proposal to increase the GST and his government’s insistence that the full Gonski funding should be reinstated, but the relationship has always been amiable and usually productive, even in the acrimonious atmosphere of the regular COAG meetings.

Certainly the Prime Minister has been effusive, praising the departing premier with praise for his remarkable leadership and playing a great innings; the state and the nation, Turnbull enthused, owed the departing premier a great debt, and he was not referring to the financial one his own government has incurred.

As he showered Baird with good wishes there was no hint of insincerity. But apart from his regret at losing the nearest thing to a mate among the premiers, Turnbull must be feeling more than a little conflicted, because the inevitable comparisons that will be made between the two leaders will not be in his favour.

The two had a fair bit in common: both rose from a business background, both were impeccably credentialed Sydney silvertails and both, after a relatively short time in their respective parliaments, rose quickly to the top. And having reached the top, they were immensely popular: it appeared that they were untouchable, invincible, towering over both their own parties and lacklustre Labor oppositions.

There were, of course, problems: both were resented by the hard right Liberal rump and some of the Nationals and both had to contend with minor parties who held the balance of power in their upper houses. But neither would have anticipated the plummeting in the opinion polls that left both their governments far too close to the edge for comfort.

Thus the similarities: but the big difference was the manner of their descent from the heights. In Baird’s case it was being too decisive: too many tough decisions, which in the end to proved to radical for a conservative electorate to stomach. The obvious ones were the greyhound ban, the council amalgamations and the lock-out laws, but the fallout from the big infrastructure projects which followed the controversial sale of the poles and wires of the electricity grid did not help: the West Connex and light rail projects have produced hassles.

Too many ideas, many of them good ones, but implemented too quickly and without enough consideration. Shades, perhaps, of Gough Whitlam or Paul Keating – other short term reformists those Turnbull sees as object lessons for political disaster if prolonged incumbency is more important than achievement. And for this reason, perhaps, Turnbull’s fall was the opposite of Baird’s – too cautious, too dithering, too reluctant to embrace the high ideals he promised when he was anointed.

In Baird’s case it was all go; in Turnbull’s it has been all waffle. And thus from both Macquarie Street and Capital Hill disappointed voters have drifted away, not necessarily to Labor, but to all kinds of snake-oil messiahs who offer the action – any action – they crave. Thus both Baird and Turnbull ended up surrounded by the Hansonites, the Shooters and Fishers, the Xenophonites, the Nileists and other equally absurd fringe groups which they must either ignore or placate, both seriously unpalatable options.

Baird has decided that enough was enough: his family issues were more serious than the ongoing frustrations of the bear pit. Turnbull stumbles on, but, so far at least, with no real plan to end the impasse. And last week’s mini-shuffle is unlikely to make any significant difference.

Turnbull has selected Greg Hunt as his trouble shooter to manage the perpetually fraught area of health – an area has always been a Labor stronghold, long before (and, one suspects, long after) the so called Mediscare campaign of the last election. On the surface, Hunt and Turnbull are a good mix; for starters both sold out on serious action on climate change, and both of the disciples of Dr Faustus are fixers – more interested in cutting a deal than in achieving real results.

Hunt has already signalled a willingness to move to a more Americanised system, but, confusingly, unfreeze the Medicare rebate The latter is an obviously necessary, if belated, move, but one which will do nothing to rein in the cost of services. Only a major increase – a doubling, as I have long advocated – of the levy will have any real effect; pruning costs and cutting services will only make things worse, in terms of both policy and politics. But that kind of fiddling is precisely the Turnbull-Hunt method, and we can expect it to continue.

The move of the terminally forgetful and still vulnerable Arfur Sinodinos will be otherwise unremarked, but the promotion of Ken Wyatt as our first indigenous minister is at least of symbolic significant. Wyatt succeeds on his own merits, but will always be suspect by the hardliners – he may remember the downfall of our first indigenous parliamentarian, Neville Bonner, who was dumped from preselection by the warlords of the Queensland Liberal Party many years ago.

In any case the shuffle is no more than a stop gap: there will have to be more to come, even if the real swamp dwellers like George Brandis and Peter Dutton are regarded as protected species. But Tony Abbot will remain pawing at the starting gates. Despite the ringing endorsement of Pauline Hanson and the continuing promotion of The Australian’s Simon Benson, who is apparently moonlighting as Abbott’s part time press secretary, the former king remains unwanted — definitely more quondam than futurus.

On that score Turnbull has been decisive. But it was not nearly enough to turn the continuing malaise into a successful week. Turnbull may console himself with the thought that if he stayed up to watch, from a safe distance, the inauguration of the most loathed incoming president in American history, at least he is not the least popular leader in the civilised world. Yet.

Mungo MacCallum is a veteran journalist and for many years was a senior member of the Canberra Press Gallery.

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