Warwick Elsche. If words were deeds.

May 10, 2016

If words were deeds – or even credible policies – Malcolm Turnbull might already have joined the company of Australia’s pre-eminent Prime Ministers.

All three of Malcolm’s pre-politics callings, journalism, law and banking, have involved the extensive used of the words medium. But none of these also involved the commitment, the enduring exposure, or the threat of damaging public refutation as mere words do, coming at a critical political time, from the country’s most senior political figure.

However, in the short journey Turnbull’s eight-week election campaign has travelled so far, it seems that, from his side at least, words only will provide his and his Government’s principal armament. Perhaps this is because his Government has little else, either in terms of political stability, or actual political accomplishment to serve the purpose.

While Labor has been noticeably slow in picking apart Turnbull’s maiden campaign efforts in early days, Malcolm would be optimistic indeed to expect this neglect by the opposition to last for the near-record 56 days of the current campaign.

In the writer’s experience, long electoral campaigns have not been kind to incumbent Prime Ministers who initiate them.

In 1969, for example, a super-confident John Gorton, sitting on a then record parliamentary majority, set a 60+ day campaign which he hoped would see the end of the up-and-coming new-style Labor leader, Gough Whitlam. Whitlam whittled away the record majority to within 5,000 votes in critical seats, of an improbable victory. Ministers’ seats were among 18 lost across the country.

Again in 1984 another over-confident Prime Minister, Bob Hawke, deliberately chose a long campaign during which, he assured colleagues, the longer it went the further ahead of this opponent, Andrew Peacock, he would be. Hawke’s soporific campaign speeches over the long period again saw significant reversals – and again not for his opponent.

Malcolm therefore seems to be taking a considerable risk seeking to see out successfully an eight-week campaign armed principally only with his eloquence.

During his return trip to the top of the Liberal Party, Turnbull was critical of Tony Abbott’s seeming attempts to govern in slogans. “Kill the taxes”, “Stop the boats”, “Lifters and Leaners”, “Team Australia”, “Death Cult” and a handful of others did not serve Tony well. Remember the polls and his ultimate fate.

Malcolm has chosen to start his campaign with a flurry of loud self-laudatory promises and assessments – and a slogan. And the slogan it seems has already been forced on most of his team. So far those exposed in the infant campaign like Malcolm himself, Mathias Cormann, Julie Bishop and others are peppering their electoral offerings with the boring repeated chants of “Jobs and Growth’.

Noble objectives unquestionably. But it would be remarkable if, over the eight weeks it is not pointed out that nothing in his recent budget – virtually his election manifesto – is likely to guarantee either – nothing other than something to talk about.

In his war of words Turnbull has already found it convenient, even attractive, to refer to the economic problems he says were created by the preceding Rudd-Gillard-Rudd Governments. Indeed, the shouts of “Debt and Deficit Emergency” from his side of politics helped propel him and his colleagues into Government.

By election day , July 2, Turnbull’s Liberals will have been in office nearly half as long as Labor, 2007-13.

In that time his government has increased debt beyond $150 billion. The deficit has trebled. His party has not had to grapple with the worst global financial crisis since the Great Depression that plagued more then three of Labor’s six years in office. Strangely, with these inflated problems, there is now no longer an emergency. Given the performance so far, there is, however, surely some risk in doing, as Malcolm urged addressing the media to announce the election last Sunday, “Keep your commitment to our economic plan”. Can this exhortation, given his Government’s performance so far, possibly last eight weeks with both Opposition and media on the job.

There are several other areas where it would take a rather profound optimism to believe there will not be, at least, further intense scrutiny.

Malcolm refers repeatedly to previous Labor Governments, particularly the last three, comparing them unfavourably with his own. If he is really upset by the internal disruption, which helped destroy that show, he does not need to go back even that far. Tony Abbott lasted as Prime Minister a shorter period than either Rudd or Gillard whose sackings Turnbull continually derides. And supposed Liberal stability in the first term has been additionally racked by ministerial scandals involving Ministers Robert, Brough, Sinodinis, Briggs, and speaker Bronwyn Bishop. Labor never matched that. Again Turnbull is surely limited in talking much more about this, one of his favourite topics, over another 50+ days.

In one of the few areas of positive thinking – rather than merely reflecting on Labor’s inadequacies – Turnbull urges support for his party on the grounds of national security as if there was some historic backing for the claim. His party committed Australia to involvement in the Vietnam War and in 1967 double the commitment with a loss of more than 500 young Australian lives. No one anywhere now argues the wisdom of those decisions.

Far more recently John Howard blindly followed Dick Cheney and George W. Bush in a futile bid to “sow seeds of democracy” in the Middle East. The picture throughout the whole region attests the error of that judgment. A similar decision to outsource Australia’s defence and foreign policy to one of the universally acknowledged worst-ever presidents, George Bush, in entering Afghanistan is yet to be evaluated as anything but a failure (not yet the disaster of Iraq) – but a failure nonetheless. Again, if words are your only weapon a focus on his party’s security record would hardly seem to be a winning campaign topic.

Malcolm, speaking to the press in his electoral announcement last Sunday, spoke of the excellence and importance of Australian science. As a senior Cabinet Minister he sat in mute support as Tony Abbott ripped $120 million from Australia’s world-class scientific organisation, the CSIRO – most of it coming from the climate research section. Despite his claims, Malcolm has done little to repair the damage. Eminent scientists, locally and around the world, have condemned and lamented the wanton destruction of this organisation. The propositions on which Malcolm seems anxious to build his marathon election campaign are beginning to look flimsy.

On an earlier day Malcolm, as opposition leader in 2009 declared that he did not want to lead a party, that did not want action on the world’s No1 problem, climate change. He again watched silently as Tony Abbott tried to damage or destroy every single government agency with any direct involvement in climate science. And, he produced a budget (election manifesto) without a single reference to climate change – another issue best avoided over a long coming eight weeks.

To the media on Sunday he described his proposed tax arrangements as ‘the best in the world’. Unless he’s at the Australia Club or the Melbourne Club, he might be wise to keep this also off his electoral agenda.

And on another popular Liberal line against Labor leader Shorten regarding his alleged role in the downfall of both Rudd and Gillard, Malcolm might also be more than somewhat restricted. Whatever Shorten’s involvement in either or both, immediate benefit to himself was nil. Malcolm’s own role in plotting the destruction of his leader, Tony Abbott, for his own considerable benefit has now been well documented and uncontested not only in the popular media but in several books.

Having chosen (or been compelled) to fight this election campaign largely on words rather than performance, Turnbull faces a long and hopefully not too inquisitorial media and more importantly Labor Opposition.

If he wanted a guide as to how it might play out, last Sunday’s meeting with the media at Parliament House after his visit to the Governor General at Yarralumla was hardly encouraging.

Questions largely ignored the issues Malcolm sought to promote. The first four questions were inquisitive – Malcolm might have deemed them hostile – they were certainly disregarding his hopeful message.

Malcolm – not his press officer called a halt to the conference.

He faces another eight weeks of this. While current figures in national polls indicate a win for his Liberals, Malcolm does not have the comfortable poll margins that Gorton and Bob Hawke enjoyed when they last sought to demolish opponents with a long election campaign.

There are risks involved – BE CAREFUL MALCOLM. Slogans and questionable assertions can be made to appear dangerously fragile to the electorate over a full-on eight week political stoush.

Warwick Elsche, Canberra correspondent.

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