If there’s one serious politician worth observing today it’s Malcolm Turnbull, Australia’s 29th Prime Minister and leader of the Liberal Party (for the second time) since September last year. The Member for Wentworth had a long journey to the Premiership; his career looked dead in the water when Tony Abbott ousted him in a Canberra coup in 2009, only for him to make a Lazarus-like comeback and turn the tables on the ailing Abbott last (southern hemisphere) spring. His elevation to the highest office was immediately greeted with elation by many in the public as an end to the poisonous Rudd-Gillard-Rudd-Abbott years. Despite coming in the same way as Gillard and Rudd, Turnbull, Australia’s sixth prime minister in eight years was seen as representing the opportunity for a clean break.
Initially Turnbull’s public ratings soared, and his centrist and soothing tones and desire to lead a truly liberal government were seen as just the tonic for a nation weary of angry and divisive political discourse. Labor was seen as destined for defeat in the next federal election (due before October this year), but soon the manner of Turnbull’s coming to office began to pose problems, as Abbott refused to gracefully exit stage left and damaging leaks started appearing. For anyone who remembers Labor’s disastrous 2010 election campaign where the Rudd forces unleashed their full fury on Gillard with savage leaking and character assassination it all began to feel a little familiar. In recent weeks the charge has been that ‘the great communicator’, a term used seriously and mockingly down-under, was good at waffling but less good at action. Malcolm the ditherer began to emerge as a political character whilst the hyperactive Abbott remained a dark and brooding literal and figural presence in the corridors of Parliament House. Last week for the first time his approval ratings went into negative territory, he was still seen as by far the likeliest winner of this year’s election, but the shine had come off and the spectre of Abbott threatened to haunt him into the next parliament if his victory was less than impressive.
Then in one fell swoop, on a quiet Monday morning this week when parliament wasn’t even sitting, Turnbull took the political world by surprise and turned the tables. The only warning Canberra had was an email giving journalists precisely 13 minutes warning that the Prime Minister was going to give a press conference on an unannounced subject. The Prime Minister announced that the Senate would be recalled to sit for three weeks if necessary to pass a bill on construction reform, a bland phrase which hides an issue of great political significance. If the Senate failed to pass the Bill the Prime Minister would advise a double dissolution of both houses of Parliament and an election in July.
The Australian construction industry, and therefore the wider economy, is being badly damaged by a rogue trade union, the CFMEU, which is able to strong-arm construction companies into bad working practices that are inflating Australian construction costs by 25-30%. Construction is a big deal in a growing country like Australia and the economic cost of the current malpractice is hurting ordinary Australians pockets and wider prosperity. To tackle this the Liberal Party has long wanted to reintroduce a specialised federal regulator, the Australian Building and Construction Commission, which was created by John Howard’s government only to be dismantled by the Rudd government. This attempt has already failed once in the Senate, the CFMEU is a major donor to Labor and the Greens and enough crossbenchers in the senate were also supportive of the Union (and opposed to the government) to defeat the last attempt to pass the bill.
In the stealth of his actions lies the stroke of genius Turnbull has just pulled off, the Australian Labor Party has been called by some the greatest practitioner of Machiavellian politics in the modern democratic world, but Malcolm Turnbull may give them pause for thought. Cooperating in a usually unholy alliance with the Greens the government has just passed a senate reform bill, which will likely benefit the Greens at the expense of Labor, and reduce the number of crossbench Senators going forwards. If the Greens had had any whiff of Turnbull’s next move then they would not have cooperated. Now crossbench senators face an unpalatable choice, pass Turnbull’s bill and serve out the rest of their senate terms for 3 to 4 years or face a double dissolution and go to the polls at the same time as the House of Representatives and face unemployment in three months.
Simultaneously Turnbull has united the fractious Liberal Party behind a cause – construction reform, it feels passionately about, and given the government a popular message to go into the next election with, whether it be a successful bill passed and an Autumn election or a message of re-elect us and enough of our Senators to deliver this bill. Turnbull the ditherer returned overnight to Malcolm the master politician, even getting to have his fun with his critics, wryly observing after his political earthquake that “just because the press gallery doesn’t know what I’m doing doesn’t mean that I don’t know what I’m doing.” If any politician is worth political students watching this year more than the car crash Trump circus, it’s Malcolm Turnbull.