Malcolm Turnbull rallying cry must be pro-economic rational

To my dear conservative friends inside and outside parliament, I know you are upset at the demise of your putative leader, Tony Abbott, whom I hold in high regard. May I kindly implore you, however, to pull your heads in?

I say putative conservative leader because the electorate, political moments and the party determine the room to manoeuvre for any leader. The leanings of the leader are not always, indeed not often, decisive. Conservatives can put pressure on the new leader, the same as the old. It may be a little harder, but Malcolm Turnbull will be focused on the economy, and what does conservative mean in that context? In any event, climate-change responses and gay marriage have been given their political fix.

Think about it. Abbott took the leadership in a party ballot. Abbott lost the leadership in a party ballot. Turnbull lost the leadership in a party ballot. Turnbull retook the leadership in a party ballot. In a Westminster system, the party determines the leader.

The electorate will judge the rightness of the party’s decision.

Think about the bigger picture. As a result of the leadership coup, Bill Shorten is less likely to win government. That appalling pair of labour lawyers, Penny Wong and Mark Dreyfus, who tried to close down a royal commission — the effect of which would have been to protect corrupt unionists — will not return to government. Chris Bowen, who thinks Wayne Swan (world-beating deficits) was a better treasurer than Peter Costello (world-beating surpluses), will not return to government (although in time he may recant his position privately). Tanya Plibersek and Anthony Albanese, spokespeople for the inner-city haters of liberty and freedom, and increasingly captive to Greens, will not return to government.

The Coalition is a coalition, the Nationals are the conservative rump, and it is not going away. Conservatives such as Scott Morrison, Alex Hawke and Scott Ryan are on the rise. Deposed conservatives retain their vote in the party room. Joe Hockey, a liberal, is leaving altogether.

Think of what is locked in. Abbott was not a leader in economic matters. His greatest contribution was to secure Australia’s borders by stopping the boats and thereby restore meaning to Australian citizenship and Australia’s immigration program.

His second greatest contribution was to fashion a practical response to climate change that held out the best hope of wasting the least amount of public money on an unsolvable problem.

Neither position will change under a Turnbull government. Turnbull knows any leader who steps out of line will be torn down.

Think of what follows. The economy is in good shape, but government budgets are not. Turnbull stands a good chance of having some (net) savings measures passed in the Senate. He also has to make room for deals with profligate state governments to clear a path to surplus. All in the Coalition agree on this and Labor is the enemy of surplus budgets. The path to surplus is unclear; the “conservative” path is but one.

Think of the key positions and their political leanings. Turnbull: social wet, economic dry. Warren Truss: social dry, economic wet. Julie Bishop: social wet, economic dry(ish). Morrison: social dry, economic dry. Left Right, Right Left; so the march goes on through the Coalition ranks. Turnbull’s role is to let them have a voice, Bob Hawke and John Howard-style, and having done so get out and sell, Paul Keating-style.

Turnbull’s liberal tendencies will be displayed, in all likelihood, in the new and lesser portfolios awarded, for example, to Jamie Briggs, Minister for Cities. I have a feeling the PM’s wife Lucy Turnbull, a former lord mayor of Sydney, may have a hand in this one. This is a concession to the Labor Party’s love affair with cities, last incarnated with Brian Howe as deputy prime minister.

Hopefully, however, Turnbull’s emphasis will be tax-driven, not spending-driven. By this, for example, he could do a deal with the states to cut state taxes on house purchases to allow workers to move to work, not travel to work. The best the commonwealth can do to rebalance the federation is nudge states into relying on less economically harmful taxes. This could be the new micro-economic reform.

In so many portfolios, the conservative position is not apparent. The rallying cry for all Coalition members should be pro-economically rational; how rational will be determined by salesmanship, not philosophic tendencies.

So, conservative friends, there is work to do.


Originally published in The Australian September 22nd 2015