Minus Abbott’s obsessions, imperious new PM must mend fences and the economy

For the naturally authoritative Malcolm Turnbull, restoring a more consensual and consultative government will be a major challenge. AAP/Lukas Coch

When Bill Clinton built his 1992 US presidential campaign on the slogan “The economy, stupid”, he laid out the basic rule of Australian politics. Except in cases of a genuine threat to national security – which unluckily for Tony Abbott never arrived – governments can achieve little if they are perceived as mismanaging the economy.

Turnbull comes without Abbott’s baggage

Malcolm Turnbull made economic management central to his pitch for the Liberal Party leadership. So far he has given no indication of how he might change the policies and levers the Abbott government used to respond to the end of the mining boom and slowing growth in China.

But Turnbull comes without the two obsessions that dogged Abbott’s leadership: his preoccupation with the previous Labor government and his stake in the culture wars. With Abbott gone, Australia may finally have moved beyond the period of the Rudd/Gillard governments.

Abbott spoke constantly of ending the carbon and mining taxes, of stopping the boats, of winding back the deficit. Even the push for the free trade agreement with China was a continuation of Labor’s efforts in government, despite its current hostility to the agreement.

At the same time, Abbott and Treasurer Joe Hockey pursued a set of policies that, if successful, would have furthered inequality in Australia. Their attempts to cut spending and reduce taxes were so clearly aimed at helping those who are better off that they failed to win the support of either the voters or, in crucial cases, the Senate.

Meanwhile, Abbott was constantly distracted by the agendas of the culture wars – whether it was tilting at windmills (literally, in his dislike of wind farms) or attacking the ABC. His opposition to a conscience vote on same-sex marriage is the first time the Liberal Party has demanded of its parliamentarians greater subservience than does Labor.

Turnbull’s pitch

On non-economic issues Turnbull is known to be at odds with the man he replaced. It will take some agility to defend the complex and wasteful emissions reduction scheme that represents the government’s half-hearted response to climate change. But Turnbull could immediately alter perceptions by announcing that he, as head of government, will attend the Paris climate conference in December.

On economic management Turnbull might follow Bob Hawke’s lead and seek a national consensus through public consultation with stakeholders, aimed at new models of taxation and workplace regulation. Replacing Hockey and Employment Minister Eric Abetz should provide the opportunity to create a new discourse around these issues.

In his first press conference as leader Turnbull stressed that Australia’s is not a presidential system and that he would respect the traditions of cabinet government. But the prime minister chooses his cabinet, and this will determine much of the success of a Turnbull government.

Few ministers should stay in their current portfolios – the only obvious ones are Julie Bishop, who has confirmed she will stay in foreign affairs, and Sussan Ley in health. But radically reshaping cabinet could lead to a group of disgruntled conservatives sitting on the backbench. Expect a number of plushy diplomatic postings in the next year to remove some of them.

For Labor leader Bill Shorten, the change of leadership is a major blow to what seemed an easy ride to power. True, Shorten can no longer be attacked for being a backstabber. But it seems people warm to Turnbull in ways they did not to Abbott, whereas Shorten is not well liked.

For two years Shorten has played the attack-dog mode of opposition leader that worked so well for Abbott. My hunch is that most Australians – including many Labor voters – desperately want better government and would respect Shorten more were he to reach out to Turnbull and seek common ground.

Turnbull probably won over some of the Liberal Party hardheads because while they hate him they see as electorally less poisonous than Abbott – just as many Labor MPs swung back to Kevin Rudd out of despair. Turnbull’s greatest challenge is to make good government, not electability, central to everything he does.

I first encountered the new prime minister in a tutorial I ran at Sydney University in the 1970s. He already exhibited the charming imperiousness which remains his style. For someone who is naturally authoritative, restoring a more consensual and consultative government will be a major challenge.