It was quite an extraordinary statement from a hard-headed business leader when Catherine Livingstone told Malcolm Turnbull that “in just seven weeks … the impact you have had on national sentiment is almost unparalleled”.
The Business Council of Australia (BCA) president was introducing Turnbull at a BCA function where, according to the Australian Financial Review’s gossip column, the mood was “more ecstatic Pentecostal megachurch than dour business dinner”.
Turnbull is running his government on a high-octane fuel of positivity, a brew in which style and tone are paramount over substance and detail.
This is not to say the latter are not on the way, or indeed to criticise the approach. But it is to marvel at how well Turnbull can buy himself much-needed time by the sheer deployment of his personality, by almost mesmerising his audiences, whether they be elites or ordinary electors.
His bag of tools includes hyper-optimism, organising concepts (notably, innovation) and key exhortations (especially the need for agility – we must acquire “the culture of agility that enables us to make volatility our friend”).
He repeatedly tells us “we are living in the best times in human history. There has never been a more exciting time to be an Australian.”
He chides and challenges those who point to obstacles – such as his flash of annoyance when University of Melbourne vice-chancellor Glyn Davis gave an apparently too negative answer to a prime ministerial question about university-business collaboration.
“That is a rather defeatist and dispiriting [view],” Turnbull told Davis during an exchange at a Melbourne Institute economic forum this week. “Most people are much more optimistic about Australian business and Australian universities than you appear to be … You’re running against the vibe. You haven’t got the new zeitgeist. The new zeitgeist, Glyn, is to believe in yourself, is to have a go.”
The lecture went on, with Turnbull warning Davis that if he was defeatist, his students would lose faith in him. Davis fought back; Turnbull told him to be “bouncier”.
Turnbull’s upbeat world is brought to us in language rich in word pictures. A vivid example is how we should think about reform.
… should not be seen as a once in a decade or two convulsion, accompanied by a hyperbolic scare campaign. Rather it should be seen as a change of political culture that sees us like the sailor, surrounded by the uncertainty of the sea and the wind, who knows only two things for sure – where she needs to go and that she has the skill to get there.
Sometimes the sailor reaches the mark with rapid ease, her sails big-bellied in a following wind; sometimes with slow and deliberate tenacity, sails close-hauled, tacking into the teeth of a gale. But her vision is as clear as her destination is certain. How to get there and how quickly is the measure of her skill.
There, that makes you feel better about tax change with an increased GST, doesn’t it?
Turnbull promises practicality, partnerships and pragmatism: “adjust, tweak – agility is the key, the objective is what we’re all about”. If a policy doesn’t work, “chuck it out” (overboard?), and let no-one breathe backflip. If somebody else is achieving your objective in a better way, “copy them, take it over”. This presumably extends to snitching anything useful from Labor.
The man who made a fortune in business looks to bring the business approach to politics. “What we are seeking to do is to talk about policy in the same way practical men and women in the business world have been doing forever.”
And then there is the inclusiveness, the Turnbull brand of team Australia. In the great tax project, it is vital to bring everyone into the debate, including references to “organised labour” and the Australian Council of Social Service (ACOSS) and – with a mind to ACOSS’s modelling of the regressive effects of a GST rise – to point out it’s fine if contributions are critical.
On Thursday, Turnbull went through two high-powered business functions staying in the stratosphere, feet avoiding the hard earth of specifics. It’s so annoying when Treasurer Scott Morrison blahs on in generalities but Turnbull can do it engagingly. That’s charisma for you.
Apart from his own skill at capturing an audience – and not just those in the room – Turnbull is benefiting enormously from the contrast with what went before. It is as though, having emerged from a bleak and windy winter shut up in a prison, we’re in the sun and on a beach.
In language suggesting Turnbull had actually unshackled us, Livingstone said: “You have given us the permission to have conversations about things that matter to people.”
Conversations around that table from which nothing can be removed – until Turnbull tells us what he’s taking off.
This state of affairs presents an immediate challenge for Bill Shorten. Shorten wants to persuade people that Turnbull is a full-of-talk salesman, who also has unpleasant policies in store.
The opposition’s problem is that just now people are enjoying the sunshine. They might sense that Turnbull is spinning a tale but this political romance about a better world that is within grasp is attractive, compared with both the old Abbott-Hockey lectures of gloom and sacrifice and Labor’s current worthy but uninspiring pitch that you feel any minute could degenerate into power points.
Shorten is caught between sarcastic digs at some pretentious prime ministerial phraseology and trying to match Turnbull in areas such technology and innovation, where Labor had been outlining positions before the political world changed. But Shorten can’t compete with his opponent’s silky tones; also, trying to puncture the Turnbull balloon can grate with the current public mood.
The Coalition government has finally found a narrative and a good narrator who is laying out a last chapter where everyone lives more or less happily ever after in this high velocity world. He just hasn’t spelled out the in-between bits.
It’s not clear how much Turnbull yet knows of what he will propose over the next few months. We certainly can’t predict what the reaction will be when he has to land the specifics of the vision thing.
A leader who captures the imagination of the public – one people want to succeed – can fall hard when reality sets in. Remember Kevin Rudd. On the other hand, such a leader can turn people’s desire to believe into substantial political currency to be spent on making difficult but necessary changes, as Bob Hawke did.
It won’t be until Turnbull has to start delivering – and the first test will be next month’s innovation statement – that we, and perhaps he, will begin to glean whether he can live up to his captivating rhetoric.