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A former leader’s advice: in a crisis, have the courage to break with the past

3 March 2017

By forcing Malcolm Turnbull to behave like Tony Abbott, the Nationals have gravely damaged the government. But Black Jack McEwen showed how that can change


Your move, deputy PM? David Moir/AAP Image

Your move, deputy PM? David Moir/AAP Image

In October 1970, a young Laurie Oakes interviewed an old Sir John McEwen, the legendary leader of the Country Party (now the Nationals), long-time deputy and strong right arm of Sir Robert Menzies. One of the things the old warrior had to tell him was why he admired so much his former adversary, the Labor leader John Curtin.

“Curtin found himself prime minister while we were at war, and his party was completely unprepared for the violent policies necessary,” said McEwen. “He had never been a minister, and he had to handle the crisis by introducing conscription and wage-fixing policies completely repugnant to the Labor Party. He faced up to this without a flinch, and I admire his courage and sense of duty.”

In his memoirs, McEwen elaborated:

Curtin had to decide whether he would go along with the historic attitude his party had taken to conscription, or pick up the responsibilities of the prime minister of a country at war. He did the latter, showing a willingness to take on people in his own party when he felt that the well-being of Australia required it. I think Curtin was a very great man.

McEwen himself was likewise a man of courage, as Peter Golding demonstrated in his 1996 biography, Black Jack McEwen: Political Gladiator. As a young MP, he was expelled from the Victorian branch of his party for refusing to obey head office dictates; he ignored them, and head office backed down. Two years later, he challenged his autocratic and feared leader, Archie Cameron, only to lose in bizarre circumstances when he and a third candidate, former leader Sir Earle Page, ended up twice tied at nine-all, with a sulking Cameron refusing to vote. A non-candidate, Arthur Fadden, was drafted to serve as a compromise temporary leader; he stayed in the job for eighteen years.

It was McEwen who drove one of the bravest, and most unpopular, decisions any Australian government has made: negotiating a trade agreement with Japan, a few years after the war that had left many Australians, including his own followers, with a deep hatred for the Japanese. Like Curtin, McEwen took on his own side because he felt the national interest required it. His proposed deal was twice rejected by Menzies and the cabinet. But McEwen persisted until they allowed him to open negotiations – and even then they distanced themselves almost until the deal was done.

Why recall this ancient history now, in 2017, at a time when the Coalition is in crisis, trailing far behind in the polls, and experienced observers are saying that Malcolm Turnbull’s days as prime minister are numbered? Because we need to recognise that it is not just Turnbull who has squandered his opportunity to restore the Coalition as the natural party of government in Australia. It is the cabinet, the Coalition backbench and, above all, John McEwen’s old party, the Nationals, who share the blame, by not allowing Turnbull to be Turnbull.

The election is still far away. The Coalition could make its way back. But the way back is not to try to make the Coalition more like One Nation. At last year’s election, One Nation stood in every state for the Senate and won 4 per cent of the vote. The latest Newspoll has them at 8 per cent, and even that relies on the Coalition’s refusal to criticise Pauline Hanson and her party. This is not because Hanson has changed, as they claim; she hasn’t. They are silent because they see One Nation’s three Senate votes as essential to pass legislation opposed by Labor and the Greens.

It’s time to take stock. This week’s Newspoll reports that the government now trails Labor 45–55. That’s an even worse deficit than it had in Tony Abbott’s final polls. Correct me if I am wrong, but I can’t recall any government coming back from so far behind to win the next election. Turnbull’s own satisfaction rating is down to 29 per cent, with a staggering 59 per cent of Australians dissatisfied with his leadership.

No realist can flick that away as merely an opinion poll. Nine of the past fifteen elections in this country have seen governments voted out; in a tenth (South Australia), the government also lost the vote, but hung on thanks to independents. The bookies rate it as odds-on that Western Australia’s election on 18 March will be the tenth of the last sixteen elections to vote the government out.

Let’s wind the clock back eighteen months. When the Liberals chose Turnbull to be their leader, it was because they were staring defeat in the face. They had lost thirty consecutive Newspolls, the last three of which showed the Coalition trailing Labor 46–54. Only someone as self-indulgent as Abbott could believe he was heading for victory in 2016.

The impact of the leadership change was immediate. Two months later, the Coalition had soared to a 53–47 lead in the same poll, a shift of 7 per cent. Abbott’s net satisfaction rating in his final poll was minus 33; Turnbull’s satisfaction rating after two months was plus 38. Abbott had trailed Shorten as preferred prime minister by 37–41; by November, Turnbull led Shorten 64–15.

By electing Turnbull as its leader, the Coalition had given itself a new lease of life. The Australian public knew him and liked him. People recognised what he stood for: he was an intelligent, forward-looking leader in the mainstream of Australian thinking, who had spoken out on issues such as tackling climate change and allowing same-sex marriage. To state the obvious, he, and the Coalition, had become popular because that is the way people thought he was going to govern.

But that was not the way the Coalition was going to let him govern. It was not going to let Turnbull be Turnbull.

Much of the blame for this rests on the shoulders of the National Party. Even with the ultra-reasonable Warren Truss as its leader, it hit Turnbull with a long list of demands in return for its support. Along with rural pork-barrelling and some mild challenges on behalf of the downtrodden, it demanded that Turnbull pledge not to reintroduce an emissions trading scheme, or discard the Coalition’s policy for a plebiscite on same-sex marriage.

In hindsight, we can say that Turnbull should have rejected this. Just as William Pitt the younger, then aged twenty-three, refused the prime ministership of Great Britain until he could take it with a clear majority (as he did a few months later), so Turnbull should have held out until he could take power on his own terms. But at the time, that didn’t seem a plausible course.

He had managed to haul himself over the line to become leader by winning the backing of Liberal MPs and senators who were on the conservative side of the party but saw that Abbott was fatally wounded. To defy the Nationals’ ultimatum would put their support at risk, and he needed a clean handover with a minimum of fuss. So he succumbed.

At the time, the consequences weren’t obvious. As Turnbull’s popularity swept the Coalition back into the lead, we assumed that he would win a thumping victory at the 2016 election and that would give him the power to get his way. Instead, he allowed himself to be beaten back on tax reform, abandoned Scott Morrison’s plans to limit negative gearing, and made no substantial changes to the policies he had inherited from Tony Abbott, apart from secretly negotiating the refugee swap with the United States, which so far has had no effect.

Australia had welcomed the arrival of Malcolm Turnbull as leader. But instead, we got Malcolm Abbott: a more articulate spokesman, with the same hard-right policies.

Take same-sex marriage. It is one of those issues on which the public has made up its mind. The latest Newspoll on the issue last September found 62 per cent of Australians – including 53 per cent of Coalition voters – support its legalisation, with only 32 per cent opposed. The Abbott policy of insisting on a non-binding plebiscite, once popular, now has only 39 per cent support.

Australians just want the issue dealt with, and they expect the Turnbull government to do it. Instead, unable to win Senate support for a plebiscite, it has done nothing. And that’s the Turnbull government in a nutshell. It is seen as doing nothing; it is seen as failing to lead. That isn’t because Turnbull lacks the ability to do so, but because he has not been allowed to.

True, unless he is hiding a lot from us, Turnbull appears to have gone along with this. He’s made his share of mistakes, as most of us do. And above all, perhaps, his obvious love of being prime minister seems to have dulled his awareness of the catastrophic consequences of being a leader who is unable to lead us anywhere.

The one person who can do most to save the Turnbull government is the man who now sits in John McEwen’s place: Barnaby Joyce, the deputy prime minister and National Party leader.

Just as McEwen and Curtin confronted their own parties in times of crisis with the need to change deeply entrenched policies, Joyce needs to do so now. His government has allowed issue after issue to fester, trying to find political angles to exploit rather than solving the problems. Don’t they ever ask themselves what voters want?

Joyce – and his conservative colleagues in the Liberal Party – need to give Turnbull the space to cut through on some of the issues that are wearing down the Coalition’s popularity. To take a few examples:

• Same-sex marriage. The political manoeuvres have failed, and it’s become a dead weight the Coalition has to carry. Let Turnbull fix it by moving for a free vote in parliament.

• Housing affordability. I suspect nothing depresses Australians more than the problems they and/or their kids face in trying to buy a home in the capital cities, especially Sydney and Melbourne. Everyone knows that negative gearing and capital gains tax breaks are a big part of the problem – and while they are there, homes in the cities will not be affordable. Turnbull’s tax paper in 2005 suggested he understood that. There are many ways to tackle these twin problems, so the Coalition can find its own solution – so long as it will actually solve the problem.

• An emissions intensity scheme. It’s not a carbon tax, it’s not an emissions trading scheme, and it beats renewable energy targets as a least-cost way to drive emissions down. The electricity industry wants it, their big industrial customers want it, the chief scientist wants it, Turnbull’s handpicked Climate Council wants it, the Business Council and the Australian Industry Group want it… need one go on? Do it, and you solve the central problem of climate change policy. A bipartisan agreement will unblock investment in new generating stations at last, and in the long run, the main beneficiaries will be Australia’s farmers, the biggest losers from climate change.

• Struggling families and the deficit. Wealthy Australians have had a generation of doing it very nicely, thank you. It’s time they/we gave something back to shrink the deficit, instead of the government forever looking for ways to take money off the poorest. Why not drop the welfare cuts the Senate opposes, and look for ways to lift revenues – not by raising taxes, but by closing the loopholes that still allow rich people to pay less than their share?

• Infrastructure. Australia invests far too little for a country whose cities are adding a million people every three years, 300,000 of them in Melbourne alone. While congestion is mounting in the cities, money is being wasted on duplicating low-traffic rural highways, in projects yielding negative returns. As on other issues, ministers know what to do. They would get far more credit from voters if they fixed the problems instead of trying to play politics with them.

• And, finally, the government should find a way to take a fresh look at perhaps the biggest issue in voters’ minds: who is being left out of the gains from Australia’s economic growth, and what can be done about it? The Productivity Commission is the wrong body to ask, because too often its doctrinaire economics has been part of the problem. If the Nationals feel threatened by One Nation, why not respond with an honest, open look at why so many Australians, especially in regional Australia, have missed out, and what policies would work best to spread the gains.

Coalition frontbenchers, backbenchers, and particularly the Nationals, must be honest with themselves: by forcing Turnbull to govern like Abbott, they are driving the government towards the same cliff they faced under Abbott. Most of them share the blame for its collapsing support. Australia wants leadership. The government is not generating it.

Bill Hartley is a forgotten name now. But for years he was one of the linchpins of the Coalition’s success. He was Labor’s state secretary in Victoria in the 1960s, and with a cohort of far-left union leaders he focused almost entirely on securing their dominance of the Victorian Labor Party, rather than helping Labor get into government – until Gough Whitlam and the party’s federal executive intervened in 1970 to boot him off the stage.

The Coalition today seems to be increasingly dominated by its own Bill Hartleys, people focused on securing conservative dominance of the party, even if it ends the party’s dominance of politics. Malcolm Turnbull’s star still shone just brightly enough to win them the 2016 election; it has gone out now. If they want to win the next election, they have to step back, and let it shine again. They have to let Turnbull be Turnbull.

If the Nationals are frightened of One Nation, then the Coalition needs to treat it like the opponent it is, exposing its idiocies, while tackling the problems that are generating its support. But the votes the Coalition needs to win back to get over 50 per cent of the vote are not to its right but in the middle, and that is the direction it needs to move in, and govern from.

Only one person can take the lead in doing that. It is John McEwen’s heir, Barnaby Joyce. He needs to match the old leader’s foresight, courage, and sense of responsibility. •

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