05 August 2016
by Waleed Aly

Malcolm Turnbull: boxed in with nowhere to go

Everyone remembers Julia Gillard's "no carbon tax" moment. And everyone remembers the crippling broken promise that followed. What almost no one remembers is the policy disaster that preceded it: her "citizen's assembly".

This was a collection of ordinary Australians who would spend 12 months thinking about the best response to climate change and help the government develop a policy to price carbon. At no point did this make much sense. If the best climate change policy was to price carbon, then why bother with the assembly to deliver a predetermined result?

And if climate change was once the "great moral challenge of our time", why was one of the major parties – having run heavily on it in 2007 – suddenly throwing it to the punters to figure out?

Indeed "policy disaster" might be a generous description because it wasn't really a policy at all. It was more an attempt to avoid one. This, you will recall, was after Kevin Rudd dropped his ETS once the politics got a bit hard.

At length that cost him his polling and then his leadership. Gillard, clearly intimidated by Tony Abbott's scare campaign, was searching for the most inoffensive announcement she could find. So, after the election, when it was time to govern, she had nowhere to go: "I either stuck exactly to what I said just before the election, got no action on climate change, and did the wrong thing for the nation, or I found a way to get climate change action," she would later explain in a startling admission that she'd gone to the election with nothing of use.

All this came rushing back to me as Malcolm Turnbull's week unfolded. Sure, there has been no landmark catastrophe. In fact, there has been no landmark anything. Instead there has been a series of basic missteps that refuse to go away; a persistent, nagging sense that whatever the plan is meant to be, nothing is quite going according to it.

Consider the main talking points in politics at the moment. The decision not to nominate Rudd for UN Secretary General simply should never have hung over into this week. It should never have led to a conveyor belt of contradicting reports about whether or not Turnbull was reflecting cabinet's view, trumping it, or simply being left by his colleagues to make the decision himself.

Similarly, the decision to initiate a royal commission into juvenile detention in the Northern Territory should never have been mired in controversy over who would run it. It's one thing to set this up without consulting the indigenous community that is so disproportionately affected. It's another to appoint a commissioner who resigns in four days over a perceived conflict of interest.

But it's another again to follow that up with a new commissioner who has expressed a pre-determined view that the Northern Territory government be sacked. Now Turnbull has his own back bench attacking this appointment.

On first blush, this is a story of poor execution; of a government that struggles desperately to pull things off smoothly. But there's a common thread to these events that shouldn't be overlooked. In each of these cases, Turnbull is being reactive. These are not issues Turnbull is putting on the agenda, they are issues that have sought him out.

Events have a way of doing that to any leader, of course. But in this case they are so prominent because they're filling a vacuum. They're taking over Turnbull's agenda because, well, what competition is there?

We're now a month into this term of government, and no one seems to have answered the question: what now?

It's true parliament hasn't yet sat. And it's true that when it does, there's a chance it will be asked to deal with superannuation reform, company tax cuts, and maybe the re-establishment of the Australian Building and Construction Commission. But the ABCC – despite being the ostensible reason we had an early election – was hardly mentioned during the campaign and looks unlikely to pass a sceptical senate.

The company tax cuts were the centrepiece of the government's offering, and look equally unlikely to make it. The superannuation reforms probably would pass with Labor's support, but might not even get that far given how much Turnbull's own party room seem to detest them. There's a chance this could become Turnbull's equivalent of Abbott's paid parental leave scheme.

Turnbull's predicament now is that he won the election by being the smallest target he could be; by seeking the slimmest mandate possible. Perhaps he had no choice. His party is now so divided that almost anything he proposes will split it – as with superannuation – or be unpopular – as with company tax cuts.

He's boxed in with nowhere to go, much like Gillard was on climate in 2010. And indeed, much like Abbott was in 2013, when he promised a magic pudding of lower taxes, no spending cuts in key areas and yet still a repaired budget. Move in those circumstances, and you stand on a landmine you've laid for yourself. And so the record shows, each of those prime ministers was dismissed within a term.

This might be the great lesson of our political decade: that you can destroy your government before it begins by claiming victory on the wrong terms. Perhaps Turnbull is determined to avoid stepping on a landmine. But given the sheer number of mines around him, that means he'll have to be utterly motionless. And as events swirl around him that will pose a massive danger, because as we've seen this week, events can inflict their own wounds. And it's so much easier to hit a stationary target.