By Anne Summers
Photograph by Alex Ellinghausen
It was 1964 when Donald Horne wrote in his totemic book The Lucky Country that our politicians “cling to power but fail to lead” but he could just as well have written it last week.
When a prime minister goes on television and promises he will provide “leadership”, as Malcolm Turnbull did on Wednesday over the supposed crisis in gas and other energy supplies, you have to wonder what he thinks his job is if not to lead. All the time.
Yet as voters quickly realised in the months after Turnbull replaced Tony Abbott in the nation’s top job, he does not have it in him.
Rebecca Huntley, the social researcher whose new book Still Lucky sets out to test whether Australians still think they live in a blessed land, quotes one person as saying he “had great hopes for Malcolm Turnbull … but he’s been a massive disappointment”.
Huntley writes that she was “shocked” at how quickly Turnbull’s stocks fell with voters. It was over December 2015/January 2016 – a mere three months into the job and a time when most of us focus on families and holidays rather than politics – that the realisation hit that our new leader was not going to cut the mustard.
And although he scraped back into office in the July 2016 election, Turnbull continues to disappoint voters who, Huntley writes, initially felt his elevation to the prime ministership “meant the end of a period of intense embarrassment and the restoration of some national pride”.
That disappointment is still there, as reflected in the national polls which show the Coalition with 45 per cent of the two-party preferred vote to Labor’s 55 per cent, according to the latest Newspoll.
These figures match exactly the numbers that saw the Coalition government of Colin Barnett swept from office in Western Australia last Saturday. If that vote was replicated at federal level, 10 of the 11 Liberal lower house MPs would lose their seats, leaving Julie Bishop as the sole remaining Liberal member.
Yet the political response following the election from one of those likely casualties was to claim voters “want results” from the federal government.
Not on power ownership, a major issue in WA, or economic management or housing affordability. No.
“We need a change to 18C soon, particularly after the death of [controversial political cartoonist] Bill Leak, one of Australia’s most courageous defenders of free speech,” said Andrew Hastie, the former military man who has represented Canning since 2015 . “We can’t afford more unnecessary persecution of good people.”
Talk about living in La-La Land.
Of all the issues that make Australians yearn for smart leadership, changing laws to enable us to make racially spiteful comments about other Australians is not even on the radar.
Instead, Huntley reports, there is widespread agreement among voters that we want a strong public healthcare system, serious investment in all levels of education from preschool to university, a world-class broadband network and we want to live in energy-efficient cities.
“We think Australia should lead the world in inventing and investing in green technology, especially in relation to solar”, she reports.
Which is perhaps why Turnbull felt compelled to tout his leadership credentials in this area after South Australian Premier Jay Weatherill shocked the country with his battery storage proposals – and his plan for a new government-funded gas plant.
The WA election, like the Queensland election before it, has made clear that voters want to feel secure when it comes to energy and we trust governments to deliver. Weatherill’s intervention – along with a less publicised similar announcement in Victoria the same day – caught the public mood. So much so that the very next day the Turnbull government was jumping on board the state-own energy assets bandwagon with a promise to add massive new capacity to the Snowy Hydro-electric scheme.
Whether voters will buy this rapid conversion to the proselytising of state-owned energy assets remains to be seen but at least he is responding to a real political issue – unlike so many of his party room whose obsession with 18C and against marriage equality render them totally unrepresentative of the electorate. Yet the way they have their hooks into Turnbull is a major factor in enfeebling his leadership, perhaps terminally so.
Interestingly, Huntley finds voters now want leaders like Gough Whitlam, Malcolm Fraser and Paul Keating. The electorate hated these men before booting them out of office but today are retrospectively appreciated for being strong and principled.
Even Julia Gillard is now being given credit by conservative voters for how she managed the hung parliament and pushed through major reforms like Gonski and the NDIS.
“The Australian electorate is more progressive, smarter and more united than many of our leaders (and certainly big slabs of the media) imagine,” says Huntley.
And, it seems, increasingly willing to toss out a government that is seen as clinging and not leading.
This article was first published in the Sydney Morning Herald on 18 March 2017.