Malcolm Turnbull takes delicate steps as he dances towards centre stage

The prime minister is trying hard to take the lead, and despite a few missteps some in the wings are hoping he’s back on the front foot

Way back when – when Malcolm Turnbull led the opposition in 2009 – he sought a bipartisan agreement with Labor on carbon pricing for two reasons. Fundamentally Turnbull supported the policy, and he was worried if the Coalition rejected that approach Kevin Rudd would respond by dragging the country to a double-dissolution election, where the opposition would be pulverised.

The story, as we all remember, didn’t end happily for Turnbull.

Given how fast politics moves in contemporary times, these events feel like they occurred a lifetime ago, but I imagine they are forever seared on the prime minister’s consciousness. If there’s a lesson from that experience for Turnbull it’s this: your piece of string is only ever so long. Move too far to the political centre, flirt with a measure of modernity and progressivism, and colleagues will tear you down.

Of course the prime minister doesn’t need the reminder of 2009 to know that leading the contemporary Liberal party is an intrinsically complex task, or that colleagues are eminently capable of going off on frolics of their own. You need only turn on 2GB, or open your inbox, or log on to Facebook to get latest missive from a conservative intent on a fresh bout of trolling, or experience the past week or so, where dissent has moved from a diverting fringe activity to more serious business as senior players have slugged out the internal deliberations around the non-nomination of Rudd to the United Nations.

Politics now blows like a typhoon, so if that’s the whistle of the wind, best get some in your sails. Turnbull is trying to catch some of the prevailing tempo to project himself as being above the fray. He’s trying to achieve some momentum, some cut through. But there’s been some chaos accompanying the acceleration: the Rudd implosion, a significant fumble on the royal commission into juvenile detention.

Turnbull is also chasing the news cycle, which is never a great sign that a prime ministerial ship is running smoothly. We saw that in his intervention on the banks and interest rates this week – a mildly Ruddesque “Do Something” moment where the commercial banks would be summonsed to front a parliamentary committee to, dare we say, Please Explain (themselves) – all a bit lame, but anything, really, to try to neutralise calls for a royal commission.

But if we look through the intra-day shallow breathing – bursts of granite-jawed activity choreographed and calculated to encourage talking heads in hermetically sealed television studios to opine that Turnbull is now “back on the front foot” (which, let’s be honest, works far more often that it should) – there’s also been some evidence of the prime minister trying to be strategic, and stamp his authority where and when he can.

His ministerial reshuffle was interesting in several ways. Turnbull used the requirement he faced post-election to give more positions to the Nationals as a mechanism for keeping the conservatives (slightly) in check. He also anointed Josh Frydenberg – a man on the move if we’ve ever seen one – to manage the seriously fraught business of imposing some semblance of reality and logic on the Coalition’s climate policies.

Frydenberg has stepped up to the task with alacrity, composing some quick parameters that signal the Coalition will be less boneheaded on renewables than it has been previously, but the government won’t reopen its own toxic internal debate about carbon pricing. I’m not yet sure whether that’s going to be as adventurous as it gets with Frydenberg (he really won’t be able to pull off holding the line on Direct Action forever – that will be run down by reality) but as signalling goes, it’s interesting. Greg Hunt this week also attempted to clean up the profound stupidity of the CSIRO pulling out of climate science research.

Fortunately conservatives were too preoccupied with their various bouts of mischief to stir the pot on what, for them, would be outright provocations. Perhaps common sense is less incendiary when it comes from someone other than Turnbull. Perhaps there will be angst. One thing is certain. There is always another news cycle.

We finally got the new Senate this week, and naturally most of the reporting focused on the crossbench, which is where the colour and movement is. The character of the Senate is absolutely not what Turnbull wanted, and it clearly won’t be easy, notwithstanding the fact that the prime minister (unlike Tony Abbott, who viewed someone disagreeing with him as a thought crime worthy of nuclear retaliation) has been flat out sending messages of inclusion, and offers of practical support.

But the numbers in the Senate do offer Turnbull some opportunity to hug the centre if that’s the way he wants to play it. The outliers will be keen to assert their newly acquired status as kingmakers of the 45th parliament, but the prime minister can work around them, by and large, if he chooses to.

Turnbull can engage and deal with Labor, given that’s where the weight of numbers are. But that would require a deal of humility on the part of the Coalition – not a collective strong suit. Humility doesn’t tend to go down well with Ray Hadley, which creates difficulties for some people.

In fairness to Turnbull and his senior colleagues, the Coalition can engage constructively with Labor only if Labor is inclined to engage. In a piece I wrote earlier this week, I pointed out that Labor is pulled in two different directions in this parliament: there is temptation to stand on the prime minister’s throat given the difficulties of his position, and given Labor is within striking distance of government; and there is the requirement to not overplay your hand, activity which can rebound on you both immediately and in the future.

An interesting early test of the major party relationship in this parliament will be the marriage equality plebiscite. It was executed in very low-key fashion but it is entirely consequential that the prime minister pulled Bill Shorten aside this week to try to get a sense of whether or not Labor is planning to blow up marriage equality very early in this parliament as a brutal political tactic to foment a civil war in government ranks.

Marriage equality, like carbon pricing in 2009, projects Turnbull into progressive territory, and that’s where things for him get dangerous internally. Turnbull comes at issues rationally, not ideologically. Politically speaking he’s a serial entrepreneur, not a culture warrior, so he lacks the deep tribal instincts that would guide a leader like John Howard through a complicated bout of internals. It’s always the point of Turnbull vulnerability: defaulting to reason, not instinct. So much of politics is institutional instinct, a kind of second sight that all successful leaders possess.

Labor has reached some firm conclusions about Turnbull since his return to the leadership. The principal conclusion is the prime minister isn’t very good at politics. The logic following that conclusion is if your opponent isn’t very good at politics, best mire him in that arena.

Labor knows marriage equality for Turnbull is hottest when the issue enters the parliamentary precinct. That’s why (apart from the substantive reason of working to achieve the end of discrimination) Labor has already signalled it will bring a marriage equality bill back to parliament when it resumes at the end of the month.

Turnbull knows that’s coming. The thing he doesn’t know is what Labor will do about the plebiscite. Labor doesn’t yet know what it will do about the plebiscite, because different people think different things.

Some oppose the plebiscite entirely on principle. There are genuinely held fears the campaign will be feral and the LGBTI community will have to endure an outburst of sanctioned hatred. Some Labor hard heads will feel the plebiscite shouldn’t drain too much internal energy or focus because many voters will view it as a “boutique” preoccupation, and the opposition would be better off directing efforts to peel back its conservative working base from Nick Xenophon and Pauline Hanson.

Some will think the plebiscite should be opposed on a simple political calculation: the process of a people’s vote takes the issue out of the cauldron of the parliament, presenting Turnbull with his best hope of steering himself away from the rocks. Turnbull has told some confidantes he’s not concerned about managing the Coalition’s internals in the plebiscite, because it’s like a rerun of the republican debate, a free process, where Howard said no and Peter Costello said yes, and everyone washed up convivially enough in the morning.

Labor can legitimately buy itself time on deciding how to approach the plebiscite by saying it can’t know which way to jump until it has straight answers to the following questions. What’s the question to be put to voters? What will be the funding for each campaign? Will anti-discrimination laws be adjusted as a consequence of having the debate?

As well as seeking answers to those questions Labor can insist on an answer to the most pertinent question of all: will Turnbull commit to leading the public debate?

This question works both at the substantive level and at the tactical level. It’s a more than reasonable question to ask, given this is the government’s process. At the tactical level it puts Turnbull’s authority in the frame. Will he be able to go into the campaign with no hesitations, compromises or hedging, because if he can’t, then the plebiscite becomes nothing more than a $160m get out of jail card for the prime minister. The case to ditch the plebiscite is strengthened if Turnbull lacks clear authority to lead.

In a way the looming deliberations and potential brinkmanship around the plebiscite process replays and reignites the tension that persists whenever Turnbull leads the Liberal party. At the end of the day, there is usually only one question, persisting through time, and circumstance and experience: a leitmotif. Can Turnbull track things back to the centre, and when push comes to shove, will his colleagues let him?


Katharine Murphy

The GuardianTramp

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