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Malcolm Turnbull, PM: And then there was hope

Time is running out for the new Prime Minister to extract himself from this policy and political mess.

Malcolm Turnbull is in the midst of a high-risk metamorphosis that will mightily dismay some of his most ardent supporters and increase the prospect of a winter campaign and a July 2 double dissolution election.

It is the transformation from charming persuader to brazen scaremongerer, from agent of optimism to voice of doom, and from true believer to barrister with a brief.

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It's a change based on the calculation that Turnbull has to trade some of the huge cache of goodwill he still enjoys with voters to counter the Labor ascendancy on policy that is reflected in the tightening of the polls.

It's only a holding position and it makes most sense if Turnbull plans to go to the people seeking an end to Senate obstruction and a mandate to implement a policy agenda that is still incomplete.

The dangers are everywhere: recalcitrants on the backbench who will revolt if Turnbull proposes anything they do not like; a Treasurer still struggling to justify his can-do reputation; and the prospect of Australia's longest election campaign since the 10-week odyssey of 1984.

But the biggest danger is that the approach invites cynicism on two fronts. The first is that Turnbull's scaremongering is at odds with his previously stated convictions on negative gearing. Just like his embrace of a plebiscite on marriage equality, or "direct action" on climate change. This is why he needs to announce his tax plans sooner rather than later and focus on his blueprint for the future.


The second front, if he calls a double dissolution election, is that he will be seen to be going early for fear that his stocks will erode further if he goes full term – and be marked down by the voters for being just another politician after promising to be so much more. This is why I still expect him to go full term, with September 10 a likely date.

Five months after promising to respect the intelligence of voters and provide economic leadership, Turnbull has embraced the overblown rhetoric of the man he tore down, branding Labor's policy on negative gearing a "wrecking ball", calculated to "undermine the security of the country's economy".

Five months after promising "advocacy, not slogans", he has coined a line as crude and punchy as "stop the boats": "Vote Labor and be poorer."

This is not what we expected: a government behaving like an accident-prone opposition, and an opposition performing like a government, setting the agenda and deflecting exaggerated claims.

No wonder the Australian Industry Group's Innes Willox says business leaders are yearning for something better: "I talked to a lot of CEOs this week and they're just hoping that a bit of normality returns – and we haven't had normality for a long time – with some serious discussion on the big issues."

No wonder economist Saul Eslake is "gobsmacked" by Turnbull's assault on Labor's negative gearing policy: "I completely disagree with the Prime Minister's assessment and have been disappointed, nay stunned, that he of all people would resort to this kind of scare campaign."

This is not what we expected: a government behaving like an accident-prone opposition, and an opposition performing like a government – setting the agenda and deflecting exaggerated claims.

What has fuelled the double dissolution talk is that Turnbull's embrace of negativity has coincided with the decision to rush through the most important changes to Senate voting rules in 30 years.

Viewed in isolation, the changes are a measured response to an investigation into the manipulation of the voting system by micro-parties at the last election, which saw Ricky Muir manage to secure a seat in the Senate with only 0.51 per cent of the formal vote.

This is why Labor's spokesman of electoral matters, Gary Gray, supports the changes, though he would have preferred that all of the recommendations of parliament's joint standing committee on electoral matters were adopted.

Viewed through the prism of narrow self-interest, however, they represent a possible advantage to the Coalition, which is why Gray was rolled and Labor declared its opposition.

As Labor's Kim Carr told the Senate: "[This] is about exercising a purge of this chamber to secure the future political agenda of the hard right wing of the Liberal Party, and the Greens should be ashamed of themselves for being associated with it."

Turnbull, meanwhile, is fighting on two fronts. The public front is an all-out attack on Labor's negative gearing policy, one that asserts it will remove all investors from the market and put Australians' savings at risk. No wonder Eslake is gobsmacked.

"What Labor's policy would do is reduce the number of negatively geared investors who buy established properties and, in all likelihood, reduce the amount which investors are willing to borrow and hence the amount they are prepared to pay – and this, in turn, would remove an important source of upward pressure on prices," the economist explains.

"But this is a good thing! And in my view Labor should be talking this aspect of the policy up – because it is one of the objectives of removing negative gearing, to reduce the competition which would-be home buyers face from investors who get their interest costs subsidised by other taxpayers through negative gearing.

"That's why I say that it's hard to think of anything a federal government could do that would do more to assist would-be first home buyers to achieve their aspirations than to get rid of negative gearing."

The private front is to finalise the tax policy Turnbull will take to the people, a project being undermined by internal disagreements on whether it should be produced before the budget or as part of it (expect it before) and sabotage from backbenchers threatening to campaign against any change to negative gearing.

Next week Hawthorn's four-time premiership coach, Alastair Clarkson, will visit Canberra to attend a dinner with club supporters in Parliament House. The following night, the country's second-longest serving prime minister, John Howard, will be honoured at a dinner to mark the 20th anniversary of his 1996 victory.

Turnbull could do a lot worse that ask either or both of them to address his cabinet or his MPs on the importance of laying down clear goals, discipline, a team mindset, clear communication and keeping egos in check.

If the Prime Minister wants to know why Labor is back in the game, all he needs to do is reflect of the performance of each side in each of these areas. When he toppled Abbott, the mood of the electorate was one of optimism and hope, almost in equal measure. Now it is down to hope.

Michael Gordon is political editor of The Age.


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