Is Malcolm Turnbull like an airline pilot, happy enough to address his passengers but reluctant to take the plane off auto-pilot?
Advocates for the prosecution would cite the two big non-decisions of avoiding big-bang tax reform and eschewing an early double-dissolution election. Except that the latter may not be the case at all. More on that presently.
Explainer: double dissolution elections
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Explainer: double dissolution elections
Double dissolution elections can be called early, but they can also radically change the make up of the Senate, explains Chris Hammer.
Plenty has been written this week about what a levelling of opinion polls means for Turnbull. The answer to that is probably not much. Unless, that is, it forces an already timid PM further into his shell.
Yes it is true that Labor has become competitive again, after an immediate post-coup slump. But Labor's latest recovery should be seen in large measure as a function of the government's sub-optimal performance. None of which is intended to down-play Labor's boldness in getting substantial policy into the marketplace ahead of the government.
The replacement of Tony Abbott with Turnbull last September, however, exposed Labor's lead as essentially hollow – mostly a function of Abbott's failings, rather than genuine voter affection. It all made sense. With a popular Liberal in charge, the polls seemed to be telling us, the next election was more or less decided: game over.
Then came the summer of discontent capped off with the last two major public opinion surveys, Fairfax-Ipsos and Newspoll. These snapshots charted the Coalition lead over Labor closing rapidly first to 52-48 and then to 50-50 as of last weekend.
Turnbull's response on Monday – the day of the 50-50 outcome – was to stumble, erring on the side of exaggeration as he assured Parliament that an increase in the capital gains tax was in no way part of the government's thinking "whatsoever".
It seemed an odd statement for a PM who started out promising not to rule things in or out. It was rendered even odder when he backtracked the next day in Parliament, lawyerly claiming his answer had applied to housing exclusively. Ahem.
Turnbull's promise of an ideas-led government unconstrained by the normal strictures and gamesmanship of politics had evaporated. As the week progressed it was clear that politics was fast returning to its established patterns of stultifying negativity.
The opposition's proposal for restricting negative gearing to new homes rather than existing ones and of halving the current 50 per cent capital gains tax discount has emerged as the major focus of the government. It is a role-reversal over policy heft that has removed any hope of a constructive ideas contest. Instead, the mother of all scare campaigns looms over Labor's plan to "smash" the property sector and send the economy into free-fall. It will now define the election.
Insiders insist the hard policy grind continues within, but voters are entitled to make their judgments on what is visible. Right now, that constitutes little on the constructive side of the ledger and plenty of what might be called "old" politics.
Despite his stock answer, which puts the 2016 election at some time in spring – again, part of his soothing reassurance to voters that drama and emergency would be replaced with orderly process – Turnbull is now actively weighing the double-dissolution option. And he is being urged to go soon by some who've been at this game a lot longer than he, among them the electorally canny Christopher Pyne.
He and others believe the risk equation is changing and that sticking to the normal timetable could be the riskier of the two options.
First, there are the polls. These suggest it might be Turnbull's personal popularity that is holding up the Coalition vote. As considerations go, this is a big one. Especially since the new PM's popularity is waning faster than his party's – albeit off a higher base. He still leads Shorten comprehensively, but there are signs voters are dropping off as much in disappointment as in anger. And that in turn suggests that a significant slice of his popularity is residual – that is, based on a pre-existing understanding of what Turnbull would do if given the national leadership.
Right now this positive reputation is being tarnished by his government's dithering. And it will be tarnished further by six months of negative politics based on the scare campaign over house prices. A key lesson of Abbott's experience is that scare campaigns work but they make you appear very negative in the process. If Turnbull is to spend the next six months hammering Labor, it will damage the one thing he brings to the Liberals that they cannot do without – his positive standing.
Which brings us to the next point. Turnbull's perceived inactivity, and his reluctance to stamp his authority on the Liberal Party as a moderate centrist leader, stems from the simple fact that he has no real authority. He is a PM in name only – still promising much, and destined to do some of it too, but only after he is elected in his own right. At the moment however, he is paralysed by the terms of his arrival, express and implied.
Rightly or not, he promised the right of his party that he would observe Abbott's timetable for a plebiscite on same-sex marriage, and that he would surrender entirely on emissions trading. Yet even on other areas where he could begin to articulate the Turnbull doctrine, the "thoroughly liberal government" he explicitly promised has failed to materialise. In its place are taunts from an increasingly emboldened right, to attack "Marxist" anti-bullying programs teaching relativism in our schools.
Finally, and most importantly, there is the auto-pilot question. All things being equal, Turnbull can reasonably expect to govern for two terms. Given that, why would he waste half of that or more, following someone else's course and hamstrung by an unmanageable Senate?
A double-D, once his voting reforms bill has passed, would resolve both. It would allow Turnbull to stamp his authority on his party and to assert the aspects of his personality that have propelled him to the job in the first place.
Mark Kenny is Fairfax Media's chief political correspondent.