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Clive smells a deal as Turnbull fails to make captain's call

Everyone laughed at Clive Palmer when he said it in question time in the House on Thursday, but was it buffoonery or brilliant insight?

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His question to the prime minister came out of the blue, in between queries on negative gearing and defence spending.

"As Australia's third-oldest prime minister, if you are still prime minister after the election, will you serve a full term in parliament or will you retire to your unit in New York and do a switcheroo with the member for Warringah [Tony Abbott], sustaining yourself with innovation and growth opportunities your investments have provided for the people of the Cayman Islands? It has never been a more exciting time to be a Cayman Islander! Are you a seat warmer?"

Bizarre question: Clive Palmer chuckled along with himself as he asked.
Bizarre question: Clive Palmer chuckled along with himself as he asked. Photo: Andrew Meares

Adding to the sense of the surreal, it sounded like Palmer was calling them the "Clayman Islands," and there he was, chuckling along with himself as he asked the question, as if even he thought the whole exercise ridiculous.

Malcolm Turnbull handled it with good humour: "I thank the honourable member for his question. If he had not found it so amusing as to be laughing right through it, we might have been able to hear most of it. Nonetheless, I gather the honourable member is inquiring about my health. I thank him for his interest and I can assure him I am in the very best of form."

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A switcheroo back to Abbott? Turnbull a seat-warmer? How absurd, the idea that Turnbull would go through all the trauma and trouble of challenging Abbott, seizing control of the government, going to an election and winning another term for the Coalition only to turn around and hand the prime ministership back to Tony Abbott.

But then, even as you laugh it off, an uneasy thought arises. Perhaps there is something in Clive's little comedy. Perhaps he knows something. Could Turnbull have a secret deal with Abbott? Abbott allows Turnbull to stage a challenge and be prime minister for a year, long enough to win the election and satisfy his ambition.

Illustration: Rocco Fazzari
Illustration: Rocco Fazzari 

Then Turnbull hands the job back to Abbott. On the strict condition that he makes no major changes to any of Abbott's favoured policies.

How else to explain the change of prime minister without a change of policy?

Consider these top 10 areas of Abbott policy where Turnbull has delivered not change but continuity.

On three, Turnbull was closely identified with more progressive policy, yet has reaffirmed Abbott's stance: On carbon emissions targets for Australia; on holding a plebiscite on same sex marriage rather than a parliamentary vote; and on moving Australia from monarchy to republic.

There comes a point where a changed style, unsupported by changed substance, will disappoint expectations.

Then there are three areas of policy at the border and beyond. Turnbull has strongly reaffirmed the government's policy of "stopping the boats", embraced all aspects of the Abbott foreign policy, and this week delivered a defence white paper that, in all main elements, is the same one Abbott had under way.

An American, Kurt Campbell, a former senior official in the Clinton and Obama administrations and a man with long familiarity with Australia, remarked to me after Turnbull's visit to Washington last month: "The most important contribution the PM made was not on substance but on tonality."

He was upbeat and positive in a time of anger and anxiety in US politics and foreign policy.

Does this sound familiar? This is increasingly the conclusion that business people are drawing about Turnbull's government, too, that Turnbull is limited to a change of style, not substance. A changed style can lead to changed substance because it can generate confidence and scope for action. But there comes a point where a changed style, unsupported by changed substance, will disappoint expectations. Confidence will retrench and the opportunity will be lost. On three big areas of economic policy, it's emerging that, here too, Turnbull will deliver what Abbott had in mind.

Although this was Turnbull's central promise of bold policy change – "economic leadership" - he is reverting to a cautious continuity.

In challenging Abbott, he said: "We need a style of leadership that explains those challenges and opportunities, explains the challenges and how to seize the opportunities. A style of leadership that respects the people's intelligence, that explains these complex issues and then sets out the course of action we believe we should take and makes a case for it. We need advocacy, not slogans."

Two weeks ago he decided that he would not support raising the GST, that "big bang" tax reform was off the table, and since that moment he has transformed.

From explaining the challenges and opportunities, he has transformed into a politician who instead explains why he is not pursuing challenges and opportunities.

First he explained why he was not going to raise the GST. Then he explained why he will reject Labor's ideas on negative gearing and capital gains tax. And then he launched into a full-throated scare campaign against Labor's proposals without advocating any alternative.

On tax reform, he is now heading to exactly where Abbott said he was likely to have been: "At a minimum," Abbott told me last November, "we would have had modest tax cuts based on spending restraints."

On the second major area of economic policy, fiscal policy, we again see Turnbull succumbing to the same forces that fated the Abbott government to failure.

In the mid-year update in December, Treasurer Scott Morrison confessed to another blow-out in the size of the deficit, and conceded that it would a year longer than earlier forecast to return the budget to surplus.

This week Turnbull admitted that the new defence spending would likely push back that happy day by another year. Under Rudd, Gillard, Abbott and now Turnbull, the return to surplus is an ever-receding horizon.

Third is workplace relations.

Turnbull, although urging flexibility and agility, will do nothing to introduce any such athleticism into workplace relations. His ambition is no grander than Abbott's here, either.

Of the 10 areas, the final one is the overarching one of political management.

He told me in an October interview: "I am a reformer by nature, very much so." Asked about his options for tax reform, he said: "Everything, every single element, is on the table. And I know that always means that someone can then run a scare campaign, but I'm sorry, we've got to stop [this]. This is part of the political tradition I'm determined to end. We have got to be able to consider policy options in an unfettered way. We've got to have the maturity to have a debate that is not throwing things off the table ...

"Because what happens is politicians who get intimidated by their opponents or by the media or whatever, they say, 'Oh that's off the table, that's off the table, that's off the table' and suddenly there's nothing left on the table."

Today, Turnbull is the man taking options off the table in a piecemeal, panicky kind of way.

Today, Turnbull is the man leading the scare campaign. He even used a Tony Abbott fright-line from Abbott's campaign against the carbon tax. Labor's plan to change negative gearing would be a "wrecking ball" through the economy, Turnbull said this week.

The ideal of the wise, benevolent reformer who would calmly canvass options and then lead a determined program of change has evaporated.

In its place is just another politician, operating from fear.

Joe Hockey explained to his colleagues that, after the trauma of their overreach in the 2014 budget, Abbott's appetite for bold reform was exhausted: "Tony doesn't want to upset anyone."

Turnbull now treads the same wary path, his appetite for reform apparently exhausted even before he has attempted any.

In months past, Tony Abbott would sometimes caution colleagues: "Malcolm is allergic to making decisions." And in the early weeks after his downfall, Abbott sometimes wondered aloud why the government had changed leaders when it had not changed any of his policies.

Labor's Tanya Plibersek agreed with him this week when she said: "All of those people were sitting in middle Australia thinking, 'Thank God Tony Abbott is gone.' What have they been left with? They have been left with Tony Abbott in a different suit—same tie; that is the only difference."

That's unfair to Turnbull. Abbott only ever wore blue ties in a sad piece of partisan branding. Turnbull wears a wide array of colours.

Nor is it quite right that Turnbull has not made any changes whatsoever. His innovation statement last year was all his own work. He did revoke knighthoods, fund a campaign against domestic violence, and accelerate efforts to find third countries who are prepared to take refugees from Manus Island and Nauru. But this is a slender record for half a year's work. It seems a thin justification for seizing the prime ministership. Turnbull's apologists say that he must be cautious now as an election approaches, but will be bold once he's won a mandate in his own right. But a mandate for what? What will the government do for the next three years without a mandate for any substantial reform program? It will default to ad hockery and reaction, as history has long demonstrated.

Of course, Turnbull has transformed the government's standing in the polls, from perpetually behind to steadily in front. In all likelihood, his popular appeal will combine with the advantages of incumbency to carry him to an election victory.

Australia wanted Turnbull and his personal charm, but it's been willing him to be something more. Is there anything more? Or is he just, as Clive Palmer suspects, just a seatwarmer?

Peter Hartcher is the political editor.

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