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Malcolm Turnbull shows he's a policy mouse that is prepared to roar

Some new pieces of the Malcolm Turnbull prime ministership puzzle fell into place this week. The gathering impression of him was that he'd lost his nerve, that he spent his days wringing his hands, lost in a dither.

On Monday we discovered that he hadn't been wringing his hands but laying his plans.

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Malcolm Turnbull: 'There has been change'

The Turnbull government is seeking re-election on the policies of the Abbott government says former prime minister Tony Abbott says while Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull says the governments differ greatly.

"The time for playing games is over" he said as he challenged the Senate to pass two pieces of law that would toughen the regulation of the trade union movement.

It's a challenge to Labor and the Greens to act responsibly against malfeasance in the union movement, especially in the construction sector. It's a challenge he knows they will fail because they've already voted to protect their client and donor, the big construction union, the CFMEU, rather than the public interest.

Illustration: Rocco Fazzari
Illustration: Rocco Fazzari 

And it's a challenge to a querulous Senate crossbench. Because, if the Senate refuses, Turnbull promised a double dissolution election on July 2 to clean out an obstructive upper house and to force his will on the parliament.

This was widely hailed as decisive and bold. And it was.

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Puzzle piece one: Turnbull has not lost his nerve. He is quite prepared to make aggressive moves at a time, and on a matter, of his choosing.

This is consistent with the decisiveness of his challenge to Tony Abbott for the leadership. He is not afraid to act aggressively against political rivals. He is prepared to be a political lion.

But how are we supposed to reconcile this with Turnbull's timidity elsewhere?

He refuses to enact bold social reform, such as same sex marriage. He will not make big-bang economic reform, such as raising the GST to fund cuts to other taxes. He has a history of climate change activism yet he's adopted the Abbott government's grudging carbon targets.

He's using tough tactics to demand that the Senate vote to reinstate the tough construction industry regulator, the Australian Building and Construction Commission.

But the policy itself is neither revolutionary nor even especially bold. John Howard's government created the ABCC before Julia Gillard's abolished it. Turnbull merely wants to revert to the status quo ante.

Turnbull is a cage fighter in politics, a karate artist against special interests, and a pushover with the public. He puts the reassurance of the electorate ahead of the urge to reform it.

So while he might be a political lion, on such policy questions he has no roar. Does this make him a policy mouse? Not quite, because he has shown himself ready to make some difficult decisions and to confront powerful interests.

There are exhibits of evidence here. First, two weeks ago Turnbull defied the biggest big-business lobby, the Business Council of Australia.

When the Harper review into competition law recommended changes that would shift the balance in favour of small businesses struggling against the crushing weight of the oligopolists, the BCA was adamantly opposed.

Naturally. And it can be a fearsome opponent, as the Rudd government discovered when it attempted a super tax on mining.

The Abbott Cabinet debated the question and was paralysed by division.

But the new assistant Treasurer, Kelly O'Dwyer, re-examined the matter. Together with the Treasurer, Scott Morrison, she took to Turnbull's Cabinet a recommendation that Harper's proposal be adopted.

Turnbull wasn't altogether happy about it. But, facing the determination of Morrison, O'Dwyer, the Deputy PM Barnaby Joyce and the other National party ministers in his cabinet plus a group of Liberals with small business backgrounds and strong views on the matter, he acquiesced in the decision.

"Turnbull's position was, 'I prefer that you didn't do this but if you are determined, I will let it go through,'" one Cabinet minister summarised.

Of course, Turnbull had an easy excuse if he'd wanted to return the decision to the "too hard" basket – a looming election. But he did not. The reform is to proceed. The BCA lost the argument.

Second, last month Turnbull's cabinet made a decision on media reform that, notably, did not give Rupert Murdoch everything he wanted. The reform package generally pleases Murdoch and the other big media owners because it's broadly deregulatory.

But Turnbull refused the demand from Murdoch's News Corporation to "siphon" more sports events from free-to-air TV to the subscribers-only audiences on its pay TV venture, Foxtel.

The theme here is that Turnbull is prepared to upset powerful interests, big business or a media mogul, but he is deeply wary of upsetting the most powerful of interests, the voting public, with any big, controversial decisions.

This is consistent with his behaviour as Abbott's communications minister. For instance, when Abbott as prime minister wanted to crack down on copyright piracy by individuals, so-called "bedroom downloaders".

At the moment if a movie studio wants to take action against someone downloading a pirated movie to watch at home, it can take her to a civil court and ask a judge to award damages.

But Abbott, at the urging of the movie industry, wanted to make it an offence punishable by a fine. It would make it faster and easier for the movie and music industries to act against ordinary people.

Turnbull thought it would be politically explosive. He resisted and the idea quietly died.

Puzzle piece two: Turnbull is a cage fighter in politics, a karate artist against special interests, and a pushover with the public. He puts the reassurance of the electorate ahead of the urge to reform it.

This is the sort of behaviour you would not expect from a "crash or crash through" leader. It's not the brash Turnbull who led the Australian Republic Movement to a glorious defeat. It's the ginger approach of a prime minister who is seeking to hold power for a long time.

Puzzle piece three: Turnbull hasn't said as much, but we can infer from his conduct that he sees himself as prime minister for a decade.

We know from recent Australian experience that the most lethal threat to a prime minister is not usually the leader on the opposite side of the dispatch box but the enemy sitting behind.

This week we learned lessons about Turnbull's potential internal rivals. The Labor party guided the media to pay great attention this week to an apparent rift between Turnbull and his Treasurer.

The prime minister gave early warning to an inner group of ministers on Monday morning of his decision to confront the Senate under threat of a July 2 double dissolution election.

To accommodate that decision, the federal budget would need to be brought forward by a week, to May 3. But it quickly emerged that Scott Morrison was not among the inner group. He was taunted by Labor as having been so emasculated that he didn't even know the date of his own budget.

And Turnbull has not hidden his irritation at Morrison in recent weeks for allowing his mouth to get ahead of the decision-making processes of the government.

Morrison had spoken forcefully in public about the case for a GST-centric tax reform package, only to be overruled by Turnbull. Morrison

Morrison had spoken passionately about the importance of cutting income tax rates, only to be overruled by his leader once again.

When Turnbull spoke this week of the dangers of "front running" the government's decision-making, it was seen as a pointed reference to Morrison.

In a healthy relationship between a prime minister and treasurer, there should be tension. Because they different imperatives. The Treasurer should be aiming for economic efficiency and a minimal deficit.

The Prime Minister should be tempering this zeal with the need to preserve fairness and the aim of winning re-election. But they should conduct their arguments in the inner counsels of government.

"I had big fights with Howard" over budgets Peter Costello told me years ago, "All the time." But it was testament to their professionalism that these stayed largely unknown.

In contrast, Paul Keating conducted most of his arguments with Bob Hawke in the open and it became the death of the Hawke government.

What is happening between Morrison and Turnbull? The pair need to co-operate better. They talk and text every day. Turnbull should have, at the very least, sent Morrison a text to alert him to the imminent announcement of the double dissolution.

But the underlying relationship is a good one. Privately, Morrison first pointed out to Turnbull in early February that, if they went the double dissolution route, they'd need to bring the budget forward to May 3. They'd discussed it several times since.

And while their styles have clashed in public, their policy disagreements have been reconciled quite effectively in private. The style clash? Morrison likes to make a quick decision and get on with it. Turnbull likes to keep his options open as long as possible and his counsel to himself.

The key event this week is that Morrison has accepted Turnbull's right to decide policy and also to make the public arguments. Morrison has yielded to his leader and is getting on with the budget. He does not have political murder in his heart.

"Ripples on the surface don't always mean something big and dangerous is lurking under the water," Morrison told colleagues this week. "Sometimes it's just wind."

Turnbull's other internal rival, however, is not yielding to the leader. Tony Abbott's self-indulgent outbursts are distracting now and, as the de facto election campaign proceeds, could be disastrous in the months to come.

More than any attack by Bill Shorten, sabotage by Abbott is guaranteed to harm the Turnbull campaign. "Tony has immense capacity to do damage," says a former Abbott supporter in the Turnbull cabinet.

"The party gave him as the leader the dignity of shutting up through two elections. He needs to return the favour. The more he talks, the more we lose."

Will Abbott harm or help his party? That's a part of the puzzle that only Abbott can solve.

Peter Hartcher is the political editor.

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