Federal Politics

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Would-be leaders preen but the women have the numbers

Even though Malcolm Turnbull is being ostentatiously loyal to his leader, he cannot abstain from remarking on the fact that he is very popular without actually saying he is more popular than his leader, Tony Abbott.

On Monday night it was only a matter of time before Turnbull alluded, ever so sweetly, to his popularity credentials during an orgy of coyness shared between Turnbull and his fellow popular-but-deposed leader Kevin Rudd on the ABC's Q&A program.

Turnbull: ''Those people who say they'd rather I was the leader of my party or Kevin the leader of his, and there are, apparently, a handful that do.'' Boyish grin.

Later, badgered by the host over the leadership issue - because political journalists are addicted to leadership speculation - Turnbull said: ''I've had thousands and thousands of people propose that, you know, I should set up a new political party…'' But he will stay true to the Liberals.

Throughout the show a stream of distracting gush via Twitter run across the screen about how Rudd and Turnbull were more impressive than their party leaders. All the earnest speculation about these two former and potential leaders has even been given a name - Ruddbull.

It's mostly bull.


Turnbull has three strikes against him. His federal parliamentary colleagues don't trust him. He has a reputation, deserved or not, for self-absorption. When he was the leader he reached the second-lowest approval rating in the history of Newspoll - 14 per cent - in November 2009. Shortly after he lost the leadership.

It was Abbott who saved the Coalition from going over an electoral cliff, Abbott who caused the political earthquake which transformed federal politics in 2010, and Abbott who erased Labor's 18-seat majority in the 2010 campaign, fought to a 72-seat draw in the House, and led the Coalition to victory in the popular vote for the Senate.

After two years in opposition, the Coalition remains positioned to win the next election. Western Sydney remains a death zone for Labor. Abbott will be retooling his leadership style to become less relentlessly pugnacious. Besides, any leadership coup by the Liberals would have the taint of cynicism, thanks to Labor's own use of the tactic. Labor has poisoned that well.

Rudd, too, has three strikes against him. His parliamentary colleagues will not tolerate his overbearing, supercilious ego. His resignation as Foreign Minister and leadership tilt in February was a debacle. And Labor has run out of leadership shuffles.

Because they don't have the pressure of leadership, it was enjoyable watching Rudd and Turnbull in comradely discussion, the opposite of what Rudd called ''the rolling Punch and Judy Show''.

However, I watched Q&A not because of Rudd and Turnbull but because it had two policy heavyweights who weren't courting popularity, Judith Sloan and Heather Ridout. Sloan is an economist and prominent columnist. Ridout is the former head of the Australian Industry Group and now on the board of the Reserve Bank.

Between them, they had the most telling insights about where the country is going wrong.

Ridout: ''During the last 10 years, we've turned ourselves into a pretty expensive place to do business. In my old job, one of my members told me recently of the 44 countries in the world that he does business, Australia is the most expensive.''

Ridout: ''Everyone needs to realise we have 125 taxes in Australia. We collect 90 per cent of our taxation from 10 of them … we have to have a proper national debate, not the ridiculous debate we had after the release of the Henry report …''

After an outburst of agreement on the panel about the need to spend more on education, Sloan mercifully injected some reality: ''I think it's important that someone rain on this parade … We spent 40 per cent more per capita on education over the past decade or so and our school performance declined. So the answers are not just in money.''

Ridout: ''The Fair Work Act gives 120 new rights to unions and nothing to employers.''

Sloan: ''Since the Fair Work Act has been fully implemented, we've had a declining rate of labour force participation, which is a real concern … Only 13 per cent of the private sector work force belong to unions, so it's absolutely strange that you would have a piece of legislation which seems to assume that everyone belongs to a union and the right of unions is paramount and sacrosanct … [while] small business are really doing it tough.''

Her point about small business is the most important political reality of all.

Postscript: This morning Turnbull pointed out that his approval rating bottomed at 25 per cent, not 14, and was 36 per cent at the time he lost the leadership.

Twitter: @Paul_Sheehan_

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