And now, we hope, for some macro management.
There's an adult back in charge, a person who generally knows what he is doing, and who has the capacity, the will and the patience, and the ruthlessness, to retain power for several terms and to reshape Australia. In character, intellect, vision and accomplishment, Malcolm Turnbull is streets ahead of his opposite number.
He may be deeply loathed for his moderation and his liberalism in the authoritarian and conservative wings of his own party, but while he promises, as he does, their best hope of power, he will have their sullen assent. He has a life outside politics, and, more remarkably, has lived outside politics.
Like many politicians of his type, his main enemy, and his main weakness, comes from within himself. He is not, by temperament, a consulter, even if he is fair dabs at being a persuader. Sometimes he doesn't listen to the warning signs, or to people whose opinions he does not respect. He's quick to get the point, but slow to conceal his impatience. He's better at fashioning an argument – a good one – than in repeating it until he is blue in the face, when it is only slowly starting to percolate. He has been a bold gambler in business, and has come out, on balance, well ahead financially, but he has also, at times, lost spectacularly. Political capital is not so readily, or recklessly, gained, gambled or retrieved.
He, his supporters, and perhaps most those of his detractors who had succumbed to despair of Abbott, did us all a double favour last week. They put the Abbott government out of its misery, at a point where its death throes could excite only public pity or contempt. The Abbott suicide was all his own work, a long succession of own goals, misjudgments and base instincts. But if he departs without monuments, and secure in the knowledge that history will treat him less kindly than his contemporaries, one it will be remarkable that his corpse carries not a single scar inflicted by the Opposition, least of all Bill Shorten.
Abbott's colleagues have, however, almost certainly guaranteed that Shorten will never occupy the Lodge, a public service almost as great as removing Abbott from the stage. Indeed it is now not impossible that the next Labor prime minister is not presently in the House of Representatives. I said much the same thing in 1996 after the fall of the Keating government. There were moments, particularly soon after then when I thought that my prediction would prove foolish, because the Howard Government seemed bent on self-harm, even as Labor was failing to prepare itself for a return to government.
Labor's only chance for federal electoral victory, in the foreseeable future, lies in voter perception that Turnbull is as untrustworthy, unreliable and silly as Abbott, leading a government as predisposed to chaos, ideological perversity and shambolism. It could happen, not least because some of Abbott's ministers must probably remain in the Turnbull mix. And Turnbull himself has shown, over the years, that even clever chaps can make epic misjudgments, not least about people and public opinion. Most likely, however, Labor gets only one Abbott a lifetime. Even a passingly competent, somewhat tepid Turnbull administration, is more likely to be returned before an unreformed, unrepentant Labor, one still unable even to articulate what it is against, let alone what it is for.
There's a good chance Turnbull will be better than that. Or that he will look better than that against the colourless and uninspiring Shorten, a person who personifies everything that is wrong with the labour movement, political or industrial. Turnbull has ideals. Turnbull has dimension. Turnbull treats voters, and ideas, with respect. And he wants to lead them, not to follow, to stimulate them, rather than echo their prejudices.
All leaders have flaws as well as virtues; the two contest and collide with events to produce the characters we come to know. Though Turnbull is only 60, he has been, one way or another, on the public stage for nearly 40 years. He has come, and gone, and come again, returning to fashion against the backdrop of the political incompetence and failure of three prime ministers in a row. On the face of it, he is the one most likely to break the current mould – perhaps even to restore some popular faith in politics and politicians again.
He says he has learnt from his last, disastrous, foray as leader of his party. First, in the Godwin Grech fiasco, he forfeited public trust in his political judgment. Then over climate change and then very narrowly, he lost the support of his colleagues. But his departure then retained him some respect as a person of principle. He was politically foolhardy in advancing too far ahead of his party. Some would not follow and others, such as Tony Abbott, had ambition and treachery in their hearts. By contrast, Abbott did not fail by disloyalty from Turnbull.
From exile, Turnbull also acquired a certain serenity. He has remained wide rather than narrow, open-minded rather than doctrinaire, philosophical and curious about the world rather than single-mindedly focused on himself. Exile seems also to have made him more reflective of the fact that politics is not merely about the right conclusions, the right friends, or, technically, being right; it is about argument, debate and, ultimately, winning. One compromises, steps backwards and sideways as well as forwards. That he often looked calm, relaxed and capable, made those who feared him more paranoid, but he rarely seemed to return, in public at least, the hatred they radiated out.
Turnbull inherits a party, a government, and to a degree, an economy widely regarded as being in a mess. But he could hardly hope for better circumstances. Political and economic health is as much a reflection of confidence, optimism and sense of purpose than of statistics, opinion polls or budgets debts and deficits. The Abbott government was becalmed, stalled – symbolised best, perhaps, by a recent Cabinet meeting with no agenda. Turnbull's very intervention has created a new situation, amplified by words of energy, enthusiasm and hope that followed his success. Labor will struggle to argue that this is the same old thing, slightly repackaged.
All things being equal, a few weeks from now, Abbott and his chaotic style, hell bent on confrontation everywhere, will seem, like Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd, a bad and unpleasant memory, whether for voters, those who deal with government, and those who serve it. If Labor is even halfway serious, it should be anticipating and outdoing Turnbull in a fresh battle of ideas, not rehearsing tired one-liners.
Turnbull is best suited to play the macro-manager. He follows three inept micro-managers, each so concerned with detail that they lost direction and sense of scale, He should focus on being in charge, leading, and setting directions for others to implement. Management and detailed administration is not his long suit, nor should it be that of his private office.
But we also need macro-management in the sense of appreciating that it is the health of the economy, and the role of government budgeting in influencing that health, that sets the stage for everything a Turnbull government can do, and for everything that a Turnbull Australia wants to be.
For Turnbull, an eye on the economic levers comes more easily than for Abbott. On paper, Abbott was always on about economic health. But he spoke in generally meaningless slogans, lacked consistency and mixed it up with stunts, and the wearing of orange vests and hard hats. He was erratic, seeing everything through a short-term political prism or calculus.
Turnbull will immediately want to be associated with some decisions which announce and show that there is a new guy in charge. But his very call for a restoration of a consultative cabinet government is an affirmation that he must settle down routine administration, that business of providing the public with goods and services. The routine has suffered as Abbott and his office increasingly harnessed everything to short-term partisan politics, media stunts and the waging of obscure culture wars.
Too much of the centralised co-ordination was focused on crude short-term political and public relations considerations; too little on meeting the needs of ordinary Australians, or businesses, for regular, reliable, predictable and fair stewardship of public dollars. Some agencies had become politicised; others have been struggling to find coherent policies and programs as ministerial offices have become diverted from routine administration by the crises and slogans of the minute. The co-ordination of political activity, whether through the prime minister's office or in ministerial offices was awry, but so, increasingly, has been the co-ordination of departmental activity. It's been both a leadership and a management problem, with the fish rotting from the head.
I've been forming, and revising, judgments about Turnbull since the late 1970s. I'd still stand by most comments I made about him when he became leader of the opposition seven years ago this month.
"Malcolm Turnbull has all it takes to be a great, and ultimately successful, leader of the Liberal Party. He has ambition and drive. He has a tremendous ego – fancy him calling the Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, vain – but also a considerable capacity to harness it and anything else that matters to him to an ultimate end.
"His mind is working and calculating all of the time; but he is more strategic than tactical and, if possessing a great retentive brain, more a grand vision man than a detail man. All his grand visions involve himself on centre stage.
"Focused, he is hard to distract. He reads, and has a considerable capacity to master a brief and fight without restraint for the objectives he has set. He has a considerable personal fortune which helps prevent his being distracted, any more, by the merely venal. If he lacks a compelling philosophy, he is liberal and decent in his instincts, and sound by either Labor or Liberal standards on public policy and social philosophy.
""His ambitions go beyond mere occupation of the Lodge, which may help him be patient. He also has the resources, public and personal, to make his way there through well-tested strategies, which will inevitably include ruthless bastardry and opportunism but will probably earn him as much admiration as it will reflect on his character. No one expects leaders to be namby-pambies. As Peter Costello has demonstrated, no one ever gets to be leader by waiting for a delegation from colleagues or through a party succession plan.
"Unlike John Howard, he does not live and breathe politics alone. His relative breadth, his other lives and his wider interests, may soften him and make less predictable, just as it makes him less dependent on the structures, forms and history of the Liberal Party.
"He will also be more difficult for Labor to touch. He has a history, of course, but not much of a political history, and most of his history (except so far as it touches his personality) does not tie him down. He may prattle about free enterprise and personal choice, but he is no conviction politician, ideologue nor ancient class enemy. Nor is he predictable. And, being able to see further through a brick wall than most, he is less likely to be tied to losing positions, or sentimental about party shibboleths or the record. And he is agile, with some capacity to attack from the side, or the rear. He is not conservative about mere notions such as King, country, Church and convention. Nor does he pander to less worthy manifestations of these tendencies.
"These qualities could make Turnbull great, and reshape the Liberal Party, and ultimately Australia, for a long period in office. That period, which could well embrace the transition to a republic he has championed, could see Australia a very different country, but not in ways that would make many Australians feel uneasy.
"But they are also the very qualities that could bring him down. His strengths contain great potential weaknesses. Now he must wrestle with his political opponents mostly in his own party, of course in an effort to shape them to his will. That will be more difficult because he has never cared much, before, how bruised, battered and resentful he has left those he trampled over. Yet he will depend on many of them for his survival.
"He has no common touch, though he is rather more closely rooted to the way of thinking of the common man than, for example, a Gough Whitlam or a Bob Carr. Nor in politics, at least, has he ever learnt to relax or, for that matter to relax others.
"He is not a good listener, even if he is a good interrogator who hears and processes what he thinks important…. He demands great loyalty, but has never been famous for giving it, except to clients. Even then, he has fought with many of his clients in the end. He has never wanted for admirers; but has never been famous for followers, nor assiduous about their interests.
"His intellect is so formidable, and his contempt so withering, that many good people find working with him, in any subservient capacity, too daunting. Those who attach themselves to him, or to his journey, in hopes of achieving some of their own agendas on the way, are pretty much doomed to disappointment.
"Perhaps the greatest contradiction about this civilised man is that no one could ever articulate, beyond vague references to a republic and liberal values, just what he believes in and what he stands for. Apart from himself and his manifest destiny, that is."
Yet Turnbull doesn't frighten the horses.