Wednesday, February 24, 2016
And if he rushes off to a double dissolution election in July because he fears he may not win if he waits until September, that will be a sign his place in the prime ministerial hall of fame will be up the back with his three immediate predecessors.
When Turnbull displaced Tony Abbott five months ago I, like many others, dared to hope his ascension represented a new beginning for Australian politics.
An end to the spiral of ever-declining standards of political behaviour, the negativity, the broken promises, the short-sightedness, the tit-for-tat mentality, the reciprocal scare-mongering, the unceasing attempts to "wedge" the other side, the blatant appeal to our baser instincts.
The eternal emphasis on attaining and retaining power, rather than on using that power to make Australia a better place to live and work.
To be fair, there was no way any flesh-and-blood politician could have lived up to the unrealistic expectations we had for him. And Turnbull does fit the bill in one important respect: he speaks and looks and acts like a prime minister should. He has gravitas.
But the closer we get to the pointy end of the Coalition government's first term, the more possibilities for improvement are being taken off the table to leave the second-term work program awaiting the voters' approval, the more Turnbull seems to be shrinking to the size of his stunted predecessors.
Just in the past week or so we've Scott Morrison doing Joe Hockey impressions, and Turnbull resorting to the same cheap tactics as the man he overthrew.
I'm not prepared to condemn Turnbull for failing to slash and burn government spending at a time when the economy is still not fully back on its feet.
But when you remember all the Coalition's carry-on over the "budget emergency", the insouciance with which Turnbull and Morrison have consigned the budget deficit to the too-hard basket is breathtaking.
I've been happy to defend Turnbull against the unthinking notion that increasing the goods and services tax and channelling the proceeds to foreign investors and people on the top personal tax rate is the be-all-and-end-all of tax reform.
Fail to deliver for big business and you're utterly lacking in courage.
Nonsense. The four tax subsidies to which the tax reform spotlight has turned – superannuation tax concessions, work-related deductions, negative gearing and the concessional taxing of capital gains – carry plenty of potential for changes that make the tax system both a lot fairer and more economically efficient, that is, less distorting of the choices individuals and businesses make.
One of my fears has been that the success of Abbott's unrelentingly destructive attack on the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd government would leave us with a Labor opposition committed to nothing more than getting its own back.
Bad behaviour breeds bad behaviour. Labor has descended to pay-back. Bill Shorten's scare campaign on increasing the GST has been a match for all the dishonest things Abbott said about "debt and deficit" and the way the carbon tax would destroy the economy.
But in one important respect Labor has risen above negativity and created an opening for Turnbull to be greater than his predecessors. It has announced controversial policies to reform super tax concessions, negative gearing and the half taxation of capital gains that is the mainspring of negative gearing.
This has presented Turnbull with an opportunity to make this election a contest of ideas and plans rather than a slanging match. My plan's better than his for the following reasons.
I hope I'm wrong but, as each day passes, it seems clearer that Turnbull isn't preparing to match Labor's boldness with boldness of his own. He'll do something on each of those four tax subsidies, but not much.
Rather, he's reverting to the Abbott tactic of portraying Labor as high-taxing and the Libs as low taxers. (Only a true believer would believe it's that simple.) He's launched into an Abbott-like scare campaign, claiming Labor's negative gearing plan would knock house prices for six.
Turnbull's confidence seems to have faltered. He's looking behind him at his fractious backbench and at the Liberal heartland, who don't want to give up a cent of the tax subsidies that go mainly to them.
That's the behaviour of a survivor. The behaviour of a future great prime minister is to look out at all those uncommitted and even Labor-leaning voters who would vote for him if they thought he really cared about making the tax system fairer; if he still inspired them.
We wouldn't be onto our fifth prime minister in five years if federal politics wasn't dominated by moral pygmies – people lacking in courage, who see tactics but not strategy, whose only vision is of their survival in their seat and their progression up the party pecking order.
What the pygmies don't see is that the public can smell politicians and parties who put their careers ahead of serving the nation. What few people in Canberra remember is that Bob Hawke and Paul Keating achieved greatness by making changes they believed the nation needed, but their own supporters hated.
Turnbull will never be great if he takes his political advice from pygmies.