Bill Shorten believes channelling Arthur Calwell will do the trick. Good luck to him. But the question has to be asked: does Malcolm Turnbull actually want to win the next election? There’s always been talk of Good Malcolm and Bad Malcolm, but at the moment we appear to be confronted with a hitherto unknown side of the man: Diffident Malcolm. A diffident Turnbull and a diffident budget. It’s a very odd mix.
Perhaps he’s trying to neutralise that famous arrogance (automatically associated with wealth and success in the eyes of Labor and populists). Perhaps it’s all a bid to look like a safe pair of hands and an even safer choice at the election. Perhaps it’s the company he’s keeping. Grizzled old hands inside the government say it’s largely run by nice young people. And that’s a problem. While it’s good to have prime ministers above the fray, governments need a bit of mongrel – a couple of token mongrels, ideally – and prime ministers need to appear firm and focussed, especially at election time.
Yet Turnbull continues to amiably carry on, as if he was boarding one of his beloved Bondi Junction busses with some selfie-seeking fans. He can be quick with a literary or historical reference. We’re all a little tired of the Thucydides, but his “I’m for freedom. I’m with Jefferson,” when Julia Gillard unveiled her menacing media inquiry back in 2011 was sublime.
Perhaps there’s a clue in that invocation. Perhaps Turnbull is a secret American War of Independence buff. Perhaps he’s channelling John Paul Jones and “I have not yet begun to fight”. But surely he should also know that shortly after that bold declaration Jones’ flagship burnt and sank.
This week’s battle over business tax cuts has shown Turnbull at his worst. He has appeared unprepared for questions on their cost and unable to expose such a line of attack as facile economics, class warfare – or both – with sufficient emphasis. And that’s despite being first asked the questions in Parliament on Wednesday, over and over by David Speers on Sky yesterday morning, and in Question Time yet again.
Diffident Malcolm. It’s not the first time he has appeared to be caught out on detail. Some new ministers think they can wing it; that government isn’t all that different from opposition; that a basic grasp of their key responsibilities and a few good lines will see them through. They soon learn. And it’s not as if Turnbull is a neophyte. He was a minister under John Howard, a leader of the opposition, a minister again under Tony Abbott – a minister who thought he could do better and masterminded a successful coup.
There’s always the talk, “Malcolm thinks he’s the smartest man in the room”. At first the proposition appears to offer an explanation for his current woes, but it doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. Aggregate the polls and the Coalition is trailing. Not by much, but trailing nonetheless. Yet it’s impossible to imagine the Turnbull ego accepting that he could actually lose government – particularly since he’s already lost a referendum.
The verdict of history will be harsh, should happen. He will go down as an ineffectual waffler. There will be the inevitable comparisons with Kevin Rudd – but it will be noted that Rudd at least won an election with a massive two-party-preferred swing of 5.4%.
Cabinet members say the PM will be heading off to see the Governor-General on Sunday. Here’s hoping Diffident Malcolm makes it past that rather nice breakfast spot at the Yarralumla shops.