On ABC TV’s panel program Q&A on Monday night, former Labor Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and former Opposition Leader Malcolm Turnbull strutted their stuff. During the one-hour television show they both answered wide-ranging questions on the economy, the revision of GST, climate change, productivity, industrial relations and education. They didn’t just answer these questions – they answered them well, displaying a formidable depth of knowledge and ability to present complex information in brief, comprehensible responses. The audience clearly enjoyed this power duo’s song and dance routine, which called forth a final question from Mr. Saeed Fassaie, quoted here in full:
“You two have a lot in common; you both are moderate, wealthy and not very popular in your own party but popular among people. Many Labour voters are disillusioned by the influence of the factions and unions. Many Liberal voters are disappointed by the influence of big business and the far right wing. Why don’t you two join and establish a new party that can open a new chapter in politics here in Australia?”
Amidst great mirth and self-deprecation, both Mr. Rudd and Mr. Turnbull denied categorically that they would challenge their respective leaders, although Mr. Turnbull could be described as ever so slightly less categorical. So it seems, unless they are telling porkies, that the leaderships of Mr. Tony Abbott and Prime Minister Julia Gillard are not under threat before the next election, due to be held sometime in 2013.
Download this episode of Q&A at the ABC website
Come back, all is forgiven is what the Q&A audience seemed to be saying to both former leaders on Monday night as they laughed and clapped their way through the tap dancing routine described above.
But leading a country, or opposition party, requires much more than a neat performance on live TV. The nostalgia for what we think we have lost is palpable. There is grinning Kevin, still nerdy, but now more humorous and statesman like. And Malcolm, ever affable and polished, totally on top of domestic policy and world affairs.
But when Mr. Rudd was removed as PM his approval rating was declining, his temper tantrums with flight attendants were legendary and his ability to explain policy was questionable at best. His party panicked and the result was a new leader. When Mr. Turnbull was leading the Liberal Party he was responsible for a jaw-dropping attack on the then-PM, Mr. Rudd and Treasurer Wayne Swann, based on false reports from a highly unreliable public servant who was soon proven to be, given the most generous interpretation, completely delusional. Mr. Turnbull was challenged and lost the leadership – but only by one vote as he reminded us all again on Monday night. Mr. Rudd challenged Ms. Gillard in February and lost by a 2-1 result, as he also confirmed on Monday night.
So where is this heading? Do we really want these men back to lead their respective parties and the nation? Well let’s consider each one separately. I think Mr. Rudd looked relaxed, confident and entirely knowledgeable on Monday night and there was little he said I would disagree with. But I think it is easy to look that confident when you are on the backbench with more time and less responsibility than your party colleagues. I do not think his leadership style was inclusive when he was Prime Minister and I do think PM Gillard has done the hard yards and pushed through tough legislation to makeAustraliaa better country. She has shown her mettle despite repeated attacks from all quarters, so I think a swap back to Mr. Rudd would add little, despite his charm offensive on the ABC this week.
And that leaves me with Mr. Turnbull. Ah, Malcolm… what can I say? In this case I would swap his role with Mr. Abbott’s in a heartbeat. Mr. Abbott assumed the role of Opposition Leader with the statement that his role was to oppose – everything. And to be fair, he has pursued this plan relentlessly. But what a poor understanding of the Westminster system this is and what a poor outcome for our country it has led to. By all means, catch the government out when it presents poor policy or makes major mistakes, which all governments do. But have the courage to stand up and agree on matters of national importance such as climate change, a national water plan for the Murray Darling River system and our policy on refugees. So in the interests of a robust but workable parliament I believe we need an Opposition Leader who has the courage, like Mr. Turnbull, to recognise bad policy – such as work choices – when he sees it, to understand that climate change is not merely a Labor Party fantasy, and to push for policy which is for the good of all, regardless of who thought of it first.