Turnbull Can Learn From Gillard’s Transition

It feels like a new Government, so different is the changed tone from Tony Abbott to Malcolm Turnbull. Yet tone counts for little in any policy sense.

The new Prime Minister may brag about a boost in business confidence but markets don’t run on tone. Optimism can dissipate quickly.

Turnbull’s challenge right now is in many ways a lot harder than that faced by a newly formed government. Just ask Julia Gillard.

A new government carries into office a folder full of election promises. A new government is free to discover the disastrous state of the books, to uncover the horrifying truth about major programs, and just generally remind voters they made the right electoral choice.

Turnbull can do none of that. He both inherits the accumulated decisions of his predecessor and is unable to disinherit them – even if he wanted to. First, half his cabinet signed off on those decisions, including himself. Second, maintaining the decisions of the Abbott government was one of his promises to get into power.

Yet despite limiting his criticism of Abbott before the spill to Abbott’s failure to communicate on economic matters, it is clear that Turnbull wants to alter policy. Hence his recent lines that all policy is subject to scrutiny.

It has been blindingly obvious for months that Turnbull’s issues with Abbott were not limited to his communication style. Take Turnbull’s anti-“death cult” speech from July – while couched in a criticism of the government’s language, it was as clear a signal of policy dissent from a cabinet minister we’ve seen.

Anyway, the policy direction of the Government would have had to change regardless of who is leader. The 2015 budget was a purposeless document unsuited to the times. The Abbott government had been in constant policy retreat ever since the failed spill attempt in February. This was unsustainable.

So right now we’re in a peculiar limbo.

A number of critics of Turnbull have pointed out that his much-praised communications skills can often devolve into waffle – something that was most obvious in his interview with Leigh Sales on 7.30 last week. Policy uncertainty is why Turnbull waffles.

When Turnbull has something to say he is sharp and clear. But the Government hasn’t settled on what to say yet. Indeed, policy change can’t happen quickly if everything has to go to cabinet along with formal submissions.

So when asked about – say – his foreign policy priorities, the Prime Minister fills the air, trying to be interesting rather than decisive. When he defends positions against his better judgment – like the gay marriage plebiscite – he looks unconvinced and unconvincing.

It’s a fine rope to walk, to distance yourself from the prime minister you rolled and still defend their legacy.

How this is done can make or break a government. To say that in 2010 Gillard handled the transition poorly would be an understatement. Voters were never offered any explanation for why Kevin Rudd had to be removed. We were told a “good government had lost its way” but we were not told where the government was supposed to be heading. We were supposed to “move forward” because asking questions about the leadership change would be crass.

Eventually we found out that Rudd had been rolled because his office was disorganised. Politics is a tough business.

Gillard kept policy change to a minimum. She renegotiated the mining tax. She promised to rearticulate the case for Labor’s moribund climate change policy. Keeping Rudd’s cabinet exactly in place underscored a sense of continuity, giving the impression that toppling the prime minister was simply a minor adjustment to the status quo. When she called an election without affecting any substantial policy change, the sense of surrealism was enhanced.

Gillard scraped through 2010 but never recovered from the impression she made in her first days as prime minister.

Turnbull should be studying the Gillard years closely for what not to do. Not only does a new prime minister need to accumulate the power of incumbency – to be prime minister and be seen being prime minister – but they need time to shape the government in their own image.

More importantly, Turnbull needs to bed down all those questions about where his government will differ from Abbott’s. That means working out all those awkward questions about how and whether asylum policy will change, whether climate policy will change, where the government stands on tax reform, the deficit and spending cuts. Those changes will tell an implicit story of why the spill had to occur when it did.

We’re still in a transition period, as one government turns into another government. But as Gillard discovered, this is one of the most dangerous places to be.