Sydney letter: Turnbull credited with turnaround

The change in Liberal leader has led to a sharp increase in consumer confidence

Two months after his own Liberal Party dumped Tony Abbott as prime minister, Australia is a more relaxed and confident country.

In September, just before Malcolm Turnbull became Australia's fourth prime minister in just over two years, the opposition Labor Party was leading the Liberal-National coalition government 54-46 per cent after preferences. Poll after poll had the government staring down the barrel of a landslide loss in an election due within a year. The coalition was in grave danger of being a one-term government.

But the latest polling has the government in a commanding 53-47 per cent lead and Turnbull is preferred prime minister for 67 per cent of voters. Just one in five think Labor leader Bill Shorten would make a better prime minister.

The change in leader has also led to a sharp increase in consumer confidence, just in time for Christmas sales. The Westpac bank's consumer sentiment index rose 3.9 per cent in November, to 101.7 points – when the index goes over 100 it means optimists outnumber pessimists. This is only the third time in 20 months the index has exceeded 100 points.

Abbott excelled in making people scared – of a spendthrift opposition, Islamic terrorism or whatever else he thought would work. But it stopped working and his party dumped him for Turnbull, a multi-millionaire who is more of a glass half full person.

Confidence boost

Westpac’s chief economist Bill Evans says Turnbull deposing Abbott is a major factor in the consumer index now being 8.3 per cent higher than just before the leadership change. “It is likely that a boost in confidence towards the economic credentials of the new leadership team played an important hand here,” Evans said.

The Liberal Party is mostly conservative and, for many members and elected representatives, Turnbull, who is from the “small l” liberal wing of the party, is still on his training wheels. But even the hard right of his party must be happy with the immediate turnaround in the government’s fortunes.

The party’s conservative base has nowhere else to go anyway; or at least not anywhere their vote would amount to anything more than a token protest. Dissatisfied Labor voters can, and do, vote for the Greens if the feel let down by a lurch to the centre.

Liberal voters looking for an alternative on the right see little beyond single-issue parties who want to stop Muslim immigration.

Turnbull has not yet changed his government’s policies – not on same-sex marriage, tackling climate change, an Australian republic nor many other issues previously close to his heart – but he has changed how the office of the prime minister conducts itself.

Turnbull does not pander to the Rupert Murdoch-owned Daily Telegraph tabloid, nor does he give soft-serve interviews to favoured talkback radio stations.

Instead, he is almost presidential. It helps that, unlike Abbott, he is articulate and doesn’t come as across as permanently spoiling for a fight. He speaks at events, but does not do “doorstops” afterwards, where journalists shout questions and expect answers to fill column inches and broadcast minutes.

With two dedicated 24-hour TV news channels and 70 per cent of daily metropolitan newspaper sales controlled by News Corporation, politics in Australia is often covered like a blood sport – a recent political documentary was called The Killing Season.

But Turnbull has abandoned the 24-hour news cycle. No longer does every day need a fight with the opposition. This allows the government to get on with the business of governing, though journalists are now sometimes scrabbling for news when parliament is not sitting.

Moral outrage

Some of Turnbull’s ministers can’t help but cling to their populist ways though. Treasurer Scott Morrison joined in a carefully confected moral outrage when a primary school in Victoria excused some Shia Muslim children from singing the national anthem. Morrison said the teachers involved were “do-gooders” who should win “muppet of the year” awards.

But for the Shia it was the Mourning of Muharram, a time when they are prohibited from singing joyful songs. "The children are young. They were confused. They didn't want to get in trouble at home or at school," the principal Cheryl Irving said.

For Morrison it seems not much has changed since 1870 when the Sydney Morning Herald newspaper lambasted convent school children in the town of Albury who refused to stand when God Save the Queen was played.

Regardless of how his ministers behave Turnbull is enjoying a honeymoon with the Australian public and he has the measure of Shorten. If he uses that capital wisely the coalition will trounce Labor in next year’s election.

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