Brand new TBS writer Harrison Jones points out that popularity is a fickle beast in politics, and in Turnbull and Trudeau’s case, the hard work now begins.
I first heard the name Justin Trudeau after he won the Canadian election, following a remarkably large landslide victory. His party, which previously held 34 seats in Parliament, won 184. Since then, the youthful, energetic liberal has fascinated me to the extent that I have watched far too many hours of his interviews and his speeches.
One theme reoccurred throughout the analysis of his election: that he is a man of the people, and feeds off the enthusiastic support of his constituents. He is the politician who tried to shake everyone’s adoring hand at campaign events and take a selfie with every swooning middle-aged woman. He even got a photo with a topless woman at a gay pride march.
Australia’s own Malcolm Turnbull is remarkably similar. Since replacing Tony Abbott in September, the populist leader has been spotted shaking everyone’s hand at events and taking selfies with his adoring fans. Now we are just waiting for the topless woman to jump him on the street. Turnbull, like Trudeau, has been thriving off the support of his constituents with a Fairfax-Ipsos poll in October finding his support as preferred Prime Minister at 69 percent.
The important question that needs to asked is how much of this popularity will they be able to keep? How will they function as they are forced to begin to make tough decisions on serious issues that could disappoint millions of people?
In 2008, Barack Obama became the “leader of the free world” on a wave of enthusiasm. The charismatic African-American saw broad support from his democratic party base and many swing voters, beating his opponent John McCain by almost 10,000,000 votes.
Following his poignant and memorable speech at the Democratic National Convention in 2004, which launched him into the forefront of the American political consciousness, swathes of pressure had been placed on Obama to be the political saviour the country craved.
Eleven years later, the reality is starkly different. Today, Obama has been labelled the least popular living President by a CNN/ORC International poll.
Despite what the grand promises of an election campaign allude to, the governance of a state does not simply involve ticking the boxes of the various commitments made and waiting for the next election cycle. As a head of government, all leaders, robustly popular or not, must face the unenviable task of addressing the issue of the day, whether politically beneficial or not.
Obama was a sitting duck for political disappointment from the outset. His inauguration came just a few months after the historic October 2008 crash of the stock market, sparking the GFC. Just six days after he formally became President, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act was introduced to the house and drew deep criticism from the Republican leadership who refused to co-operate. Almost immediately, Obama, who ran on the euphoric platform of “hope and change,” had his political honeymoon cut short.
The suffering continued as the Republicans won the 2010 mid-term elections, thus deriding Obama’s hopes of removing the Bush-era tax cuts to the wealthy. His most promising policy, the Affordable Care Act, has been introduced and has dropped the number of uninsured Americans by almost 3 percent (8.8 million people). Even so, cruel attack ads, the media’s (okay, mainly Fox News’) peddling of the “death panels” and the initial crash of the website has stained what should have been Obama’s greatest success.
If the first African-American President of the United States couldn’t maintain his popularity as a political messiah, what hope is there for Turnbull and Trudeau?
With a bold mandate ranging from a price on carbon to legalising marijuana nationwide, Canada has enormously high expectations for Trudeau who has been elected with a majority government.
The issue for the Canadian Prime Minister will be acting on his mandate; he has already been forced to compromise by delaying the intake of the promised 25,000 Syrian refugees, and will continue to face criticism from the conservative opposition.
Crucially, the new leader has only been a member of Parliament since 2008, and a High School teacher prior to that. A key aspect of the campaign against Trudeau throughout the election was both his inexperience and the surmising that the only reason he had the opportunity was because of who his father was (Pierre Trudeau, Canadian Prime Minister for over 15 years). As a result, his responses to emerging challenges, especially international ones, such as IS, and Russia’s increasing aggression, will be heavily scrutinised and the learning curve will surely be a steep one, if he is to avoid the same political fate as Obama.
Turnbull faces far greater challenges. Winning power, not from the people in a democratic election but from a party room, means that Australia’s 29th Prime Minister has no real mandate with the Australian people.
Instead, Turnbull’s mandate comes from the ministers who supported him – and also who opposed him – in the 54-44 spill on the 14th of September. Therefore, until the next election, likely late next year, Turnbull is largely tied to the actions and promises of his hard-line conservative predecessor Tony Abbott.
Turnbull’s predicament has meant he has been forced to tow the party line on same-sex marriage, despite it being overwhelmingly supported by the Australian people. His position on climate change, although more palatable than Abbott’s near-denial, still leaves Australia ranked third-last among developed industrial countries in terms of its response to global warming.
How long is too long before the Australian people become fed up with what could be perceived as a well spoken Abbott?
It’s not that Turnbull has been strangled by existing policy; he has recently announced his $1 billion agenda for innovation. Designed to shift Australia’s economic dependence from a declining mining boom to an “ideas boom,” the policy is largely inoffensive and likely to be well received.
The cuts to other areas which will be announced this week to fund this program, however, are not likely to be well received. As may Turnbull’s possible proposal to increase the GST from 10 percent to 15 percent, which has been described as political poison. The freshly minted Paris agreement on climate change places pressure on Turnbull to address Australia’s high-emission coal industry, with the International Monetary Fund and World Bank touting a carbon price as the best plan. The chances of that are slimmer than Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd becoming best friends. If the $20 million the mining industry spent on advertisements against the Rudd/Gillard Mining Tax are anything to go by, even low level regulation won’t be introduced easily.
Expectation is a powerful, unifying force in politics.
It has the power to make politicians and break them. Turnbull and Trudeau are two fresh faces who have been brought to power by large popularity, and with great expectations placed upon them. If the example of Obama has taught us anything, it is that large electoral success does not always translate into lasting popularity.
Turnbull, more than Trudeau, is edging closer to this day as his honeymoon begins to end. Scandals surrounding Mal Borough and Ian McFarlane, as well pressure for him to differentiate himself from Abbott, have forced him closer to the flight back to political reality.
Such is politics.