Two years on, Turn­bull searches for his nar­ra­tive

En­ergy pol­icy stands out as the threat and op­por­tu­nity

The Weekend Australian - - COMMENTARY -

In his first state­ment af­ter seiz­ing the lead­er­ship from Tony Ab­bott two years ago on Thurs­day, Mal­colm Turn­bull made a fa­mous ob­ser­va­tion. “There has never been a more ex­cit­ing time to be alive than to­day,” he said, “and there has never been a more ex­cit­ing time to be an Aus­tralian.” In­deed, it was an ex­cit­ing night. But for Mr Ab­bott that night and for Mr Turn­bull since, this has been akin to the Chi­nese curse about liv­ing in in­ter­est­ing times. When losing min­is­ters such as Jamie Briggs and Sus­san Ley, sur­ren­der­ing all but one seat of his ma­jor­ity at last year’s elec­tion, deal­ing with an ob­struc­tive Se­nate, nav­i­gat­ing the dual-cit­i­zen­ship sham­bles or man­ag­ing a tor­tu­ous gay mar­riage sur­vey process, Mr Turn­bull may wish for a lit­tle less ex­cite­ment. Hav­ing reached his sec­ond an­niver­sary as Prime Min­is­ter and, in the process, ex­tended his term be­yond that of his pre­de­ces­sor, now is a time to as­sess his stew­ard­ship and chal­lenges.

Mr Turn­bull cited the Coali­tion’s lack of an eco­nomic nar­ra­tive when he chal­lenged and took up the theme af­ter his par­ty­room vic­tory. “It will be a thor­oughly Lib­eral gov­ern­ment com­mit­ted to free­dom, the in­di­vid­ual and the mar­ket,” he said. Yet his is a gov­ern­ment that im­posed a new levy on big banks, re­duced con­ces­sions on su­per­an­nu­a­tion and floated plans for tax­payer in­vest­ment in en­ergy through the Snowy Hy­dro 2.0 scheme and, pos­si­bly, coal gen­er­a­tion. Hav­ing toyed with in­come tax and GST re­form, then dropped it, the Turn­bull gov­ern­ment also has turned its back on fed­er­a­tion re­form. It has de­liv­ered, in part, a plan to re­duce com­pany tax rates to im­prove com­pet­i­tive­ness. While it has pulled back from the ram­pant spend­ing growth of the La­bor years, the Coali­tion has not de­liv­ered the ex­pen­di­ture cuts re­quired to shift the bud­get into struc­tural sur­plus in the fore­see­able fu­ture. In­ter­est rates re­main at cri­sis lev­els and the bud­get is deep in deficit. Yet jobs fig­ures are en­cour­ag­ing. Still, a co­her­ent eco­nomic nar­ra­tive re­mains elu­sive. Aside from fis­cal re­pair, the prime eco­nomic task is un­re­solved en­ergy pol­icy. Soar­ing power prices and loom­ing re­li­a­bil­ity is­sues un­der­mine con­sumer and busi­ness con­fi­dence and limit growth prospects. De­ci­sions await on whether to in­tro­duce a clean en­ergy tar­get and how to en­tice in­vest­ment in gen­er­a­tion while tak­ing pres­sure off prices. They could be a wa­ter­shed for the Coali­tion — es­pe­cially given La­bor’s al­ter­na­tive is a car­bon price and a higher re­new­able en­ergy tar­get.

What­ever his mis­takes and in­ter­nal dif­fi­cul­ties, Mr Turn­bull has been given many po­lit­i­cal op­por­tu­ni­ties by Bill Shorten. The Op­po­si­tion Leader has not con­vinced the pub­lic of his suit­abil­ity and this is hardly sur­pris­ing given his pol­icy po­si­tions. La­bor prom­ises higher power prices, tax hikes, more spend­ing, deeper deficits and larger debt. It also is di­vided and vul­ner­a­ble on border pro­tec­tion. It had these weak­nesses in last year’s elec­tion cam­paign but Mr Turn­bull failed to ex­ploit them ad­e­quately. So if Mr Shorten is a gift to the Prime Min­is­ter then the Op­po­si­tion Leader too must mar­vel at how few punches Mr Turn­bull makes him duck. Only in re­cent days have we seen the first ef­fec­tive and sus­tained at­tack on “Black­out Bill” — a moniker to show the po­lit­i­cal value of pithy and plau­si­ble ag­gres­sion. Where Mr Turn­bull was in­clined to mock Mr Ab­bott’s re­liance on “three-word slo­gans”, one of his own weak­nesses has been an in­abil­ity to cut through on the is­sues of his choos­ing. He must im­prove to win fu­ture bat­tles.

In for­eign pol­icy Mr Turn­bull has suc­ceeded in im­ple­ment­ing the free trade agenda, largely ne­go­ti­ated un­der Mr Ab­bott, and set­tled US re­la­tions af­ter the elec­tion of Don­ald Trump. His ne­go­ti­a­tion of the refugee re­set­tle­ment deal — if ful­filled — prom­ises to be a land­mark hu­man­i­tar­ian achieve­ment and con­sol­i­date the Coali­tion’s border pro­tec­tion suc­cess. Mr Turn­bull has been con­sis­tent on Afghanistan and Syria and his re­solve, with our al­lies and trad­ing part­ners, against North Korea’s ag­gres­sion has been solid.

Mr Turn­bull has ne­go­ti­ated a deal of leg­is­la­tion through the Se­nate, of­ten by ced­ing ground to his op­po­nents. He adopted La­bor’s Gon­ski for­mula to de­liver gen­er­ous ed­u­ca­tion fund­ing that is not as prof­li­gate as La­bor had promised; im­ple­mented the union ac­count­abil­ity mea­sures that were his dou­ble-dis­so­lu­tion trig­gers with­out re­sort to a joint sit­ting; and this week of­fered re­gional me­dia hand­outs to win a sorely needed moderni­sa­tion of me­dia laws. Per­haps ow­ing to his back­ground in busi­ness and bank­ing, the Prime Min­is­ter is trans­ac­tional in his par­lia­men­tary deal­ings. This al­lows him to point to leg­isla­tive achieve­ments but creates con­fu­sion about his core be­liefs. And in the end, rather than ne­go­ti­ate with se­na­tors, he must be able to carry the pub­lic to sur­vive. En­ergy pol­icy is his great­est threat and op­por­tu­nity. To de­liver the sub­stance and dif­fer­en­ti­a­tion needed he will have to dra­mat­i­cally change his stance from that of the cli­mate war­rior who crossed the floor in 2010 to vote for Kevin Rudd’s emis­sions trad­ing scheme.

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