Two years on, Turnbull searches for his narrative
Energy policy stands out as the threat and opportunity
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.