Mak­ing sense of his first two years

The Saturday Paper - - Front Page -

Two years af­ter he took power, it is pos­si­ble to judge Mal­colm Turn­bull against the stan­dards he set when he chal­lenged for the lead­er­ship. By Karen Mid­dle­ton.

On the eve of the sec­ond an­niver­sary of Mal­colm Turn­bull top­pling Tony Ab­bott as prime min­is­ter – and on the day he over­took him on du­ra­tion – both men were out fight­ing fires.

Ab­bott’s were lit­eral, the for­mer leader hav­ing taken a day’s par­lia­men­tary leave to join his lo­cal David­son ru­ral fire brigade in bat­tling an early-sea­son blaze on the fringes of his

Prime Min­is­ter Mal­colm Turn­bull in Can­berra this week.

north­ern Syd­ney elec­torate.

Back in Can­berra, his suc­ces­sor was fac­ing metaphor­i­cal out­breaks

– new back­bench rumblings over the gov­ern­ment’s ap­proach to re­new­able en­ergy that had, as they of­ten do, just the tini­est whiff of ar­son about them.

On the first an­niver­sary of his op­po­nent’s el­e­va­tion, Op­po­si­tion Leader Bill Shorten had de­clared the Turn­bull gov­ern­ment to be marked by Lib­eral

Party in­fight­ing and par­lia­men­tary chaos un­der what he dubbed “the sec­ond com­ing of the Sun King”.

Bet­ter with the fire hose than he was a year ago, Turn­bull marked his sec­ond an­niver­sary with a spring in his step and an un­con­vinc­ingly char­i­ta­ble nod to his pre­de­ces­sor.

“It’s been two years of great achieve­ment,” he told par­lia­ment. “But above all it’s two years since I be­came prime min­is­ter build­ing on the out­stand­ing work of the Mem­ber for War­ringah. And what that has done is de­liv­ered strong jobs growth.”

The pre­vi­ous night, in a trou­ble­some se­nate, he had bro­kered a cross­bench deal that had eluded suc­ces­sive gov­ern­ments to ease Aus­tralia’s strict me­dia own­er­ship laws.

If he pulls it off, Turn­bull will count this high among his suc­cesses.

His ex­ist­ing list in­cludes the cre­ation of 300,000 jobs in the year; the over­haul of schools fund­ing, in­clud­ing re­cruit­ing the ar­chi­tect of La­bor’s fund­ing blue­print, David Gon­ski; a small busi­ness tax cut; the big-bank levy; a fea­si­bil­ity study into “Snowy Hy­dro 2.0”; and the res­ur­rec­tion of the con­struc­tion in­dus­try watch­dog, al­beit marred by this week’s forced res­ig­na­tion of its chief, Nigel Hadgkiss, who ad­mit­ted breach­ing

the very rules he was sup­posed to be en­forc­ing.

Turn­bull is a self-de­scribed prag­ma­tist, a trait that has re­sulted in dizzy­ing public changes of di­rec­tion, in­clud­ing on tax and en­ergy.

At the two-year mark, Turn­bull biographer, jour­nal­ist and ABC pre­sen­ter Annabel Crabb de­tects a marked change in the politi­cian she first wrote about as Lib­eral leader in 2009, in her Quar­terly Es­say Stop at Noth­ing.

“The fas­ci­nat­ing thing about Mal­colm Turn­bull as PM, I think, is that he is in many re­spects the op­po­site of what ev­ery­one ex­pected,” Crabb says.

“His last stint as Lib­eral leader showed him to be im­pa­tient with fools or in­ter­nal op­po­nents and much given to the reck­less grand par­ries – think Ute­gate – for which he was well known in his le­gal ca­reer.”

But Crabb ob­serves a shift in Turn­bull. “When he re­turned to the lead­er­ship, most be­lieved – some in hope, some in dread – he would be a cham­pion for mod­er­ate causes within the Coali­tion. What he’s ac­tu­ally turned out to be is a pa­tient ne­go­tia­tor with the se­nate and a leader of seem­ingly end­less tol­er­ance for the per­sons with whom he dis­agrees within his own party. It’s ac­tu­ally quite ex­tra­or­di­nary, this change in him.”

Oth­ers in­ter­pret the change less gen­er­ously.

To mark the prime min­is­ter’s sec­ond an­niver­sary in of­fice, The

Satur­day Pa­per asked some public pol­icy pro­po­nents to as­sess the gov­ern­ment’s work, con­sid­er­ing eco­nomic well­be­ing and pros­per­ity, the so­cial fab­ric, man­age­ment of nat­u­ral as­sets, se­cu­rity, and Aus­tralia’s place in the world.

Th­ese mea­sures add to Turn­bull’s own met­rics which he had lev­elled at Ab­bott in jus­ti­fy­ing a lead­er­ship change: a fail­ure of eco­nomic lead­er­ship; poor com­mu­ni­ca­tion, de­fined by a style that favoured slo­gans over ad­vo­cacy and didn’t re­spect peo­ple’s in­tel­li­gence; the loss of 30 con­sec­u­tive Newspolls; fail­ure to con­sult or run proper cab­i­net gov­ern­ment; and pol­i­cy­mak­ing on the run.

In­de­pen­dent economist Saul Es­lake cred­its Turn­bull with hav­ing grown full­time em­ploy­ment and im­proved busi­ness con­di­tions.

“Per­haps most en­cour­ag­ing of all,” Es­lake says, “are the clear signs that have emerged over the last cou­ple of months that busi­ness in­vest­ment – out­side of the min­ing sec­tor – is start­ing to pick up.”

But he said growth in gross do­mes­tic prod­uct and house­hold in­come had slowed, lead­ing to a drop in house­hold sav­ings and weaker con­sumer con­fi­dence.

“The Turn­bull gov­ern­ment has done much bet­ter than its im­me­di­ate pre­de­ces­sor in get­ting leg­is­la­tion through the par­lia­ment, de­spite hav­ing a less favourable po­si­tion,” Es­lake said.

But he says Turn­bull has failed to de­liver the promised eco­nomic nar­ra­tive. “Such ‘nar­ra­tive’ as there has been has been ob­scure, un­per­sua­sive, and not clearly grounded in any ob­vi­ous prin­ci­ples. It has, rather, been re­ac­tive and at times in­co­her­ent.”

Es­lake ar­gues that Turn­bull has run a more ef­fec­tive gov­ern­ment than Ab­bott and con­sulted more widely but that slo­gans re­main.

For his part, though, Turn­bull is trum­pet­ing his record. “Jobs and growth is not a slo­gan,” he says. “It is an out­come.”

Cit­ing eco­nomic statistics in his de­fence, in­clud­ing a rise in growth, Turn­bull de­clared: “Our eco­nomic plan is work­ing.”

For­mer deputy prime min­is­ter and Na­tion­als leader Tim Fis­cher praises Turn­bull’s diplo­matic ef­forts.

“PM Mal­colm has done well on the in­ter­na­tional front,” Fis­cher tells The Satur­day Pa­per.

He cred­its him with quickly es­tab­lish­ing good re­la­tions with Cana­dian coun­ter­part Justin Trudeau and Sin­ga­pore’s Lee Hsien Loong.

“His pivot to hub Sin­ga­pore is smart on all fronts,” Fis­cher says. “Mal­colm de­serves more credit for putting some lat­eral think­ing into the Aus­tralia– Ger­many con­nec­tion, which has not al­ways been pri­ori­tised.”

He says Turn­bull has done “ex­tremely well un­der duress” in manag­ing the United States re­la­tion­ship un­der Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump.

“How­ever, he needs more trac­tion on the do­mes­tic front and maybe this will emerge over the next quar­tile,” Fis­cher says.

So­cial re­searcher and au­thor Hugh Mackay says the eco­nomic and so­cial pic­ture is some­what gloomy.

“The truth is, peo­ple are feel­ing ac­tu­ally worse off than they were a few years ago,” Mackay says.

He says Turn­bull’s rise co­in­cided with the pal­pa­ble de­cline in vot­ers’ es­teem for pol­i­tics and politi­cians.

“The fact that we’re in the state that we’re in is cer­tainly not his fault,” he says. “They don’t nec­es­sar­ily think any­one else would do any bet­ter … But he cer­tainly gets zero.”

Mackay says vot­ers mark Turn­bull down be­cause he raised ex­pec­ta­tions, point­ing to a gap be­tween Turn­bull’s im­age be­fore and his pri­or­i­ties af­ter­wards.

“Peo­ple as­sumed that if he got the top job, sud­denly the repub­lic would be back on the agenda be­cause he’s Mr Repub­lic.”

In­stead, he was “off to meet the Queen” and Bill Shorten was tak­ing the lead on that is­sue in­stead.

“There’s no score for him on that and there’s no score on same-sex mar­riage,” Mackay says, ar­gu­ing he is seen to have com­pro­mised in its han­dling.

Like­wise, his prime min­is­te­rial pri­or­i­ties on en­ergy seem con­tra­dic­tory. Vot­ers re­mem­ber he sup­ported emis­sions trad­ing but are now ask­ing: “Is this the man who’s talk­ing about clean coal and keep­ing Lid­dell run­ning? Is this the same guy?”

Mel­bourne Univer­sity pro­fes­sor and In­dige­nous leader Marcia Lang­ton cred­its Turn­bull with bet­ter han­dling com­mu­ni­ca­tions about ter­ror­ism and Is­lam­o­pho­bia than his pre­de­ces­sor.

“I never thought I’d be say­ing this, but I think they’ve got the set­tings right on home­grown ter­ror­ism,” Lang­ton says. “I’m not as freaked out by it as I used to be. At­ten­tion-seek­ing politi­cians are go­ing off the reser­va­tion ev­ery now and then but main­stream politi­cians are deal­ing with it in a rea­son­able way.”

But Lang­ton also has crit­i­cisms.

She says the gov­ern­ment still doesn’t ad­e­quately value uni­ver­si­ties or the core sub­jects of science, tech­nol­ogy, en­gi­neer­ing and maths.

“We’re not keep­ing up with the rest of the world in turn­ing out smart science grad­u­ates,” Lang­ton says. “We re­ally need to do a lot bet­ter. The chick­ens will come home to roost on this is­sue. Our econ­omy sim­ply won’t be com­pet­i­tive.”

Lang­ton is con­cerned that too much re­spon­si­bil­ity in In­dige­nous af­fairs has been handed to the states, where she says is­sues and fund­ing just dis­ap­pear.

The prime min­is­ter has also not yet re­sponded to the Ref­er­en­dum Coun­cil re­port on In­dige­nous recog­ni­tion, re­ceived three months ago.

“I think he’s slipped it away be­cause he just doesn’t want to deal with it,” she says. “So that’s very dis­ap­point­ing.”

Busi­ness­man and for­mer Howard ad­viser turned Aus­tralian Con­ser­va­tion Foun­da­tion pres­i­dent Ge­off Cousins makes a sim­i­lar crit­i­cism on en­ergy pol­icy.

Cousins was part of a group of 17 busi­ness peo­ple call­ing them­selves the En­ergy Tran­si­tion Lead­er­ship Fo­rum who, in Novem­ber last year, handed the gov­ern­ment a blue­print for shift­ing to clean en­ergy.

“I haven’t heard a word from the gov­ern­ment from that day to this,” Cousins says.

The for­mer ad man whose lob­by­ing tac­tics saw Turn­bull pre­vi­ously de­scribe him as a “rich bully” is scathing about the prime min­is­ter’s en­vi­ron­men­tal record.

“Dur­ing his prime min­is­ter­ship we had Aus­tralia sign the Paris agree­ment,” Cousins says. “Not a sin­gle pol­icy in that area has changed since we signed that. We set tar­gets. We didn’t change a sin­gle thing to reach them.”

He de­scribes Turn­bull’s en­ergy pol­icy as “a series of stunts” and “Trum­pean show­man­ship”.

Cousins says he had wel­comed Turn­bull’s el­e­va­tion.

“I think there was a great sigh of re­lief from ev­ery­one … that things have to be bet­ter,” he tells The Satur­day Pa­per. “He raised ex­pec­ta­tions. He par­tic­u­larly raised them in the tax area.”

But Cousins says they have not been met. In­stead, Turn­bull has floated ideas then quashed them.

“That is a fun­da­men­tal po­lit­i­cal er­ror and the work of an am­a­teur.”

He con­cedes Tony Ab­bott’s be­hav­iour has made Turn­bull’s job harder.

“What should the prime min­is­ter do? He should call him out. But he doesn’t do it. He hasn’t got the ticker. He just wants to hang on to his job by any means.”

Un­sur­pris­ingly, Op­po­si­tion Leader Bill Shorten agrees, call­ing Turn­bull “a fail­ure”.

“Two years ago we got a new prime min­is­ter who promised eco­nomic pros­per­ity,” Shorten told The Satur­day Pa­per. “He sup­ported mar­riage equal­ity, he was a war­rior for the en­vi­ron­ment and tack­ling cli­mate change, he said he would pur­sue ad­vo­cacy in­stead of slo­gans, and he pledged to re­spect the in­tel­li­gence of the Aus­tralian peo­ple. To­day he is com­pletely dif­fer­ent to the bloke he said he was two years ago. The only thing he has kept is his name.”

Shorten ac­cuses Turn­bull of pre­sid­ing over wage stag­na­tion and fall­ing liv­ing stan­dards.

“Two years ago I thought my job would get harder,” Shorten says. “But I also thought pol­i­tics would be bet­ter for the change. But noth­ing has changed. I don’t know why the Lib­eral Party both­ered re­plac­ing Tony Ab­bott at all.”

Greens leader Richard Di Natale crit­i­cises Turn­bull’s ste­ward­ship, es­pe­cially of en­ergy pol­icy.

“Mal­colm Turn­bull has been a huge dis­ap­point­ment and it’s now clear that he doesn’t stand for any­thing,” Di Natale tells The Satur­day Pa­per. “He may be prime min­is­ter, but it’s ob­vi­ous that Tony Ab­bott and the coal club are the ones pulling the strings.”

Di Natale also con­demns Turn­bull’s ap­proach to hu­man rights.

“He has put ques­tions of ba­sic rights to pop­u­lar sur­veys,” Di Natale says.

“[He has] al­lowed in­no­cent peo­ple seek­ing asy­lum to rot in off­shore hell holes and stands silent while hate­ful far-right groups are mo­bil­is­ing in our back­yard … What’s the point of be­ing leader if you have to sell out ev­ery­thing you once be­lieved to get there?”

Sev­eral think tanks also of­fer a mixed re­port card.

The chief ex­ec­u­tive of the Grat­tan In­sti­tute, John Da­ley, marks Turn­bull high for his schools fund­ing re­form.

“It’s a sub­stan­tial step for­ward in some­thing that’s been vexed for a very long time,” he says.

But he says mi­croe­co­nomic re­form is “not a very happy story”.

“The big­gest ob­sta­cle to re­form is not the se­nate,” Da­ley says. “It’s get­ting it through the party room.”

Da­ley is con­cerned about the of in­ter­ven­tion­ism, say­ing re­cent de­vel­op­ments in en­ergy pol­icy are a spec­tac­u­lar ex­am­ple of the his­tor­i­cal French eco­nomic model of state in­ter­ven­tion.

“Di­rigisme is back,” he de­clares.

The Aus­tralia In­sti­tute’s se­nior re­search fel­low, David Richard­son, rests his cri­tique on ris­ing emis­sions and slug­gish wages. He says in­equal­ity has also risen.

“Turn­bull has given us the unique ex­pe­ri­ence of busi­ness con­fi­dence generally in­creas­ing while con­sumer con­fi­dence de­te­ri­o­rates.”

The direc­tor of the In­sti­tute of Public Af­fairs, John Roskam, says the Turn­bull gov­ern­ment hasn’t de­liv­ered on its prom­ises.

“The prime min­is­ter said he would lead a thor­oughly lib­eral gov­ern­ment and we’re still look­ing to find where that sen­ti­ment might be,” he tells The Satur­day Pa­per.

Roskam sin­gles out con­cern over higher taxes, de­scrib­ing the ed­u­ca­tion changes as a neg­a­tive not a pos­i­tive.

“They don’t go to the qual­ity of what is taught,” he says.

But for Roskam, the key is what he calls “the emerg­ing val­ues de­bate” and a per­ceived re­luc­tance to en­gage.

“Un­til the Coali­tion finds a pur­pose, it is go­ing to con­tinue to strug­gle,” he says. He said a Lib­eral gov­ern­ment should stand against de­mands for more gov­ern­ment in­ter­ven­tion, spend­ing and in­ter­fer­ence.

“The chal­lenge for the Lib­eral Party over the next five to 10 years is whether what di­vides the party … is greater than what unites it,” Roskam says. “There is a limit to how broad the church can be.”

Turn­bull con­tin­ues to be haunted by the very spe­cific bench­mark he set for him­self two years ago, in crit­i­cis­ing Ab­bott for los­ing “30 Newspolls in a row”.

“Maybe he could re­pair the sit­u­a­tion a bit by, on some­thing, just be­ing a bit coura­geous,” Hugh Mackay sug­gests.

Turn­bull’s sup­port­ers take com­fort that even af­ter what are now 19 bad Newspolls, he still out­rates Bill Shorten as pre­ferred prime min­is­ter.

But then, in 1996 the same polls showed vot­ers pre­ferred in­cum­bent Paul Keat­ing to the greyer John Howard, right

• up un­til they tossed him out of of­fice.

KAREN MID­DLE­TON is The Satur­day Pa­per’s chief po­lit­i­cal cor­re­spon­dent.

KAREN MID­DLE­TON is The Satur­day Pa­per’s chief po­lit­i­cal cor­re­spon­dent.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.