February 14, 2016
IT’S been a terrible false start for Malcolm Turnbull, and an even worse one for the country.
Last September, the new Prime Minister offered us a fresh dawn when he picked his team of ministers.
“Today, I’m announcing a 21st century government and a ministry for the future,” he beamed. But it turns out his future didn’t last even five months.
On Saturday, Turnbull — oops — had to announce a very different ministry, now missing six of the people he’d boasted last year was his “ministry for the future”.
Gone were deputy prime minister Warren Truss and Trade Minister Andrew Robb, both retiring. Dumped were four other ministers — Mal Brough, Jamie Briggs and Stuart Robert, all torched by scandals, and Luke Hartsuyker, nobbled by his fellow Nationals.
Turnbull can’t be blamed for all these losses, although it was all his own dumb work to make Brough a minister in the first place as a reward for plotting against Tony Abbott.
What was he thinking? Brough was already up to his neck in the leaking of private information of former Speaker Peter Slipper, a matter now being investigated by police.
And did he really have to reward Robert, another plotter, with a ministry, too, and then hang on to him for too long?
Turnbull didn’t take long to realise he’d stuffed up with his picks. Good sources say that in December, he rang Bruce Billson and told him he’d made a mistake in dumping him as Small Business Minister, a portfolio Turnbull had given instead to yet another of his allies, Kelly O’Dwyer.
But Billson refused Turnbull’s request to come back. He’s been burned, and is quitting Parliament.
True, many of the people promoted in the second Turnbull ministry on Saturday are very good.
The best are supporters of Tony Abbott wrongly overlooked by Turnbull last September — Victorians Dan Tehan and Alan Tudge. Add also Angus Taylor, a former Rhodes scholar, said by some to be a prime minister of the future.
Better still, Barnaby Joyce is the new Nationals leader and Deputy Prime Minister, replacing Truss. Very few politicians have as much cut-through in the media, and few will have more power to drag Turnbull from his souring flirtation with the media Left.
So Turnbull can rightly argue his new ministry may have lost experience, but it hasn’t lost much talent. Yet one critical thing it has lost is time.
Turnbull must virtually start all over again, but not just with a new team.
Now, with just three months to go before his first Budget and only eight or so until the election, he must find a new economic plan.
Again, he’s had an awful false start. Five months ago, Turnbull announced not just his “ministry for the future” but his big promise.
Abbott, as prime minister, had “not been capable in providing the economic leadership our nation needs”, he thundered.
Turnbull would be different: “We need a style of leadership that explains those challenges ... and sets out the course of action we believe we should take and makes a case for it.
“We need advocacy, not slogans.”
But Turnbull has failed. He’s offered no “economic leadership”, no “course of action” and no “advocacy”.
What’s his “course of action” on tax cuts? On superannuation tax breaks? On a capital gains crackdown? On winding back negative gearing? On workplace reform? On spending cuts?
No one knows.
For months, Turnbull did toy with raising the GST to 15 per cent to raise money for big tax cuts, but didn’t offer a word of advocacy for this (pointless) switcheroo, meant to be the centrepiece of his economic strategy.
Once again, he seemed too scared of risking his popularity to fight for anything that mattered to him — or should. He, instead, pushed out Treasurer Scott Morrison to make the case to premiers and business leaders. But last week, Turnbull cut Morrison off at the knees.
He’d got too frightened by Labor’s scare campaign against a GST hike and had Industry Minister Chris Pyne casually let drop that it “is not going to be introduced”.
Ouch. Premiers who backed a GST rise are furious to have wasted their time and credibility. South Australian Premier Jay Weatherill whacked Turnbull: “It’s the opposite of taking responsibility and demonstrating the leadership that he promised.”
Nor will the ambitious Morrison like being made to look weak, and he’ll be even angrier now Turnbull has sacked Stuart Robert, a key Morrison ally.
Morrison had argued publicly that the accusations against Robert — of doing a business favour for a mate on a trip to China — were just a “shocking beat-up”.
He has now learned the hard way that it takes a strong, clear and loyal Prime Minister to make a minister look good.
Morrison became a star as immigration minister when Abbott told him plainly to stop the boats, and backed him completely when he did.
But he now looks a struggler because Turnbull told him vaguely to maybe raise the GST and then dropped him when he tried.
The big picture for voters is this: the Government has lost five months while Turnbull fossicks for the economic plan he promised last year.
Sure, our economy is still growing, but so is our debt.
Sure, unemployment is falling, but so are prices for our exports.
Every month lost in fixing the Budget is a month more of rising debt, and one month less to protect us from future shocks, such as China tanking.
But Turnbull has lost not only time. Critically, he has lost momentum.
It was always clear the Government shouldn’t raise taxes but should cut spending, and voters had to be coached to take the pain.
Even our greatest Labor treasurer, Paul Keating, this month said the world had slashed our export earnings, and Turnbull had to “trim our spending and not accommodate more of it by ever more taxation”.
Our greatest Liberal treasurer, Peter Costello, agreed. “Tax changes will not solve the Budget problem,” he warned, and spending must be cut.
Abbott, as prime minister, knew this.
You might hate him for breaking promises and mock him for his heavy-handed attempts to cut government programs, but credit him with having the guts to try to fix the spending binge that’s driving us broke.
But here is the problem: Turnbull’s supporters egged on Abbott’s media critics and undermined his message, crippling his efforts to persuade feral senators to pass his savings.
Now that he’s taken over as Prime Minister, Turnbull has all but dropped that grim talk of spending cuts and is hunting for easy tax hits instead — possibly on superannuation and negative gearing, which the Greens would help get passed.
Gone is Abbott’s depressing talk of “Budget emergencies”, as Turnbull has sold sunshine instead.
So how can Turnbull now switch back to Abbott’s argument of our cupboard being bare and our belts needing tightening?
He’ll look like he’s spent the last five months faffing around when there was hard work to be done.
And that, I’m afraid, is the truth.
Originally published as A timid Turnbull hits reset button
Ideas? Innovation? We’re only getting inaction
The Daily Telegraph
February 15 2016
Then nothing happened. Absolutely nothing.
Shorten delivered no ideas at all and Turnbull has been locked for five months in an agile, innovative and creative strategy of total defensiveness. Both men are paralysed with concern over the election, so are now engaged in a war of complete inertia.
It’s like a chess championship in a narcolepsy ward. Or, even worse, any soccer match played anywhere, between any teams, at any time. “What’s happened? What has he actually done?” Shorten asked last week about his motionless opponent, who could well have asked the same about Shorten.
These two are demonstrating all the dynamism and energy of ABC staffers at 4.55pm on a long-weekend Friday.
Now, this is not entirely a bad thing. There are a lot of situations that could become a great deal more unpleasant through the involvement of either Shorten or Turnbull. For example, the Prime Minister could decide to waste more of our time and money on another doomed republican bender. And Shorten could try to drive somewhere.
It’s just that Australia has some serious problems — with increasing numbers of zeros — that can only be resolved through political action. Sooner or later, Shorten and Turnbull need to present their ideas for spending cuts.
Spending cuts! These words strike fear into the marrow of both the PM and his rival. It’s a measure of just how frightened they are even to mention spending cuts that Shorten and Turnbull would rather discuss potential tax increases, which in an election year would normally be suicidal. Yet they’ve obviously decided that spending cuts are even more dangerous, despite a significant and possibly election-turning public appetite for restraint.
Turnbull’s reluctance to publicly consider spending cuts is more pronounced, especially given his September vow to pursue agility and innovation. People who are paid to observe Turnbull and his kind are beginning to notice.
“The Turnbull government has to take a more — much as I hate to say it, given its previous overuse and misuse — methodical approach to the difficult tasks ahead, especially as it allowed a few months to slip by without properly making the case for tax reform,” former Peter Costello staffer Niki Savva wrote in The Australian last week. “There has to be a clearer articulation of objectives followed by a disciplined outlining of solutions.”
Yes. Solutions would be nice. “What’s going on?” asked Fairfax’s Mark Kenny.
“Order has given way to a faint air of chaos. Malcolm Turnbull’s administration looks slave to events rather than the other way around … The strong impression being created is that parts of the show are flying off — that either through incompetence, stupidity, or a failure of due diligence, Turnbull’s executive is disintegrating around him, suggesting he is less in control than he might pretend. And that’s before anything serious has even been tried in a policy sense.”
A safety-first approach isn’t always safe. It might be prudent to take a hands-off approach when you’re cruising at altitude but eventually you’ve got to grab the controls and actually land the thing.
The Saturday Telegraph’s Laurie Oakes reflected on Turnbull’s switch to somnambulism: “His stint as opposition leader ended in tears in 2009 because he alienated colleagues through an arrogant ‘I-know-best’ style. But in his new incarnation as Prime Minister, Turnbull seems to have gone to the other extreme. Consultation and process get such priority that he fails to convey strength or a sense of direction.”
Part of the problem is the people Turnbull consults. Like Shorten, he is surrounded by big-spending, big-government types whose answer to every electoral problem is more government programs.
This is what led us to our predicament in the first place. The Great Explainer, and his Labor counterpart, need to consult with the people paying the bills instead of the people spending our damn money.