+ About David Speers
David Speers is Political Editor at SKY NEWS and anchor of PM Agenda and The Nation on SKY NEWS National.
PM Agenda sees David talk to the key newsmakers and dissect what the day's events will mean. The Nation is a one hour program that allows for one of the most in-depth policy discussions on Australian television.
David is one of Australia's most respected political journalists and interviewers. He has been chosen to host every debate and forum at the last three federal elections and has interviewed a number of world leaders, including US President George W. Bush at the White House.
Between elections he is one of the busiest and best connected correspondents in Canberra.
David joined SKY NEWS as Political Editor in 2000 and has since seen the channel grow to become the home of political and national affairs coverage in Australia.
He hasn't been confined to the Press Gallery in that time, traveling extensively across the country and abroad.
David has covered the last three Presidential elections in the United States and reported from China, India, Afghanistan, Indonesia and throughout Europe.
In 2013 David was elected President of the Parliamentary Press Gallery which he joined in 1999. He is also the Director of the National Press Club and winner of more than 10 ASTRA Awards.
Prior to joining SKY NEWS, David worked as a Political Reporter for a number of radio stations in Canberra and at New South Wales Parliament in Sydney.
Follow David Speers on Twitter @David_Speers
Friday, March 24, 2017
By David Speers
George Brandis isn’t often credited with an ability to distill complex concepts into easy sound-bites (think 18C and meta-data). But the Attorney General couldn’t have put it more succinctly when he said last year that “the byword of the 45th Parliament is compromise”.
Nearly every bill that’s managed to pass through this parliament has required significant change; the ABCC, superannuation reforms, the Backpackers’ Tax.
Right now, though, we’re seeing the government move from compromise to concession and possibly capitulation.
It’s being forced to seriously water-down core promises on two fronts; budget repair and company tax. The concessions are necessary and have been coming for months. But they’re staggering nonetheless.
In the final days of the election campaign, the government boasted about the slightly better budget bottom line it was able to project over the next four years compared to Labor.
This was largely built on pursuing spending cuts that Labor says families, jobseekers and pensioners couldn’t afford.
Now, the government has finally been forced to abandon most of these cuts. Many of them had been hanging around in various forms since the first Abbott-Hockey Budget in 2014. They’re expected to be taken out of the Budget in May.
Once that happens, the Coalition’s high moral ground of budget repair won’t be looking quite so high any more.
Just enough savings were secured this week to pay for the important Childcare package crafted by Simon Birmingham. This reform, which will boost subsidies for low income families while cutting them for the rich, passed the Senate last night.
It’s worth noting the additional $1.6b in childcare spending has been funded by a two year “freeze” in family payments, rather than a permanent spending cut. It’s a reminder of how difficult budget repair has become when the Senate is filled with populist cross-bench parties and an opposition determined to inflict pain at every opportunity.
On company tax, we’ll find out next week just how much of the 10-year “Enterprise Tax Plan” the government is able to salvage. Chances are the Senate will only back a tax cut for businesses with a turn-over up to $10 million.
The difficult question for the government will then be whether to keep the rest of the plan on the budget books or not. Taking it off the books might make the bottom line look healthier, but it will leave the government’s “plan for jobs and growth” looking a little thin.
When Scott Morrison first outlined this plan in last year’s Budget (his first), he framed it as an essential part of helping the economy transition away from the mining boom. The company tax cuts would boost jobs and keep Australia competitive as a destination for investment.
Nothing has changed on any of these fronts in the nine months since the election. The economy still needs help transitioning away from mining, the unemployment rate is higher now than it was at the election and Australia is at risk of becoming even less competitive on company tax.
Donald Trump wants to take the US corporate tax rate down to 15%, while Theresa May has indicated she may want to take the rate in the UK even lower.
Malcolm Turnbull therefore can hardly abandon his 10-year plan. Using his own logic, we need these company tax cuts now more than we did last year.
The only way to win over the Senate though, is to come up with a plan to fund the tax cuts. This has always been the missing piece of the puzzle. The tax cuts, we were told, would generate enough economic activity to eventually pay for themselves! Few bought it.
The company tax cuts, worth $48b over 10 years, could be funded through genuine, comprehensive tax reform. This would require going into some of the areas this government has declared no-go zones; Negative Gearing, Capital Gains Tax and yes, the GST.
Would this be politically difficult? Absolutely. But Turnbull needs a plan to fight for. Dropping the bulk of the company tax cuts after next week really isn’t an option.
Labor’s lack of a plan to boost economic growth is a weakness the Government should be able to exploit. It needs a strong plan of its own to do so.
Compromise may be the byword of this parliament, but the Prime Minister needs to be careful. He can’t afford to give away too much.
Friday, March 17, 2017
By David Speers
Malcolm Turnbull said it himself: “No one in their right mind would ever give a blank cheque to an analysis that hasn't been done”.
This was back when Turnbull was an ambitious Shadow Minister giving Labor one of his regular sprays for failing to conduct a cost-benefit analysis before committing to the “rolled gold” NBN. It was a good point then and it’s a good point now.
Yet Turnbull has ignored his own advice and committed an unknown amount of money to a project that still needs to go through a feasibility study.
The “Snowy Hydro 2.0” project is sound in concept. The idea is to use the scheme’s existing dams, but create a new “pumped hydro” facility, generating enough power to feed roughly half a million homes.
In theory, the case for the project is strong. Coal and gas fired power will only become more expensive as the old generators shut down. Wind and solar power will only become more affordable as technology and scale improve. But renewables need battery back-up when the sun isn’t shining and the wind isn’t blowing. “Pumped hydro” operates like a very big, wet battery.
The Snowy Hydro Corporation, owned by NSW, Victoria and the Commonwealth, is a safe pair of hands too. It’s been running pumped hydro for years. The technology is proven and it’s what the market needs. If all goes well, it will be driving another 2000MW of power into the national grid within 4-5 years. By contrast, the Hazelwood power station which is about to shut down, generates 1600MW at full capacity.
Fortunately the Snowy Hydro extension won’t cost anywhere near as much as the NBN. But with a price tag of around $2 billion, it’s still good advice not to hand over a blank cheque until the analysis is in. Yet this is exactly what Turnbull is doing.
“We would look forward to the other shareholders (NSW and Vic) contributing to it but if they don’t wish to contribute additional equity and they would rather the Commonwealth Government did that, we are very happy to contribute equity on a commercial basis to this project. That is our commitment.” Not a lot of wriggle room there. The Commonwealth is all in.
In fact, Turnbull is so convinced the numbers will stack up, he declared, “this will make money for Snowy Hydro.” Which raises the question: why hasn’t the company done this already? If it’s such an obvious money maker, why do we even need a feasibility study? Why not just get on with it?
I put these questions to the CEO of the Snowy Hydro Corporation, Paul Broad on my “Speers Tonight” program on Sky News. While clearly excited about the PM’s enthusiasm, he acknowledges there’s still work to do.
The plan announced by Turnbull yesterday is “based on a report done by Snowy Hydro back in the early 80s”, he says. That plan showed the expansion was technically possible, but just too expensive. Given power prices have soared since the 1980s, it’s no doubt looking more viable now. Broad also says they need to “re-affirm the geology” before digging new tunnels and installing pipelines. This could also have a considerable impact on the final cost and timeframe.
Here’s the political reality though: Malcolm Turnbull can’t afford to wait for the feasibility study at the end of the year. He’s under the pump (sorry) right now. This sort of bold, visionary, nation-building stuff is exactly what he needs.
Turnbull knows the politics of investing in a big clean, green energy project work in his favour. That’s why he did a media blitz yesterday. It’s hard to believe he would appear on “The Project” were he spruiking an investment in a new coal plant, as some of his Ministers have been advocating.
I’m told there will be more to come on pumped hydro. This won’t be the last major project Turnbull supports.
It also doesn’t hurt that the Snowy Hydro announcement coincided with the Newspoll survey going into the field. Those results early next week will set the tone for an important sitting fortnight.
Turnbull’s enthusiasm on “Snowy Hydro 2.0” was understandable, even if his own warnings from years gone by are now being ignored.
Friday, March 10, 2017
By David Speers
All sides of politics privately expect Colin Barnett will lose tomorrow here in Western Australia. If that happens, there will be plenty of blame to share around on the Liberal side.
There’s the poor state of the books, the lack of leadership succession planning, the Prime Minister’s unhelpful contribution on the GST and, of course, the preference deal with One Nation.
Let’s start with books. Barnett isn’t responsible for the rise and fall of the mining boom. But, as West Australians now watch their house prices fall, unemployment rise and state debt climb, it’s clear there wasn’t enough forward planning during the good times.
The Liberals are offering the more responsible path: selling off the power industry to help pay down debt and invest in new infrastructure. Sadly, they’ve done a poor job convincing voters privatisation is a good idea.
On the leadership front, even a casual observer can see Colin Barnett doesn’t have his heart in it this time around. He has been a loyal servant to the party over many years. After announcing plans to quit politics, he made a spectacular comeback to the leadership in 2008 when his party needed him most. He went on to win two elections and provide stable government in an era of turmoil elsewhere. Barnett has been Premier of WA since before Barack Obama was first elected and has seen four changes of Prime Minister in that time.
The “it’s time” factor has been building for Barnett, yet there’s been little effort by the party to promote a successor. Barnett is going to this election asking voters to give his government another four years, while openly admitting he won’t stick around for it. This time he means to go.
If the Liberals lose, Malcolm Turnbull will also cop some deserved criticism for mishandling the GST issue. While voters in most states would have no idea what their share of the GST distribution is, nearly everyone here in WA knows they get back little more than 30 cents in the dollar. It’s a far more powerful concern than many in the eastern states realise.
Last year, Turnbull promised to do something about it. Specifically, he pledged to introduce a “floor”, so states would never be dudded in the way WA currently is. He was cheered at the time. But during his one and only brief campaign visit, the PM back-tracked. The “floor” could only be introduced several years from now, he said.
This angered Barnett and his team. Some Liberals say it would have been better had Turnbull not made a campaign visit at all.
Above all else, the main talking point after Saturday night will be the One Nation preference deal. Did it help or hurt the Liberals? The general consensus throughout the campaign has been that this was a necessary arrangement for the Liberals, given One Nation’s rising popularity. The only way of ensuring some of those lost votes come back to the Liberal fold through preferences.
But as the campaign comes to a close, it looks more like this preference deal will turn out to be the baggage that ultimately costs the Liberals the election. Barnett has been unable to escape the deal. Every day he’s copped questions about hopping into bed with One Nation. Pauline Hanson has sucked all of the oxygen out of the Liberals’ campaign.
Not that the attention has helped her. One Nation has had a truly terrible campaign. From policy confusion to candidate chaos, legal action from long-serving office bearers and even an apology from Pauline herself, this has been a mess. Whether any of this bothers her loyal supporters is less clear. Many seem determined to give the major parties a kick in the pants.
One Nation’s campaign disasters, though, have left the Liberals looking even sillier for agreeing to preference them in the upper house. Especially when the Libs aren't getting much back in return. It turns out One Nation isn’t running candidates in as many lower house seats as everyone thought they would. So the deal is a little one-sided.
The arrangement has also mightily upset the Nationals, who, in fairness, have never had a great relationship with the Liberals in WA. It’s now worse than ever.
Labor’s Mark McGowan has undoubtedly had the best campaign of all the leaders and appears most likely to win. An election victory could prove to be the easy part though, as he inherits a state in real trouble and in urgent need of reform. McGowan is aware of the challenges he’s likely to face and the need to speak honestly to the people about the tough road ahead.
It’s a shame these challenges facing WA haven’t received the attention they deserve in this campaign.
Friday, March 03, 2017
By David Speers
Malcolm Turnbull’s brief honeymoon as Prime Minister came to a shuddering halt early last year due to indecision over tax reform. He was seen to dither and lack confidence in his direction. In politics, uncertainty can be lethal.
Those close to him knew this perception had to change. After scraping through the election, they pressed upon the PM the need for more decisiveness.
Yet here we are again, with the government gripped by indecision on a whole range of fronts. It’s unable to say what it’s going to do on energy policy, higher education, school funding, housing affordability, the GP rebate and media ownership … to name a few. And then there’s penalty rates.
The government appears to have been caught completely unprepared for last week’s Fair Work Commission decision. The Prime Minister still can’t give a straight answer as to whether he thinks it’s the right call or not.
On Tuesday, he was steering towards supporting the FWC when he said the decision “will enable more small businesses to open on weekends, which will provide more job opportunities for young people”. But by Thursday, he was veering in the opposite direction. Asked to repeat the claim, he only pointed to “evidence” of this, but warned it had to be “balanced out.”
Labor’s sustained attack is biting. Everyone in parliament knows it. Coalition MPs could not have looked more despondent as parliament drew to a close yesterday.
Malcolm Turnbull was losing his voice, having shouted about Bill Shorten’s hypocrisy all week. In fairness, the PM has a point. The Opposition Leader has chosen populism over consistency.
It was Shorten as a union leader who negotiated away his members’ Sunday rates as part of enterprise deals. It was Shorten as Minister who asked the FWC to look at the “need” for these penalty rates. It was Shorten as Opposition Leader who vowed to respect the umpire’s decision.
But this back-story matters little to those who will be hit by this ruling. If one side is promising to protect your $77 a week and the other side isn’t, it’s pretty clear which way low-paid workers will go.
As one Labor figure put it, Shorten is happy to be labeled a hypocrite in parliament and a hero in the electorate. At least he has a position. He will not allow a cut to penalty rates. Simple.
The PM created further confusion about his own position when he said yesterday that “when changes like this occur, the overall pay packet, take-home pay for employees should not be effected.” In other words, there should be no disadvantage. He’s indicated the government will make a submission to the FWC along these lines.
Turnbull suggested this could be achieved by staggering the cut in penalty rates over several years. Time each small cut with a rise in the minimum wage. This would ensure no one’s take home pay is cut (even if it actually is in real terms).
The PM says government bureaucrats will work up a recommendation to the Commission. There was little clarity, though and zero conviction that this is the best way forward.
It’s also hard to see what this “staggered” approach would achieve. Bill Shorten will still campaign as the only one vowing to stop the penalty rate cut. Businesses, meanwhile, won’t see any relief for years and are therefore unlikely to rush into hiring more Sunday workers. There doesn’t seem to be much political or economic upside.
The only other option is to back the FWC ruling and forcefully mount the case it’s necessary to create more jobs. The unemployed and underemployed deserve a champion, this Government will fight for jobs … and so on. This is exactly what many in the Coalition are privately urging the PM to do.
It now seems a little late for that though. Labor has moved swiftly and framed this debate already. Malcolm Turnbull’s indecision has hurt him again.
Friday, February 24, 2017
By David Speers
Malcolm Turnbull and Bill Shorten both faced leadership pressure this week. But despite Tony Abbott’s very public efforts to unsettle Turnbull, it’s the quiet pressure on Shorten that could prove to be more serious.
Let’s start with the Prime Minister. He’s been trailing in the polls for ages, the budget is structurally stuffed and energy policy is a mess. Yet his leadership remains relatively secure.
Tony Abbott has been taking pot-shots for months at the man who tore him down. Last night he replaced the pea shooter with an assault rifle. But it didn’t make much difference in the leadership equation.
Abbott spoke at a book launch in Sydney last night and also to my Sky News colleague Andrew Bolt. In both appearances he delivered a warning: the Government is drifting towards defeat.
He fired off a volley of ideas to rescue the Coalition from this fate.
Some of the ideas are worthy, like holding a referendum to curb the powers of the Senate. And a government commitment not to embark on any new spending programs.
Some of the ideas carry a touch of hypocrisy like cutting the RET (which he negotiated), cutting immigration (he committed to take more Syrian refugees and relaxed rules on 457 visas) and scrapping the Human Rights Commission (he abandoned plans to water down 18c).
One idea is just plain personal: suggesting Malcolm Turnbull move out of his harbourside mansion at Point Piper and live at Kirribilli House. To save taxpayers money, of course.
This policy prescription might be a recipe to win back the likes of Cory Bernardi and other disgruntled conservatives. But it’s not winning over many Liberal MPs.
They fear the leader they removed in 2015 has now abandoned his promise of “no sniping and no undermining”. They pose the question: when was the last time Tony Abbott landed a blow on the other side?
Even those who voted to stick with Tony Abbott are unimpressed. They like the more aggressive Malcolm Turnbull on show since the start of 2017 and are hoping voters will respond positively too.
As ever, the polls will determine Turnbull’s fate. A return to Abbott can’t be ruled out, but that’s more to do with the lack of any other alternatives. Abbott would impress his colleagues far more by demonstrating how effective he can be attacking Labor, rather than his own side.
Now to Bill Shorten. There is no immediate threat to him from anyone. But there’s an undeniable shift to the Left underway in the Labor Party that is likely to cause the Opposition Leader more grief over time.
The push for a “Buffett Rule” tax on the rich was an example of that this week. Chris Bowen had to shoot it down.
Shorten’s reaction on Sunday penalty rates was another. It was Labor that set up the Fair Work Commission. It was Bill Shorten as Employment Minister who specifically tasked the Commission with reviewing penalty rates. Last year he vowed to respect the independent umpire’s decision. Not any more.
Driven by the Left, Shorten vowed to fight this decision in the courts and in parliament, all the way to the election if necessary. This may indeed prove to be a political winner. Populism is popular! But it’s not consistent with the position Shorten once took to have these long-standing penalty rates reviewed and to abide by the independent ruling.
The ALP’s shift to the Left is most evident, however, on the question of Israel and Palestine. It now seems inevitable the next Labor Conference will endorse a position in favour of Australia recognising a Palestinian state. The elder statesmen of the Right faction (Hawke, Rudd, Carr, Evans) have legitimised the move by giving their vocal support.
During his visit to Sydney, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has forcefully pushed back at this idea. He questions what sort of Palestinian state a future Labor Government in Australia might recognise. A neighbouring state that doesn’t accept Israel’s right to exist? One that is free to build its own military?
The Israeli leader is unmoved by criticism of his settlement activity in the West Bank and uncompromising when it comes to any Palestinian state. He will only allow a separate state that cedes security control to Israel and accepts the place of the Jewish homeland. Plainly, this isn’t going to happen any time soon.
If Labor thinks it can progress Middle East peace by endorsing a Palestinian state, there’s no sign of Netanyahu budging. Not while he fears his nation is under threat. But this push within the ALP will eventually make life difficult for Bill Shorten.
Friday, February 17, 2017
By David Speers
When it comes to climate and energy policy, exactly who are the major parties listening to?
For all the hot air in parliament this week, neither side is paying attention to the growing consensus amongst business, energy and climate groups.
18 organisations including the Business Council of Australia, the Australian Industry Group, the Aluminium Council of Australia, the ACTU and the Climate Institute came together on Monday to issue a very rare joint appeal.
“There is simply no room for partisan politics when the reliability, affordability and sustainability of Australia’s energy system is at stake”, they said. A decade of political point scoring has resulted in “enduring dysfunction in the electricity sector.”
This is a damning indictment of both sides of politics from those who are dealing directly with the mess Australia’s energy system has become.
So what do these groups actually want? First and foremost it’s some bipartisan certainty. The prospect of re-writing the rules after every election is preventing any major investment in power supply.
Beyond that, business groups are wary about backing any particular model. But the Emissions Intensity Scheme (EIS) idea, identified by economists and scientists as the cheapest way to meet out Paris emissions targets, is generally deemed to be the best approach.
I spoke to Miles Prosser from the Aluminium Council, which represents one of Australia’s most energy-intensive sectors. Even he argues an EIS, properly structured, would be fine. This is the head of a heavy-emitting, trade-exposed industry body agreeing a price on carbon would be better than what we have right now!
Labor is on the right track by committing to an EIS. It’s on the wrong track, however, by coupling that with a 50% renewable energy target/goal/ambition/aim/aspiration/dream. It should drop this silly idea. There’s only one target that matters and that’s the target to cut emissions.
The 50% renewables figure was only ever chosen for political reasons. A nice round number, easy for voters to digest as evidence of Labor’s green credentials.
Unfortunately, no one can confidently explain how it would be achieved or what it would actually cost. In their attempts to do so this week, Bill Shorten and Chris Bowen found themselves in a tangle. The Prime Minister didn’t miss the opportunity to strike.
Turnbull has established himself at the start of this year as the best performer in parliament. He is dominating the stage and enjoying it. So are his troops.
But ridiculing Labor’s 50% renewable energy target is the easy part. Soon, the Prime Minister will have to work out his own post-2020 climate and energy policy. Let’s consider the options.
The first option is to continue with the status quo. That means pouring several billion dollars more (which we don’t have) into the “Emissions Reduction Fund” to pay companies for emissions reduction. This is going to become an increasingly expensive exercise, and to date, it hasn’t driven investment in new large-scale energy supply. So billions more debt without fixing the problem.
The second option is to use taxpayers’ funds sitting in the Northern Australia Fund and the Clean Energy Finance Corporation to help attract private sector investment in battery storage and maybe even clean coal-fired power plants. This appears to be Turnbull’s favoured approach. Battery storage technology is rapidly improving. There would likely be private sector interest in this with some government help. It’s hard though, to see much appetite for the huge investment required for clean coal, even with some taxpayers’ billions thrown in.
The third option, favoured by some on the Right, is to scrap the Paris emissions target and the Renewable Energy Target altogether. This has simplistic appeal for those who don’t believe Australia really makes a difference to the climate anyway. In reality, scrapping the legislated RET would open up huge compensation claims from those who’ve invested billions in renewables in good faith. It would also be unlikely to drive an extra dollar of investment in coal-fired power, given the likelihood of Labor winning an election at some stage in the next 30 or so years and re-instating limits on emissions.
The final, and most obvious option, is the EIS. A well-structured scheme would be the cheapest way to cut emissions, it would come with the blessing of industry and it would finally achieve the necessary bipartisanship required to drive investment in energy supply. But Turnbull has ruled this out. Why? Because it would represent a price on carbon, which his party won’t cop.
The settled political consensus is that the Coalition cannot embrace even a small price on carbon. I suspect an EIS will soon look far more politically and economically sensible when one of the other inferior options is attempted.
Friday, February 10, 2017
By David Speers
Those urging Malcolm Turnbull to pull himself out of his recent hole by returning to his moderate roots will be sadly disappointed. This week saw confirmation “old” Malcolm has gone. The leather jacket has been binned.
The “new” Malcolm that’s emerged over the summer has a harder edge. The take-down of Bill Shorten on Wednesday was the most public example of it. But this transformation goes well beyond parliamentary performance.
In both demeanor and policy, the Prime Minister is taking a tougher approach. He's not going to die wondering. He’s decided to fight. And we can see this on a range of fronts.
The post-inauguration phone call with Donald Trump had been looming for months. Everyone knew the new US President wouldn’t like the refugee deal. Most wrote off the chances of it surviving. Turnbull decided to fight for it and won.
Cory Bernardi’s departure from the Liberal Party had also been looming. When it finally happened this week, Turnbull went on the attack. He led the charge and the rest of the troops piled in, labeling Bernardi a “rat”, a “dog” and demanding he quit parliament altogether.
When Bill Shorten used the “Mr Harbourside Mansion” line one too many times, the PM returned the personal attack with both barrels. Scripted or not, the blistering speech cut to the bone. This sort of personal stuff doesn’t always play well amongst voters, but Coalition MPs absolutely loved it.
“The game has just changed”, texted one, while Turnbull was still on his feet. “Phew” came the text from another, simply summing up the relief to see Shorten put under real pressure for the first time by the PM.
The most telling evidence of the transformation from “old” Malcolm to “new” has been on energy policy. Having once championed a price on carbon, he’s now emphatically ruled it out.
He’s been muscling up against Labor’s 50% renewable energy target for a while. When the lights went out in South Australia again this week, Turnbull hammered the Labor renewables plan again and again. This issue is becoming a vulnerability for Labor.
In fairness, the government’s own plans on energy policy remain unclear. It has a fondness for coal, to the point where Scott Morrison even brandished a lump of the stuff in parliament. As much as some Ministers were enjoying passing the lump around, the private sector doesn’t appear as excited about actually building any new coal-fired plants. And maybe they won’t.
When he addressed the Press Club last week, the Prime Minister also referred to “pumped hydro” technology. This didn’t get anywhere near the same attention as his reference to “cleaner coal”. But Turnbull is enthused about “pumped hydro” and sees it as commercially viable. Around 100 potential sites for such technology have been identified and it is being looked at very closely by the special cabinet sub-committee on energy.
On national security, Turnbull is also adopting a tougher edge. I’m told he’s been pushing agencies harder than he did last year, not simply accepting their advice. In particular, he wants Australia to be better prepared for the threat of a “mobile roving attack” along the lines of the massacres in Paris and Mumbai, which involved multiple gunmen experienced with assault rifles.
As one security source put it, there’s an “edge” now with Turnbull on national security.
Writing in The Australian, John Lyons called what we saw in parliament on Wednesday the “Raging Turnbull”, a return to the “real Malcolm” he witnessed when profiling the then investment banker in the 1990s. But I think what we’re now seeing goes beyond a flash of rage.
Turnbull has calculated he has to destroy Shorten or be destroyed by Shorten. He has decided to fight for his policy agenda and he’s adopted some tougher policy positions than “old” Malcolm ever would have.
This is undoubtedly driven by the need to survive, but could also be a result of simply growing in the job. Will voters embrace this tougher Turnbull? Or will they still yearn for the leather jacket? The polls will provide answers over the coming months, but right now Coalition MPs like what they see. That’s a start.
Friday, February 03, 2017
By David Speers
I had dinner last night with a group of pensioners at the Morwell Bowling Club in the La Trobe Valley, followed by a discussion with half a dozen locals for my Sky News program. Barely any of them follow politics, but that didn’t stop some blunt assessments about Malcolm Turnbull, Bill Shorten and Pauline Hanson. It was the most revealing political insight I’ve had in ages.
Wayne Field has worked at the Hazelwood power station for 32 years. When the power plant shuts down at the end of next month, he won’t have a job and doesn’t know what he’ll do.
Wayne is articulate, extremely knowledgeable about the industry and utterly unimpressed with how the political class is responding to the closure of the historic coal mine and power station.
“Most of these guys and girls that put their head on the telly, the trust factor’s just not there”, he says. This view that politicians are only in it to further their own careers, is widespread.
Russell Donahue worked as a boiler-maker at Hazelwood and is now President of the Morwell Footy Club. He laughs at the platitudes from politicians about “structural adjustment”, “transitional assistance” and “jobs, jobs, jobs”.
From the local accountant to the former school librarian, there’s a constant theme. The politicians talk about creating jobs, but where are they?
Morwell is a town already doing it tough. The median house price is just $160,000 and falling. The local unemployment rate is 20% according to some statistics. That’s before the Hazelwood closure sees another 700 or so put out of work.
This is a town being hit hard by the transition away from coal-fired power to cleaner, greener energy. Not surprisingly, most of the locals are big supporters of coal and welcome the Prime Minister exploring ways to keep the industry alive with hi-tech, lower emission plants. Even if it’s come a little late in the piece.
These are folks who feel they’ve been forgotten and left behind. These are the very people who would have voted for Donald Trump if we were in the United States. But here’s the thing, we’re not.
They aren’t huge Trump fans in the La Trobe Valley. They can see why American voters wanted radical change, but see this guy as “inexperienced” and a “fool”. Nor do they support his immigration ban.
When news came through yesterday about the fiery weekend phone call between Trump and Turnbull, I was at the bottom of the huge Hazelwood open cut coal mine, which after 60 years of continuous operation is about to be closed. It’s noisy and dusty down there and the workers didn’t exactly down tools to pore over the details of the breaking news. The excavators kept on digging, the conveyors kept on running. The workers were largely unfazed by the whole story which has jolted the US-Australia relationship.
After some discussion that night at the Bowlo, the general sentiment was anger that the US President would try to “bully” an Australian Prime Minister like this. They liked that Malcolm Turnbull stood up to Trump. Not that they have necessarily warmed to Turnbull.
These disenchanted voters are looking for someone who's willing to listen to them and offer some real solutions. Pauline Hanson is a favourite amongst some of the older pensioners I spoke to, but not because she’s offering any solutions. One Nation is seen as a good way to lodge a protest vote, but not much more.
Bill Shorten’s greatest problem with this crowd seems to be his lack of brand recognition. No one I spoke to in Morwell could cite a single Labor policy. 29-year-old Andrew Northover has started up a thriving local photography business and is a rare voice in the La Trobe Valley willing to say coal should be phased out. That should put him in line with Labor thinking, but when I showed him a photo of Shorten, Andrew didn’t even know he was the Opposition Leader!
As for Turnbull, nearly all the locals I spoke to liked his language on coal, but doubted his ability to follow through. This presents an opportunity for the PM to win over these communities. But there are clearly risks for Turnbull elsewhere if he pushes too hard for a coal revival.
This community of Morwell has some huge challenges in the years ahead. No one knows how (or if) the massive mine site will be rehabilitated. No one knows whether coal is on the way out or maybe coming back. Most importantly, many don’t know how they’ll pay the mortgage this year.
Nor do they feel anyone is really fighting for them.
Friday, January 27, 2017
By David Speers
Donald Trump called a number of world leaders this week as he put his feet under the desk in the Oval Office for the first time. Malcolm Turnbull wasn’t one of them.
The Prime Minister likes to talk about his Government’s “strong links and ties” with the Trump Administration, but the reality is the Trump era has dawned with a rush of executive orders that are largely unwelcome for Australia.
The President’s order to withdraw US participation in the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal was the biggest blow. Bill Shorten is right when he says the TPP, as we know it, is now dead. Without US involvement, the agreement cannot proceed.
It’s hard to understand why the Turnbull Government is still toying with the idea of moving a bill in parliament to ratify the deal.
If it’s simply to make the point that the Coalition believes in free trade (as opposed to the protectionists on the other side and the cross-bench), that can be done far more efficiently with a simple motion. Why waste the parliament’s time debating and voting on a bill to ratify a trade deal that’s already dead?
If it’s about trying to keep pressure on the remaining TPP countries to salvage something from the deal, that is looking increasingly doubtful too. There’s hardly been a clamour from Mexico, Canada, Japan, Korea, Malaysia or any of the other TPP nations to proceed without the US.
The PM says Japan “and other countries” have urged Australia to complete the ratification process. Maybe that’s true. Maybe Shinzo Abe did give Turnbull this impression during their private talks. But Abe is also quoted as saying the deal would be “meaningless” without the TPP.
Moving such a bill would only leave Turnbull exposed to another defeat on the floor of parliament over an issue already lost on the world stage.
The PM is right to make the case for free trade. The rising tide of protectionism at home and abroad is a danger for Australia.
Bill Shorten says his priority for 2017 is to “build Australian, buy Australian and employ Australian”. When pushed to explain what this might mean in practice, Labor’s Trade spokesman Jason Clare told me this could include mandating a higher percentage of Australian steel, aluminium and other products in any federally-funded projects. Even if that means a higher cost for taxpayers.
Turnbull accuses Shorten of being a “populist protectionist” and says his hi-viz vest tour of factory floors is a cruel joke. Many of these businesses and jobs would suffer if global trade barriers go up.
But Malcolm Turnbull’s own government isn’t exactly a virtue of free market principles either.
Just last week it decided to spend $30 million of taxpayers’ dollars propping up the struggling Alcoa aluminium smelter in Portland. Last year, it offered a $50m loan to the steel makers at Arrium. Then, there was the pinnacle of protectionism: the $50 billion decision to build submarines in South Australia.
If forking out taxpayers’ dollars like this isn’t at least a little bit of “populist protectionism”, I’m not sure what is.
Donald Trump has already changed the global order. Protectionism is back. Negotiating any sort of trade deal will now be incredibly politically difficult. Whether it’s salvaging something from the TPP or negotiating bilateral free trade deals with India or Indonesia, there will be loud voices of protectionism from the cross-bench, a “buy Australian, build Australian” approach from Labor and undoubtedly rattled free market nerves within Coalition ranks.
This is a setback for a trading nation like Australia.
The other potential setback in this first week of the Trump Administration could come on the issue of refugees.
The Turnbull Government’s deal with the Obama Administration to resettle many of the refugees currently languishing on Nauru and Manus Island is in limbo. The new President is set to sign an executive order placing an indefinite ban on Syrian refugees and a 120-day ban on refugees from the rest of the world.
Malcolm Turnbull expressed confidence yesterday this won’t torpedo the Australian deal. And privately, Australian officials are very confident the resettlement will still go ahead.
But no one has received any concrete confirmation from the Trump Administration on this.
Malcolm Turnbull spoke to Donald Trump the day after his election victory in early November. A follow-up phone conversation now he’s in office is surely due.
There’s plenty for the two to discuss.
Saturday, January 21, 2017
By David Speers
When a politician announces they’re going for “family reasons” there’s usually a healthy dose of cynicism in the reaction of most voters. Particularly when that politician has recently gone from being described as “the most popular in the country” to “embattled”.
So the reaction of some to Mike Baird’s bombshell announcement yesterday was understandable. But the truth is Baird isn’t kidding about the family reasons.
As Baird told a stunned press pack, his father Bruce (former NSW and federal MP) underwent open heart surgery over Christmas, his mother requires 24 hour care for muscular dystrophy and his sister Julia (a highly accomplished writer, columnist and broadcaster) has suffered a recurrence of cancer.
Nor is Mike Baird kidding when he says he’s achieved what he wanted in politics. He made it clear from the start he didn’t want to become a career politician. So, after 10 years in parliament, including three as Treasurer and nearly three as Premier, it’s time to go.
In that short time, he’s achieved more than most.
That includes pulling off some of the biggest privatisations in NSW history, in an era of rising populism. His predecessors tried and failed. But Baird managed to convince a skeptical public that selling electricity poles and wires, as well as port assets was a good idea.
The sale proceeds helped repair the NSW budget and pay for a massive infrastructure program. Now, the state is Australia’s powerhouse economy once again.
This is a legacy to be proud of.
Baird cites as his greatest regret the failure to achieve serious national tax reform. But here too, he should be proud of his role.
The NSW Premier was braver than any other federal or state Liberal in championing the need to raise the GST. He made the case for an unpopular GST hike to fund personal income tax cuts and the extra hospital spending Australians demand.
His federal colleagues and those in other states (apart from South Australia’s Jay Weatherill) lacked the same spine.
On some issues, Mike Baird clearly over-reached. The greyhound racing ban was the most damaging example. He didn’t consult colleagues and ignored the reaction of his conservative base for too long, before eventually being forced into a humiliating backflip.
There was similar over-reach with the liquor lock-out laws, which have hurt Sydney’s reputation as an entertainment capital.
But these problems shouldn’t detract from an otherwise impressive legacy for such a short time in the job.
Here was a politician willing to use his political capital to drive real change. Popularity never lasts, but Mike Baird used his to good effect while it was there.
Contrast that with Malcolm Turnbull. What did he do when the sun was shining in 2015 and early 2016? Not much.
The much-hyped tax debate resulted in no change to the GST, no change to negative gearing, no change to inefficient stamp duties and payroll taxes and barely any change to personal income tax.
In fairness, there were some important changes to superannuation taxes which weren’t easy to achieve. And the government has promised to cut company tax, although we’re yet to see how much of that will make it through parliament.
We’ve also seen some limited industrial relations reform (the return of the ABCC) and we’re promised a national energy policy soon to tackle emissions while keeping power prices down.
Right now though, the list of reform achievements isn’t impressive. And with the economy in negative territory, the budget deep in the red and the Coalition stuck six points behind Labor in the polls, there is some nervousness in Coalition ranks about the lack of direction for the term ahead.
Malcolm Turnbull will give a major speech the week after next, setting out his agenda for 2017. He wants to counter the suggestion he's a do-nothing Prime Minister and generate momentum with some bold ideas.
This is looming as a very important speech for Turnbull. Some in his cabinet are already talking about the need to lift their stocks by the May Budget.
If that doesn’t happen, some will be asking whether Turnbull will last any longer as Prime Minister than Mike Baird did as NSW Premier.