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David Speers
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+ 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

Turnbull gets the barnacle scraper out

Friday, April 28, 2017

By David Speers

John Howard used to call it “scraping off the barnacles”. Fixing problems that were slowing down his ship of state. The most famous was a decision to cut fuel excise and remove indexation in the lead-up to the crucial Aston by-election in 2001.

Over the past couple of weeks, Malcolm Turnbull has had the barnacle scraper out, trying to clear away potent issues creating drag for his own Government in the lead-up to the Budget.

He’s moved to replace the entire 457 visa program and announced a dramatic intervention in the market to keep gas prices down. On both fronts, he’s done so under pressure from Bill Shorten. The Labor leader can now add the 457 changes and gas export controls to his impressive list of policy achievements from opposition. A list that already includes superannuation reform and higher cigarette taxes.

Time will tell how much this barnacle scraping helps the Government. It’s at least given the Prime Minister an “action man” appearance. Since parliament last sat, he’s been busy on 457 visas and the Citizenship Test, gas shortages and more pumped hydro. At the same time, the PM has squeezed in visits to Papua New Guinea, India, Afghanistan and Iraq. Next week, he’ll jam in a lightning fast trip to New York to smooth out his relationship with Donald Trump (another barnacle he wants to clear), presumably ticking off final Budget decisions mid-flight.

The pace is impressive. The policy outcomes deserve more time to consider.

Yesterday’s “Affordable Gas For All Australians” announcement is a case in point. The idea is to give the Resources Minister the power to restrict exports when gas “supply” is a problem. If the Minister is convinced there’s not enough gas available in the local market, he’ll act. But when fronting the cameras to sell the policy, the Prime Minister took a big leap further and suggested the Minister would also intervene if the “price” of domestic gas was too high.

“Wholesale prices should not be materially different to export prices”, Turnbull said. “This is one of the ways in which you’ll be able to see if the market is in balance”. Right now, the domestic wholesale price is nearly three times as high as the export price. So voters will rightly be expecting some dramatic action.

By turning the policy aim from tackling “supply” to tackling “prices”, the Prime Minister has put his Resources Minister Matt Canavan under considerable pressure. The LNG spot price in Asia is already forecast to fall further next year. What happens then? How far will Canavan have to go to ensure the local price remains roughly in line? How many LNG export ships will have to be turned back?

This is going to be an ever moving target the PM has set. Whenever a price differential opens up, Labor will be reminding the Government of its promise to act and the industry will be on edge. It’s already worried about the lack of certainty this creates. Not that too many families and businesses will be shedding a tear for the gas industry. Like the “crackdown” on foreign workers, this sort of gas market intervention is a populist move. And it’s likely to be popular.

This new Ministerial power also adds another layer of confusion to Australia’s energy policy muddle. Consider it. The Hazelwood coal-fired power station has just closed, with others set to follow in the coming years. The Government has dangled the carrot of taxpayer support for new coal power plants, but no one has yet taken a bite. We don’t know what incentives the government is offering and whether they would be honoured by a future Labor government. Who’s going to make a 30-40 year investment in a coal plant under these circumstances?

We have a Renewable Energy Target set to expire in 2020, with no certainty as to what will follow. The Prime Minister has made ad-hoc announcements of “feasibility studies” into pumped hydro projects, which sound visionary and sensible. But we don’t know what they might cost or who will pay. And they’re years away at best.

Then there’s gas. A market hamstrung by state bans on fracking and now facing the prospect of export bans whenever the Minister deems it necessary!

The Government has promised a new national energy policy by the middle of the year, but has already ruled out the approach nearly every industry group from farmers to big business actually want: an Emissions Intensity Scheme.

How an energy super-power like Australia has wound up in this mess is an indictment on our political class.   

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Wherever he goes, Turnbull is haunted by Abbott

Friday, April 21, 2017

By David Speers

Even by the standards of a Prime Minister, yesterday was a big day for Malcolm Turnbull. It began with an early Canberra press conference to unveil sweeping changes to the Citizenship Test. Then, a quick visit to Tasmania’s Trevallyn Power Station to detail his vision for the state to become the hydro power “battery of the nation”. And finally back to Sydney to face the formidable Leigh Sales on the ABC.

This was Turnbull the policy action man; setting the agenda and “delivering” as he likes to boast. The first event was about Australian values and tougher screening. The second was about energy security and making renewables more viable. All messages that should play well with middle Australia. But wherever he goes and whatever he does, Turnbull is haunted by Tony Abbott.

This week, Abbott made it clear he’s not for turning. He’s determined to keep causing headaches for the man who tore him down. His one time numbers man, Mathias Cormann, may have labeled him “destructive”, “self-indulgent” and “sad”, but that’s had zero impact. 

In print, on radio and TV, the former PM was out pushing his “5 point policy plan” aggressively this week. He told anyone who would listen that Bill Shorten is on track to become Prime Minister. Not that he’s suggesting Turnbull should be replaced, of course. That would be a declaration of open war. No, this is a Cold War where Abbott attacks Turnbull by repeatedly pounding the government for just not being conservative enough.

That’s despite Turnbull passing more Budget repair than Abbott did, putting changes to the Racial Discrimination Act to a vote where Abbott refused to, passing industrial relations reform that Abbott couldn’t, holding the line on a same sex marriage plebiscite, cutting company tax, cutting some personal income tax, refusing to put a price on carbon and now toughening up immigration and citizenship laws.

Malcolm Turnbull isn’t “Tony Abbott Light” as Labor likes to call him. He’s actually delivering for conservatives. The truth is most conservatives in the Coalition can’t complain about the process or the policy outcomes right now. Sure, they’re worried about the polls and fear many voters may have deserted Turnbull for good. But on policy, they’re largely getting what they want.

When Abbott began his latest flurry of media activity this week, the official strategy from senior Ministers was to shrug it off. “He’s a backbencher, entitled to contribute to the debate”, was the line most used while pointing out Cabinet was getting on with the serious business of governing. Put Abbott in his place and don’t pour petrol on the flames. A reasonable approach.

Until some genius decided to leak internal pre-election polling on Abbott’s seat of Warringah to Phil Coorey in the Australian Financial Review. As Coorey reported, the poll showed Abbott was on the nose and faced a tough fight to hold the seat.

No one is disputing the existence of the poll or its findings. Abbott reluctantly agreed to have the poll done towards the end of the campaign, as he was keen to know just how tight things were in his own seat. Having campaigned in several marginals he was worried about how much danger the Coalition was in.

What really got under Abbott’s skin was this week’s leak and the suggestion he only clung on because Malcolm Turnbull “saved the day” by making robo-calls to voters in Warringah. As one source close to Abbott put it, “this is a declaration of war”.

Trying to guess who leaked a story is usually a pointless exercise, but there are strong suspicions those within the NSW Liberal Party division trying to force Abbott out of the seat may have been responsible. Whoever it was, they’ve guaranteed the Cold War is only going to get worse.

The Turnbull Government faces a crucial few weeks ahead. There will be more major policy moves over the next fortnight and then the Budget itself. The Coalition needs every one of its members focused and fighting for the government’s agenda. Not fighting amongst themselves.

Given it’s Malcolm Turnbull rather than Tony Abbott who has most to lose here, he needs to find a way to take some of the heat out of this toxic relationship. The time has probably passed to bring Abbott into the Cabinet, but some sort of peace offering might help.

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Turnbull is right to push for closer ties with India

Thursday, April 13, 2017

By David Speers

After a tour of the relatively modern Akshardham Temple complex in New Delhi, Malcolm Turnbull and Narendra Modi sat on the steps with their shoes off. They had already spent 90 minutes together earlier in the day in a more formal setting, discussing the bilateral relationship.

This was a chance for a more philosophical reflection on where India has come from and where it’s going. Its history, its achievements and its future role in global leadership.

Turnbull came away convinced India is on track to become an “economic superpower”. With that comes the military and strategic clout to match. In an interview for Sky News, the Prime Minister told me India will match the US and China in size and strength. Its population is forecast to pass that of China’s within five years.

Turnbull argues the rise of India is a good thing for Australia. “India will be a force for stability in the region”, he says. “India is committed to the rule of law”. He doesn’t say it, but the inference is clear. The other great power in the region, China, is not.

In fact, while he was in India, the Prime Minister was more assertive than usual about China. When I asked him about North Korea and its nuclear threats, he told me China was “clearly not doing enough” to put pressure on its neighbour.

This tougher tone from Turnbull in India will have been noticed in Beijing.

Australia has shown a remarkable ability to balance its relationships with the United States and China under various administrations.

Sure, there have been some spectacular highs and lows, but over the past 20 years, Australia has been deft at maintaining a trusted alliance partnership with the US and developing a vital trade relationship with China.

India is trying to emulate our success. It needs to keep its relationships with the US and China on positive terms and is looking at how Australia has managed this balancing act.

Turnbull’s visit to India had one primary aim: to demonstrate Australia wants to accommodate the rise of a third global power. Turnbull sees a world where the US, China and India share the stage. He wants to ensure that is achieved peacefully and to the benefit of Australia. 

Strategically and economically, this makes sense. With or without a free trade agreement, Australia needs to deepen ties with India.

Chances are there won’t be a free trade agreement any time soon. India remains a tough place to do business for Australian companies. Tariff barriers are high, state and federal regulations are a minefield, intellectual property rights are often ignored and bribery remains a problem.

Free trade talks have been underway for two years, but there’s no sign of movement on the main sticking points. India’s not budging on farm tariffs. Australia’s not going to let in more Indian workers.  

The only thing Turnbull and Modi could “announce” on this visit was that their chief negotiators would report back on the main sticking points quickly. It was a nice line to buy time, but the two leaders know exactly why the negotiations have bogged down. It’s just too politically difficult for India to threaten farm jobs and for Australia to threaten Aussie jobs.

Some Australian industry figures are privately frustrated at the lack of enthusiasm from both sides on the FTA. Nonetheless, they’re getting on with it and trying to take advantage of trade opportunities where they can. And this is the point. An economy-wide agreement that guarantees genuinely free trade isn’t going to happen in our lifetimes. But step by step, gains will be made. Some barriers will be removed. Australia will sell more coal, gas, uranium and higher education to India.

Turnbull is pushing opportunities wherever he can see them, including strong support for the Adani coal mine in Queensland’s Galilee Basin. He oversells the benefits, suggesting it would create “tens of thousands” of jobs. Even the company isn’t that bullish. And he’s not ruling out pumping nearly $1 billion of borrowed taxpayers’ money into a rail link for the mine. This would be crazy. Mining projects in Australia need to stand or fall on their own merits, without taxpayer help. 

Turnbull, though, is right to push for closer ties with India. This country will be a great, democratic, global power. Australia has much to gain and nothing to lose by engaging more deeply.

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Turnbull's vital visits to PNG and India

Friday, April 07, 2017

By David Speers

Malcolm Turnbull may not have scored a meeting with Donald Trump yet, but over the next few days he will make long overdue visits to two countries that are hugely important to Australia.

Late this afternoon, the Prime Minister will arrive in Port Moresby. This is his first visit to Papua New Guinea as Prime Minister. By contrast, he’s visited Indonesia twice and New Zealand twice.

Papua New Guinea is our closest neighbour. You can see it from the most northern islands of the Torres Strait. It was part of Australian territory until 1975. Turn on the TV in PNG and you will see Australian shows. News programs, drama programs and a lot of rugby league.

This is a country with deep geographical, historical and cultural connections to Australia. But we pay it such little attention.

Whenever PNG is mentioned in Australia, it’s usually in the context of the asylum seeker processing centre at Manus Island. The relationship should be about much more than this transactional arrangement.

Here’s the reality: PNG is our most deeply troubled neighbour. Crime and corruption are out of control. If it becomes a failed state, Australia will have to pick up the pieces.

Right now, PNG is ranked as one of the most corrupt countries in the world (150 out of 176 according to Transparency International). It’s also one of the most dangerous. Port Moresby is near the bottom of the ladder in lists of the most livable cities (137 out of 140 according to the Economist Intelligence Unit). Rape and robbery are rampant. An estimated 70% of women in PNG will be raped in their lifetime.

Despite all this, PNG is meant to be hosting the APEC Leaders’ summit later this year. This will be the biggest event in the country since independence. And no one is entirely sure how it’s going to pull it off. PNG can’t afford to pay for its health and education services, let alone build enough hotels and meet the enormous security costs that come with hosting an APEC gathering. 

Australia is already helping with the security. PNG has asked for more assistance. Expect Malcolm Turnbull to offer something this weekend.

Beyond money and logistical support, what’s really needed is more regular engagement with PNG. It may not be a lucrative growth market, but PNG should matter to Australia a lot more than it does. If Australia really is going to be a responsible leader in this region, we need much more dialogue with PNG.

Next on the Prime Minister’s itinerary will be India. This most definitely is a lucrative growth market. 1.3 billion people and an economy growing at around 7.5% a year. Our two-way trade has been steadily growing over the past decade, but is still nowhere near what it should be.

Negotiations for a free trade deal between Australia and India were launched in 2011, when Julia Gillard was Prime Minister. There was greater urgency under Tony Abbott, but for whatever reason, things have stalled under Malcolm Turnbull. The Indians say there has been little to no progress for the past 12 months.

If Turnbull’s visit next week can revive the process, that can only be a good thing. With a growing middle class in India (now around 300 million), there are huge opportunities for Australian exporters of quality goods and services.

But India will only lower its relatively high tariff barriers if it gets something in return. Specifically, it wants Australia to relax its restrictions around 457 visas, so more Indians can work here across a wider range of industries. There’s little chance of that happening in the current political environment. Can you imagine the reaction from Labor, One Nation, Nick Xenophon and the rest?

Still, the PM won’t go all that way with nothing to say. With Education Minister Simon Birmingham also joining the visit, there will be a heavy focus on showcasing Australia’s higher education sector.

Turnbull may also meet with billionaire Gautam Adani about his company’s proposed $16b coal mine in Queensland’s Galilee Basin. It’s a hugely controversial project, but the Turnbull Government is behind it.

The visits to PNG and India over the coming days may not be as exciting as an audience with Donald Trump, but they are vitally important. Australia needs to pay more attention to the problems in PNG and the opportunities in India. Malcolm Turnbull is showing he’s willing to do both. 

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A bad week for the Turnbull Government

Friday, March 31, 2017

By David Speers

Expect the government to hail whatever it salvages on company tax cuts today as a “big step forward” for hundreds of businesses and millions of workers. Expect to hear plenty about how this will generate jobs and growth.

But make no mistake, this has been a bad week for the Turnbull Government on policy and political grounds.

It lost the argument over an extradition treaty with China. This was shelved when Senators started to seriously contemplate the prospect of handing people over to what passes as China’s legal system. Ministers misread the mood, expecting support that just wasn’t there.

It lost the debate on 18c, with the Senate last night rejecting the government’s push to replace the words “offend, insult and humiliate” with “harass” in the Racial Discrimination Act. Some changes will be made to how the Human Rights Commission handles cases, but that’s it.

Finally, it lost the debate on the Enterprise Tax Plan. In truth, this was lost long ago. There was never support in the Senate, or the electorate, to give companies big and small a tax cut totaling $48b over ten years. The cross bench was only ever going to back a modest cut for small- and medium-sized businesses.  

After much late-night haggling, the Senate finally adjourned at midnight. We’ll find out today what the cross-bench will support and where the cut-off for business tax cuts will apply.

The question then is whether to keep pushing for the full tax cut plan. A week ago, the Prime Minister was insisting it would be kept in the Budget. Last night, the Treasurer wouldn’t say. Clearly, this is still being debated internally.

Unsurprisingly, big business does not want the government to walk away from this fight. The CEOs of Qantas, BHP, Wesfarmers, Telstra, Optus and the big banks know they won’t see a company tax cut any time soon, but they at least want the Coalition to keep the dream alive.

They want to believe the government will return to a big business tax cut, perhaps as part of a broader tax reform.

The corporate chiefs fear there’s no plan B to grow the Australian economy. And they’re right. The government talks about its innovation agenda and Defence spending plans, but this is no substitute for a tax cut to attract investment and drive growth across the economy.

Labor certainly doesn’t have an alternative plan for growth either. It’s agenda is all about fairness and redistribution, whether that’s keeping Sunday penalty rates in place, increasing the minimum wage or spending more on schools and hospitals.

This formula is proving successful for Bill Shorten. He’s been helped enormously by the timing of the Fair Work Commission ruling on Sunday penalty rates earlier this year. 

Trying to sell a company tax cut was always going to be tough for the government. Selling it at the same time as low-paid workers face a penalty rate cut has been virtually impossible. Australians want the money in their pockets, not the pockets of big business.  

Still, it would be a huge concession for the government to take the remainder of the company tax cut plan out of the budget. This would mean waving the white flag on economic reform and the government’s ability to win an argument.

There’s also some opportunity to turn this debate around once the tax cuts for smaller companies are passed. Finally, we’ll get a chance to see if those companies really do boost wages and hire more people. Or whether they just pocket the dough.

Labor may also face some difficult decisions as to whether it will keep or “roll back” the company tax cuts that have been agreed by the Senate.

Most MPs will finally head home to their electorates later today and won’t return to Canberra until the May Budget. The economic team of Scott Morrison and Mathias Cormann, however, will spend most of the next six weeks in the capital, working on its details.

This will be a hugely important Budget. We’ll learn the fate of the company tax cuts, what the government intends to do about housing affordability, how it now wants to reform Higher Education and whether it will unfreeze the GP rebate. These are just some of the balls in the air.

Turnbull, Morrison and Cormann will also have to be mindful of what they can actually get through the parliament. The Government can’t afford too many weeks like this one, where its agenda has been either gutted or defeated. The answer is better policy and better politics.

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Turnbull should be careful of compromise

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.

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Turnbull ignores own blank cheque warning

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.

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Barnett looks set for defeat, but blame will be shared

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.

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Turnbull gripped by indecision

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.

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Turnbull and Shorten face pressure

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.

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