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Getting the job done

Paddy Manning
Thursday, November 26, 2015

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By Paddy Manning

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s love-in with business leaders a fortnight ago showed there is a pent-up demand for a leader brimming with optimism and initiative. 

As far back as I can remember, there is no precedent for the story broken by 7News’ Mark Riley in mid-August, before the coup that deposed Tony Abbott, when federal cabinet met to consider an empty agenda, with not one ministerial submission on new policy – symbolising a government that had run out of ideas, and literally had nothing constructive to do. 

Anybody who read David Marr’s 2012 Quarterly Essay on Tony Abbott would recognise that he did as Prime Minister exactly what he did as president of Sydney University’s Student Representative Council in the late 1970s: there were no constructive policies for the student body, rather there was a wrecking agenda to tear-down existing policies and cut funding to his own organisation, which he believed was “unnecessary and superfluous”. Abbott did not win a second term (he was beaten by Tanya Coleman, future wife of Peter Costello). 

On November Malcolm Turnbull told the Business Council of Australia dinner in Melbourne that the job of government was to get things done. Just like an address to scientists given in Canberra two weeks earlier, the Prime Minister didn’t have to say very much more to get a rapturous reception. 

These are elite audiences and the Prime Minister would be well-advised to take nothing more than a bit of encouragement from the rush of goodwill in rooms like this. A shift from negative to positive politics sounds profound but, like calls that we had entered a new paradigm during the dotcom boom, it is likely to prove ephemeral.

Innovation is like motherhood – who would argue against it? If the PM’s well-flagged major statement on innovation and science next month is full of fine words and noble sentiments and not backed by concrete funding, economic incentives or other practical initiatives, it will scarcely serve to give his government direction or substance. 

Particularly when the Coalition is under serious scrutiny over its management of Australia’s national broadband network. It is hard to think of a single piece of infrastructure that will be more important to an agile, innovative, 21st-century economy than fast broadband. 

Malcolm Turnbull says his government “are not seeking to proof ourselves against the future, we are seeking to embrace it”. This is a clever rhetorical work-around to a sticky situation that the Prime Minister has found himself in with the NBN. Labor‘s original fibre-to-the-premise rollout aimed to future-proof Australia’s telecommunications infrastructure, by rolling out the only technology known to be capable of almost limitless upgrading, to download and upload speeds of many gigabits per second.  

As the saying went, “do it once, do it right, do it with fibre”. Mr Turnbull promised a cheaper NBN using fibre-to-the-node technology, relying on souped-up copper and pay-TV cables, but his mixed-technology network has blown out in cost and time and will need to be built over. Malcolm Turnbull’s answer to this policy failure – not that he or his successor as communications minister Mitch Fifield admit such a failure, of course - has been to attack the very idea of future-proofing. It is a conceptual smokescreen. 

If the shine is likely to come off Turnbull’s credentials on innovation and science, far more important to his fate as Prime Minister will be where he and the Treasurer Scott Morrison end up on tax. Since he ruffled feathers among his party colleagues as a backbench newbie in 2005, releasing his own tax paper without consulting then Treasurer Peter Costello, Malcolm Turnbull has called for lower income tax rates, a broader tax base, and a simpler tax system which would be harder to evade. Cutting headline personal income and company tax rates, shifting to greater reliance on consumption taxes through a higher and/or broader GST, and cracking down on super rorts and corporate tax avoidance (if the government has the stomach for it) would be perfectly consistent with his long-standing thoughts on tax reform.

Malcolm Turnbull will be ruthlessly pragmatic rather than ideological. He is not a conviction politician on tax reform the way John Howard was, for example on the GST. Even there, however, Howard is an imperfect model for reform. Howard had supported a consumption tax since at least 1981 when he was treasurer under Malcolm Fraser, who stymied the reform. But when he reassumed the leadership of the Liberal party in 1995, Howard quelled fears with his famous promise “never ever” to introduce a GST. Despite a valiant sales effort, Howard and Costello hardly won a convincing mandate: a majority of voters backed Labor in the 1998 election, even if the party failed to win the most seats. It was only in retrospect that the electorate accepted the wisdom of the GST, rejecting Kim Beazley’s ‘rollback’ policy. 

Where Turnbull does have strong policy convictions, is on the socially and environmentally progressive issues like the republic, marriage equality and climate change. It is passing strange that tackling climate change, particularly, is consistently marginalised in the economic debate in this country. For example, The Australian’s editor-at-large Paul Kelly argues in his terrific book Triumph and Demise the age of reform commenced by Hawke and Keating, and carried on by Howard and Costello, somehow passed with the rollback of WorkChoices after 2007 - as though Labor’s introduction of a market-friendly price on carbon was not a major economic reform. Yet climate change is a major economic, not just political, challenge for Australia – on the downside it determines the fate of our hugely valuable coal, oil and gas export industries, our fisheries and farm productivity, our tourist icons like the Reef, and so on and so on. For no rational reason, Malcolm Turnbull remains straightjacketed by the right of his party, and by the Nationals, on climate. 

Turnbull will need the skills of Houdini to escape his very tight situation. Where he lacks conviction, on tax and industrial relations, and where the public is wary, everything is on the table. Where he has conviction in spades, and where the public is behind him, everything is off the table. Somehow, out of that, against a backdrop of escalating war, and a world economy that appears to be softening, Malcolm Turnbull has to fashion an election-winning policy platform. 

The most exciting time to be alive? It doesn’t ring true. It almost sounds foolish.

Paddy Manning is author of the book, Born to Rule, the unauthorised biography of Malcolm Turnbull. 

Published: Thursday, November 26, 2015

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