[Can you pick the difference?]
On 14 September, Malcom Turnbull was elected leader of the Liberal party and, as a consequence, became the 29th prime minister of Australia. There was an almost immediate change in the timbre of political discussion. But has anything else changed?
For example, Peter Dutton retained his position as Minister for Immigration and on 24 September, in response to another small wooden boat carrying 18 asylum seekers being stopped (or disappearing into the ‘operational’ black hole), said that the government’s policies had not changed
The day before Turnbull had suggested that policies relating to the Nauru and Manus Island detention (or processing) centres could be reconsidered by cabinet but in a later interview on the same day reiterated the existing policy regarding people arriving by boat:
“We cannot take a backward step on this issue,” he said.
“There will be no resettlement of the people on Manus and Nauru in Australia.
”They will never come to Australia.”
Scott Morrison replaced Joe Hockey as treasurer in the Turnbull ministry and in his first press conference
as treasurer on 23 September basically promised that the government would continue cutting costs (aka reduce government services). He insisted:
“We have a spending problem, not a revenue problem.”
He vowed to pursue the Coalition’s savings measures from the last budget, in particular, the changes to Family Tax Benefit system the Senate has rejected.
It was noted by the reporter that he used the phrase ‘work, save and invest’ numerous times throughout the press conference (another three word slogan — perhaps he just can’t avoid old habits — although Labor has since discovered that it was used in John Hewson’s Fightback
in 1993.). I think that reflects the business focus of the government. I’m not sure how one could apply that phrase to a cleaner on minimum wages: work — yes; save — a bit hard on the minimum wage, or less in some cases; invest — invest what, the five cents they have left or the debt run up on the credit card just to meet living expenses! I think it is clearly a phrase aimed at the traditional Liberal heartland of small business and was perhaps deliberately spoken for that reason — unless, of course, they think the workers, savers and investors are three different groups of people, which is possible.
on the 7.30 Report
, Leigh Sales challenged Morrison on his spending versus revenue statement and his answers were less than convincing but reinforced the view prevalent under Abbott that cutting government spending, rather than raising taxes, was the preferred option:
… to ensure that we spend taxpayers’ money the best way we can and we raise as little as we need of it and we spend as little as we have to of it to ensure we get the right balance.
Despite Sales pointing out that revenue was not even meeting the government’s own forecasts, Morrison insisted he was not in the camp that thought spending issues could be solved just by raising taxes. Sales pointed out that, currently, while expenditure may be 26% of GDP, revenue had fallen to 23.5%. Morrison avoided a direct answer and pointed out that revenue was projected to rise to 25% of GDP: ‘If you trust the projections’ Sales retorted.
I find it mystifying that in relation to raising taxes to increase revenue, he said:
… I have to focus on the things that I can control and what I can have an influence over is how much the Government spends of taxpayers’ money.
Is he suggesting that he has no control over taxes? I suggest that he has a few more briefings from his treasury officials before attempting another interview — he is the treasurer, after all, not the finance minister.
On 27 September, it was revealed that Health Minister Sussan Ley had commissioned a review
of the 5,700 medical services subsidised by Medicare. There are some valid reasons for such a review but other commentators have pointed out that a Liberal government review of anything is usually code for a cost cutting exercise. I agree and, given the approach laid out by Scott Morrison, it is certainly not going to lead to an increase in funding.
There was one flickering light at the end of this tunnel when Finance Minister Mathias Cormann announced on 28 September that superannuation would be considered
in the government’s white paper on taxation. That was a change on Abbott’s statements that his government would not change superannuation concessions. It raises the possibility that the Turnbull government may be prepared to consider raising revenue in that way — despite what Scott Morrison had been stating only five days earlier. It is interesting also for the fact that Labor has already indicated that it will consider changes to high-end superannuation, so is this no more than a positioning for the next election? — if there is little to choose between the parties in terms of policy then it may come down to a contest between leaders and, at the moment, Turnbull would win that fight.
Another aspect of the announcement was that Cormann made it on Sky News
before Morrison also became involved. That was a change. Under Abbott, he would likely have made such an announcement himself. Morrison had also suggested on the 7.30 Report
that the prime minister would only be involved in budget discussions on strategic issues. There were reports that Abbott had involved himself in all aspects of the Liberal’s first budget in 2014. So it appears Turnbull may be returning to a more traditional form of government with greater responsibility left with ministers (at least for now). In that regard, it was also interesting to note that the new education minister, Simon Birmingham, made the announcement
that legislation for the deregulation of the higher education sector would not be brought back to parliament before the next election.
Turnbull himself has, so far, had little substantive to say. He has made two major announcements: one on the $100 million package for domestic violence
and the other a $1.3 billion spend on vehicles for the Australian army
. Neither of those announcements, however, can be credited to the Turnbull government. The army vehicles have years of history, including the production of prototypes and testing by the army, and the announcement was just the completion of a long process. And the domestic violence announcement came so soon after Turnbull became prime minister that it is highly likely the package had been in development by the public service for some time. It is interesting to speculate what impact those announcements may have had if Abbott had announced them.
Turnbull did undertake a number of interviews and make appearances
soon after he became prime minister: on the 7.30 Report
, on Sunrise
, on The Today Show
, with Michael Brissenden on ABC radio, and with David Speers on Sky News
. He said little of substance in any of these interviews — accepting that he had not yet been two weeks in office.
He made clear that he would be retaining the existing policies as regard same sex marriage — a plebiscite, although he has hinted it may be held earlier than was envisaged under the Abbott approach — climate change and, as discussed earlier, ‘boat people’ (and he did not mention the republic). When asked whether that was consistent with his earlier comments and, sometimes, criticism of those policies, he had two answers. Firstly, that he had in fact supported the government policies as a member of cabinet and secondly:
Well, there will be changes to policy if they don’t work as well as we think, or we think others can work better. Again, none of this is written in stone, but my, what I’m saying is I don’t have any plan to change those policies because everything we see at the moment suggests they’re working very well.
So he does not rule out policy change but is being very careful how he words his approach to it. He has also emphasised the need for such changes to come from ministers and be agreed by cabinet: he is trying to avoid the criticism of his first term of Liberal party leadership when it was said that he tried to run the show himself as evidenced by his agreement to an ETS with Rudd even though it was opposed by many in his party. The other side of that coin is that to achieve policy change he will need to carry the Right of the party with him. He has tried to retain its support with people like Dutton and Morrison in his cabinet but it leaves open the possibility that a minister may, as Turnbull did himself, express public views that are not consistent with government policy. It is still a potentially unstable situation.
He did, however, make some comments that may show where his real interests lie:
We have to lift our productivity. We have to be more innovative, more competitive, we have to be more productive.
What you will see is the Government proceeding to deliver on an economic reform agenda that will promote productivity, will promote innovation, and will continue to promote business confidence and investment.
Well, the industrial relations reform, which is — labour market reform, is a — has been a very vexed one. … I think the important thing is to seek to explore ways in which we can achieve more flexibility, higher levels of employment, higher levels of business activity … the challenge for us is not to wage war with unions or the workers they — that they seek to represent, but really to explain what the challenges are and then lay out some reform options.
Three key points to note from those statements are:
- the repeated need to improve ‘productivity’
- the way he equated ‘industrial relations reform’ with ‘labour market reform’
- the way the government will ‘lay out some reform options’ after explaining the challenges.
Turnbull’s approach was challenged by Terri Butler and Andrew Giles in an article in The Guardian
on 28 September. They argued that labour productivity has actually increased in recent years and that it is multi-factor productivity that has slowed: multi-factor productivity takes account of the contribution of technology, advances in knowledge and improvements in management and production techniques in increasing output. Turnbull has not made clear whether he takes that wider view or is adopting the business blueprint that increased productivity means decreasing the cost of labour (attacking penalty rates and conditions).
Butler and Giles also suggest that Turnbull’s explanation that options will be laid out after explaining the challenges ignores that a genuine consultative process includes agreement on what are the challenges. Turnbull claimed to have such agreement in the economic leaders’ meeting
he held on 1 October but there is no indication of agreement on the measures required. That will remain a decision for the government and on early Turnbull utterances it is not likely to do the workers any favours.
In essence, Turnbull is currently mouthing platitudes towards workers but there still appears an underlying neo-liberal approach giving prominence to the market and possibly further deregulation of the ‘labour market’.
We also have Turnbull’s political judgment. It was questioned after the Godwin Grech affair
. Has he learned lessons from that? The appointments of Sinodinos and Brough to his cabinet may suggest not: they both have issues of integrity hanging over them, let alone possible legal issues.
In his first incarnation as Liberal leader, it was said that he was inclined to waffle. That has been evident in some of his early interviews as prime minister but, in his defence, he has not yet had anything substantial to speak about. He has promised to ‘explain’ government positions to the electorate but whether he can strike the balance between Abbott’s three word slogans and his own proclivity to waffle, remains to be seen.
So we have, at least for now, the same old policies, and at least some aspects of the same old Turnbull. Whether he is able to change his nature and change some of the policies appears to depend on whether or not he is able to gain support from the Right of his party in both the cabinet and party room. As 2353 suggested last week, we could be in for an interesting ride.
What do you think?
Can a leopard change its spots? Can a Turnbull change its nature? Many questions about the ‘new’ Turnbull will only be answered by the passage of time but they are questions of which we must be aware and that we must keep in mind if we are to judge his future performance.
Next week we continue the Turnbull theme when 2353 suggests we ‘Won’t get fooled again’.