Same old same old

[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.

That night 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’.

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18/10/2015Ken Your piece is timely, questioning as it does whether anything has changed beneath the façade that our new PM is presenting. You point to a number of instances where it seems that nothing much has changed other than the front man, who is smoother, slicker, more articulate, more persuasive, less abrasive, and better dressed than his predecessor. Scott Morrison was a big disappointment when he uttered the nonsense that ‘Australia doesn’t have a revenue problem; it has a spending problem.’ Only sycophantic economists would be prepared to tarnish their reputations by repeating such rubbish. Morrison repeated it on [i]7.30[/i] despite a challenge from Leigh Sales. One can only assume that Morrison really believes that, which would be a danger signal that he’s no more up to the job than was Hockey, or he doesn’t and is using that phraseology in an attempt to reassure the public that he will not be raising taxes; indeed subsequent utterances by Morrison that ‘you can’t tax your way to prosperity’ suggest this is indeed Morrison’s line, hackneyed though it may be. Turnbull did not seek to contradict Morrison or tone down his rhetoric. Turnbull is giving his ministers free rein, but this much freedom seems dangerous, unless of course Turnbull believes this too! We hear this past week that Greg Hunt has now approved the Indian-sponsored Adani Carmichael coal mine in Queensland. When built, it would be the largest in Australia and would carry all the risks and dangers that accompany such a venture. Turnbull seems to be going along with this potential catastrophe! At the weekend Turnbull seemed to stick to the Coalition intention to deport those who are not Australian citizens who had served more than a year in prison for a criminal offence, a measure that would require as many as 240 New Zealanders, many of whom have lived here virtually all their lives, to be sent back to New Zealand, which to many is now almost a foreign country. Despite the pleas of his ‘good friend’ John Key, all he did was to make placatory noises, but gave no promise of reversal of this law. Same old policy as Tony Abbott’s! I have wondered whether Turnbull would be fatally compromised by the deals he had to make with the Big-C conservatives who hold so much sway in his Party room, or whether he would go along with the deals, many of which are contrary to his beliefs, until he could change them subtly towards a more progressive position while his polling remained buoyant. So far the signs are not promising. He still seems wedded to Abbott’s policies. We can only hope he will have the courage to throw off the strangulating Abbott yoke and match his progressive talk with equally progressive policies. We wait with apprehension, hoping that the man who has held out the promise of a new era in federal politics will not disappoint us as he did last time, that he will not be just same old, same old Malcolm. Thank you for another fine piece on the contemporary [i]TPS[/i] theme of examining the new Malcolm Turnbull to see whether or not he really is different from last time.


19/10/2015Government Under Turnbull Reduced To 300-Word Slogans, Abbott Claims The Shovel | October 6, 2015 Tony Abbott has attacked Malcolm Turnbull for leading a government that he claims amounts to nothing more than a series of quick 45-minute sound bites and three-paragraph catchphrases.


19/10/2015Ad Yes, only time will tell whether Turnbull actually changes anything -- certainly little sign of it as yet. Given the poll result today, it is interesting to speculate whether Turnbull may go to an early election. He has double dissolution triggers but I doubt he would want a double dissolution -- unless they manage to pass changes to voting for the Senate. I think if such changes are made, Turnbull may be tempted to go to the polls early next year (rather than wait until September) and it may only be after an election, when he has a 'mandate' in his own right that he may over-ride the Right of this party and make changes. But, as we are saying, all that remains to be seen. Casablanca Didn't really need to see that piece from the shovel as it uses an approach that I have also used in a satirical piece I have written. But thank you anyway.

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20/10/2015Folks Today we see that Tony Abbott's conservative soulmate Stephen Harper, until now PM of Canada, has been annihilated in national elections by Liberal Justin Trudeau, son of a previous PM, Pierre Trudeau. Harper campaigned on fear about Muslims and female Muslim headgear. His spectacular loss shows that Canadians did not buy such tactics. So Harper and Abbott have gone the same way - out.


21/10/2015Ad The other interesting thing about Harper's loss was that it was from a position of strength (a bit like Campbell Newman's loss in Qld). The Harper conservatives had held 166 but were reduced to 99. The Liberals had been reduced to only 34 seats in the 2011 election (out of 308 members in their House of Commons) and reduced to the third ranked party behind the Conservatives and the New Democratic Party (NDP). But this election the Liberals under Trudeau won 184 seats. That is soe turn around. Harper was known for his Abbott-like tactics. One article referred to his "relentless resort to wedge politics" - sound familiar? So it is clear, from Abbott and Harper, that people will only accept hard-line conservatism and the political tactics associated with it, for a short time before deciding it is not worth it.

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21/10/2015Ken The resemblance between Harper and Abbott is uncanny. Same ideology, same tactics, same outcome!

Florence nee Fed up

21/10/2015I hate to say it, but I suspect many will allow themselves to be fooled again. Charm over truth works for many.

Florence nee Fed up

21/10/2015Some forget a fact that as been true since Federation. When beaten, there is always next time. The tide always changes. Maybe better word is swings. Good Oppositions can achieve much if interested in building not opposing all in their path.

Florence nee Fed up

21/10/2015Did I see Morrison say there would be no money for kids given to grandparents. This government not paying for what one expects grandparents to do in society. Seems the PM doesn't agree. Payments under new arrangements will occur.


22/10/2015It wasn’t meant to end this way: Joe Hockey’s bitter goodbye Paula Matthewson. Oct 20, 2015 He was touted as leadership material but, in the end, the rigours of high office brought his career to a sudden, unwelcome end.


22/10/2015Nice piece Ken. Harper's demise was unexpected. In August (two months ago), The Guardian was writing Trudeau off -> Satstically, t he ALP Federally has a much easier job to knock off Turnbull than Trudeau had in Canada or Palaszczuk did in Queensland. While I'm certainly not in the 'inner circle', I'd be prepared to bet that the centrist parties (ironically called the 'Liberals' in Canada) swap staff and intelligence in the same way as the Conservatives (UK) (CAN), Republicans (USA) and Liberals (AUS) do. It's not impossible for Shorten to become PM. The 'street fighters' days of leadership are over, something which Turnbull has quickly cottoned on to. Apparently one of Harper's campaign problems was personal attacks on Trudeau (his hair and youth). Times have changed and politicians have to change as well.

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22/10/2015Florence nee Fed up How good to see you back again. Yes, you are right. We have to see how the once-very-unpopular but now-very-popular Malcolm Bligh Turnbull turns out in the long run. He is now saying all the popular things, and making all the popular moves, but time will tell. In the process, he shows Abbott and Hockey up for the ideologically-driven, indecisive duds they were. Isn't it great to be able to write about these two guys in the past tense!

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22/10/2015Casablanca Good article by Paula Matthewson. Isn't it interesting how poorly Joe is being rated in the MSM! Apparently (I haven't seen it) the Government Gazette: [i]The Australian[/i] rates Wayne Swan a better Treasurer than Joe Hockey! Did you see the [i]First Dog on the Moon[/i] cartoon about Hockey:

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22/10/20152353 The Canadian experience is noteworthy. While the columnists were prepared to write off Justin Trudeau, he has proved them seriously wrong. The author of the article you quoted, John Barber, looks to be middle aged. Perhaps he is too young to remember the 'Trudeaumania' that pervaded Canada when Justin's father Pierre was PM. I was in Canada at the time, and can testify that the euphoria this man evoked was amazing to see. His son seems to evoke the same feelings. They are such a contrast to the stuffy, conservative Harper, who, like Abbott, wore out his welcome, albeit after nine years as PM. Our Abbott-man was much faster wearing out his!

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23/10/2015Folks If you want to read a fact-packed debunking of our recently-departed Treasurer's extraordinary valedictory speech, you will find no better appraisal than that of our colleague Greg Jericho, who wrote [i]Hockey the fantasy economist may as well have farewelled Middle-earth[/i] in [i]The Guardian[/i] yesterday. I'm sure you will be astonished, and delighted.

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23/10/2015Folks [b]I have just now posted [i]After the bushfire[/i] on [i]TPS Extra[/i]. Your comments and feedback will be welcome. We would appreciate having your feelings about the political fires we have witnessed for the last two years and the one who lit them.[/b]
How many umbrellas are there if I have two in my hand but the wind then blows them away?