Leading article Australia

Tick tock

18 August 2016

1:00 PM

18 August 2016

1:00 PM

Since the Prime Minister’s petulant and angry election night spray, he and his government have looked anything but in control. Having barely won an election with a presidential campaign and a nebulous plan for jobs and growth, Mr Turnbull’s double-dissolution caper created a senate that will give the government no quarter, and make passing any legislation a nightmare. Its bare lower house majority will make the Coalition’s life a torture, especially now Labor has returned the compliment of the Gillard hung parliament and cracked down on pairing MPs for crucial votes.

This wouldn’t matter if Mr Turnbull presided over a competent and disciplined government. Since the election, however, Mal’s administration has been all mal-administration: internal policy, governance and political judgment problems that brought the Coalition to the brink of defeat last month have not disappeared.

Policy by thought bubble continues post-election. Mr Turnbull’s sudden announcement last weekend, that the formula divvying up GST between the states will ensure WA isn’t bonked senseless by the mendicant states it cross-subsidises, is sound policy but guarantees a battle royal with other states, and doesn’t address, as Tony Abbott intended, the problems of a dysfunctional federation. The Four Corners royal commission into the Northern Territory youth justice system equally was policy on the run without carefully considering both process and ramifications. Furthermore, the Liberal base is still seething and unmollified at the budget’s retrospective and punitive superannuation changes.

In health and Medicare, where it was clobbered in the election campaign, the government hasn’t shown a clue about how to fill the policy vacuum so ruthlessly and dishonestly exploited by Bill Shorten. The Coalition went into the election without a coherent health policy for the first time since 1990, and it needs one desperately if it is to survive.

As Richard Ferguson notes this week, the census fiasco and humiliation was avoidable with prudent planning: instead, it reinforced the perception of Mr Turnbull’s Keystone Cops government.

The clock is ticking on the prime minister. Liberal MPs tossed Tony Abbott for Mr Turnbull on his promise of stable, competent, collegiate government. The electorate judged Mr Turnbull against that promise on 2 July and found him wanting. If the Coalition isn’t back on the rails by Christmas, with a realistic policy and legislative agenda backed by measured, competent governance, it risks passing the point of no return where not even a change of leader would save it whenever the next election is called.

There are, however, steps the PM can take to show both an angry electorate and his disillusioned base he leads the sort of government they want. First, he can prove he’s truly a deficit hawk: why not have an October mini-budget reducing the federal government’s GDP share by one percentage point a year for five years? Reining in self-inflicted boondoggles, like the $50 billion never-never submarine contract with the French, wouldn’t hurt, and ending pork-barrel splurges of taxpayer money, like funding Olympic gold medals at $40 million a pop, would show this government means fiscal business. But, above all, the budget’s superannuation mess must be cleaned up.

Second, get the government back on the policy front foot, not just in the political Ground Zero of health but generally. All year, Labor have set the policy agenda, however populist and dishonestly: banking royal commissions, anyone? If even political naifs like One Nation’s Malcolm Roberts can see root and branch tax reform is essential, with the hint senate numbers could yet make sensible reforms possible, Mr Turnbull shouldn’t need telling to unleash his inner reformist.

The PM also should appeal to lost grass-roots conservatives: how better than by finally repealing – or at least diluting – the noxious 18C? Surely the ‘humility is for saints’ junior barrister who took on the mighty Margaret Thatcher over freedom of speech in the Spycatcher case should jump at cauterising this weeping pustule on our democracy, not crab-walk away from it. Mr Abbott has now admitted reneging on repealing 18C was a huge mistake: if Mr Turnbull claims to be the anti-Abbott, what better way than by treading where Mr Abbott dared not?

While he’s at it, Mr Turnbull could ensure the insidious proselytising Safe Schools programme, which attacks mainstream family and community moral values, doesn’t get another cent of funding. His neglected conservative base would applaud, and a totem of the Left’s rampant social agenda would be cut down to size. Can he? Will he?

That’s more than enough to be getting on with before Christmas. Mr Turnbull’s reduced, shell-shocked party room needs a coherent leadership vision to fight for. If coming months are as blighted as the post-election weeks have been, neither Mr Turnbull, a redeemed Mr Abbott, nor any other potential leader will have any hope of stopping an undeserving Mr Shorten seizing The Lodge.

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