Features Australia

Dreaming of a White Paper

The PM should reinstate the policies Turnbull tore up

30 January 2021

9:00 AM

30 January 2021

9:00 AM

Honouring Malcom Turnbull by making him a Companion of the Order of Australia gave our 29th Prime Minister an opportunity to remind us once again how graceless he can be. Turnbull said there was ‘no shortage of irony’ that he had received Australia’s highest honour on the same day as tennis legend Margaret Court, a vocal opponent of same-sex marriage, received the honour. As Prime Minister, Turnbull had promised to protect religious freedom but it hasn’t protected Court from being abused by two Labor premiers simply for expressing traditional Christian views held by a great many Australians. At least the furore generated suggests an ingenious means of ridding the ranks of Companions of intolerant Lefties.

Turnbull has also been in the news for attacking Liberal MP Craig Kelly for promoting what Turnbull claims are dangerous crackpot COVID cures. Freedom of speech did not mean freedom from responsibility Turnbull thundered. Yet, all Kelly had done was post the results of a randomised controlled trial which showed that those taking Betadine had an 84 per cent reduction in COVID infections compared to those in a placebo group.

As for the hair lice treatment that Turnbull disparaged, there have now been 35 trials of ivermectin conducted on more than 10,000 people showing a 90 per cent improvement in 10 prophylaxis trials and an 84 per cent improvement in 10 early treatment trials. The probability that an ineffective treatment could generate such positive results is estimated to be 1 in 34 billion.

It is probably too much to ask that the government acknowledge that it was a mistake to make Turnbull Prime Minister in the first place, but since the Australia Day committee has seen fit to honour his achievements, perhaps the government could undo some of the damage Turnbull inflicted during his short tenure as PM. Several policies come to mind.

When Tony Abbott was elected in a landslide in 2013, he promised to produce a white paper on fixing the relationship between the states and the Commonwealth. In June 2014, he unveiled the terms of reference for a ‘Reform of the Federation’ white paper. Abbott wanted to reduce or eliminate duplication and make interacting with the government simpler, clarifying the roles and responsibilities so that each layer of government was sovereign in its sphere. He also committed to a tax-reform white paper which was strongly supported by business.

With 2021 hindsight, how farsighted those initiatives look today. The federation has been sorely tested by the Covid pandemic and found to be severely wanting. At the same time, the federal government has spent like the proverbial drunken sailor keeping workers employed while it shut down large swathes of the small business sector.

It was all so unnecessary. If the federal government had assumed responsibility for quarantine, its obligation under the constitution, and followed Abbott’s pandemic preparedness plan, which he produced while health minister in the Howard government, the federal balance sheet would look less like a sea of red ink and more like that of Taiwan, which has ridden out the pandemic with less self-inflicted damage than most democracies.

Yet when Turnbull tore down Abbott he tore up Abbott’s initiatives. Only days after coming to power, Turnbull delayed the release of a tax reform paper and by February of the following year the tax white paper was dead. Whereas Abbott axed the tax on carbon, Turnbull axed tax reform.

In April 2016, less than two years after work commenced, Mr Turnbull also scrapped the white paper on federation. It was sent off to die a lonely death lost in the wilderness of the Council on Federal Financial Relations, and Commonwealth, State and Territory Treasuries.

Mr Turnbull undid other worthy initiatives as well, like the Green army, which was killed off in December 2016. Designed to use the manpower of up to 15,000 unemployed young people, it could have tackled the reduction of fuel loads that proved catastrophic  in the 2019/20 bushfires and would have provided meaningful work for young people during the pandemic. Yet Turnbull didn’t see the value; instead he won brownie points from the Greens whose leader declared that they always opposed the Green Army because it was an employment program rather than an environmental program. Fancy that!

The one Abbott commitment that Turnbull honoured was to spend 2 per cent of GDP on defence. Yet, while Abbott was right to beef up defence spending, there is no point unless the money is spent wisely. With the threat China poses increasing every day, fixing the quantum is not enough. It is urgent that the quality of the defence spend is reviewed. The decision to build conventional submarines that won’t be ready for decades looks like an overpriced make-work scheme. They are not going to be any use if China threatens Australian ships in the South China Sea this year or decides to invade Taiwan. Dollars are scarce and defence is vital. The government cannot afford to waste a cent.

Since Abbott’s election, he and successive Liberal governments have been blown off course by what Lemony Snicket would have called ‘A Series of Unfortunate Events’. That many were self-inflicted does not alter the fact that we have now had three first-term prime ministers, two of which went to the electorate with a platform that largely consisted of, ‘we are better than the other mob’. While this was undoubtedly true, and endorsed by the voters, it does not constitute a work program.

When Prime Minister Morrison won the 2019 election, he himself called it a ‘miracle’. If truth be told, the miracle was based largely on Labor’s hubris in putting forward an appalling agenda and telling voters that if they didn’t like it, they didn’t have to vote for it. They didn’t.

It is always possible that Labor will continue to shoot itself in the foot but it would be better if the government put forward policies that addressed the crises that Australia is confronting. Given that Mr Abbott’s policies have already been endorsed by the voters, Mr Morrison would be wise to put them to good use.

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