By Mungo MacCallum
So Malcolm Turnbull has undertaken yet another relaunch – a new, shiny (well, at least rather less shop-soiled) ministry, and, on the horizon, an exciting refurbished (well, at least hastily bogged up) tax plan.
And this is where the story – or at least the next exciting episode of it – really starts. Which, unfortunately, leads us all to ask: what the hell has our glorious leader been doing since last September? And the obvious answer is not very much – or, to put it more bluntly, three fifths of five eighths of bugger all, and precious little of that.
There have been high sounding homilies about change and innovation and an apparently endless and ultimately futile conversation about tax reform – a conversation in which only Turnbull, Scott Morrison and perhaps a few other privileged confidantes were allowed to take part.
It was all very appropriate, very much along the lines of consultation and sticking to the protocols Turnbull has laid down; it was even worthy – up to a point. But it was not exciting, nimble or agile and it was definitely not producing any tangible results.
And as a result, there was a need to fill the political vacuum, which was provided by a sudden exodus of ministerial resignations – voluntary or not. Warren Truss was the first to go, not unexpectedly, but harried along by both Turnbull and his own National Party. If a reshuffle was looming, then Truss had to be part of it – lingering for a another month or more could not be tolerated.
Then Andrew Robb decided that he too had served his time. Robb’s record of trade negotiations has, of course, been exemplary but whether the means have always justified the ends has been more problematical. The bilateral deals with Japan, South Korea and China may generally be accounted net plusses, but the Trans Pacific Partnership, an arrangement principally devised to limit the economic growth of China to the advantage of American corporate interests, appears to have little if any benefit to Australia.
However Robb retires with honour, and his and Truss’s departures will be serious losses to the collective experience and memory of the Turnbull ministry. The same cannot be said for the ignominious exit of Stuart Robert, who was found by the head of Malcolm Turnbull’s department, Martin Parkinson, to have suffered a memory lapse; he did not realise that he had shares in his rich Liberal party donor mate’s company at the time he happened, as a tourist, to drop in on the signing of a lucrative contract in China, where he chatted with a vice-minister in the process.
Whether or not the Minister for Human Resources held the shares, his pretence that he had visited China as a private citizen was simply unbelievable: the Chinese certainly did not believe it, and issued a news bulletin to that effect.
Robert’s offence was indefensible, and apart from a couple of personal friends, the government made no real attempt to defend it. When the opposition tried to move a censure motion last week, the Leader of the House, the irrepressible Christopher Pyne, ignored the substantive charges against Robert and instead ranted on about the real and imaginary indiscretions of Bill Shorten. Stuart was always a dead man walking and eventually and inevitably he walked.
As, belatedly, did Mal Brough, having clung on to his relegation in the sin bin for months in the forlorn hope that if he was exonerated by a police inquiry, all would be forgiven and forgotten and he could be triumphantly reinstated.
But whatever the results of the inquiry, Brough was up to his armpits in the sordid Peter Slipper-James Ashby affair, and his appointment as Special Minister of State was as absurd as the notion that Phillip Ruddock could be a special envoy for Human Rights or that Greg Hunt could be anointed the World’s Best Minister — even by the United Arab Emirates, those guardians of the environment.
The only possible portfolio for Brough could have been as Minister for Grubby Political Conspiracies, and even Malcolm Turnbull could not be so innovative.
So in the end the Prime Minister gritted his teeth and held his nose and came up with a fairly safe and predictable reshuffle. As always, it involved compromise and balance; a mixture of conservative versus moderate, experience versus youth (although, perforce, mostly of the latter), male versus female, state versus state, and merit versus patronage.
Naturally, he tried to sell it as positively as he could: this was not just a reshuffle forced upon him by unforseen and largely unwelcome circumstance, this was renewal, regeneration, revitalisation: the government had to keep moving, organisms that stayed still died off – like sharks, perhaps. The big winners were the Nationals, with their ebullient and unpredictable leader Barnaby Joyce, whose partnership with Turnbull may be a spectacle in its own right.
But it will still be a sideshow: the main event has to be the economy, and the still long awaited tax package. Bill Shorten made yet another pre-emptive strike with a bold plan to curtail both negative gearing and capital gains – two previously bipartisan untouchables in recent years. As with Shorten’s earlier forays into multinational tax avoidance and superannuation rorts, the government will probably seek to gazump him: in the circumstances it has little choice.
Scott Morrison is determined to produce something – anything – to end the dithering, and the options are severely limited. The revenue has to come from somewhere, but in a sense that is the easy bit. The real argument will be about what to do with it: tax cuts, as Morrison insists, or repairing the depredations of the Tony Abbott years over health and education budgets which Shorten has foreshadowed? There will not really be enough available to do either, let alone both.
And of course, any attempt to reduce the debt and deficit (which have both ballooned in the days of Abbott’s ’emergency’) is no longer considered a priority. What really needs fixing is an election campaign – and after that is out of the way we might get serious. Another relaunch, even – and this time one that matters.