Agile Government: Turnbull Has Notched 17 Backflips In Seven Months


If there is one consistent hallmark of the Turnbull government, it’s inconsistency. With the policy thought bubbles now popping within hours, Ben Eltham takes you back through the government’s greatest wiggles, flips, and changes in direction.

Prime Minster Malcolm Turnbull came to office promising “agile” government. He’s certainly delivered.

In recent weeks, we’ve seen backflip after backflip. Raising the GST was canvassed, then dropped. Income taxes were going to be slashed. And then they weren’t. The states were promised their own cut of federal income tax – before the proposal was abandoned at COAG.

The lifespan of Turnbull initiatives seems to be getting shorter and shorter. Income tax for the states lasted about 36 hours.

Yesterday’s big media splash about high speed rail lived even faster and died even younger. The thought bubble didn’t even last a full day.

Grand plans for a high speed rail link between Brisbane and Melbourne were splashed across the Fairfax and Murdoch newspapers in the morning. By mid-afternoon, the responsible minster, Assistant Minister for Cities Angus Taylor, had issued a statement dismissing the suggestion the government was committing to the project. “In reference to media speculation surrounding a high speed rail connection from Melbourne to Brisbane, there is no commitment from the Federal Government to fund this project as it stands,” Taylor wrote.

Oh dear.

For close observers of the Turnbull government, yesterday’s confusion over fast trains was nothing new. Half-baked ideas and speculative thought bubbles are a hallmark of the Turnbull ascendency. The grand policy narratives are floated for a day or two with a flourish for the media, and then walked back from just as quickly.

The backflips keep coming. New Matilda has compiled a list of policy backflips by Malcolm Turnbull since September 2015. By our count, we’re up to 17 already.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull at the 2016 Mardi Gras.
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull at the 2016 Mardi Gras.

1) Marriage equality

Malcolm Turnbull landed a couple of spectacular backflips as part of the deals he cut to become Prime Minister. Perhaps the most sensational was his about-face on marriage equality. Hailing from one of the queerest electorates in the country, Turnbull has always been supportive of same-sex marriage. In 2013 he tweeted that “I support marriage equality and a free vote on the question.”

But when the time came to cut a deal with backbenchers to roll Tony Abbott, Turnbull rolled over and kept the Coalition’s risible plan for a plebiscite. Marriage equality activists continue to call out Turnbull for his hypocrisy.

2) Climate policy

Turnbull’s stint as opposition leader was plagued by his support for an emissions trading scheme. In the end, it became a key issue in his downfall as climate change denialists on the Liberal backbench swung behind Tony Abbott. But Turnbull continued to support the idea of a price on carbon – even crossing the floor to vote for Kevin Rudd’s emissions trading scheme.

All that went by the board in September last year. Turnbull backflipped on carbon pricing in the most sensational fashion, endorsing Greg Hunt’s direct action policy and praising it repeatedly in media conferences and in Parliament. Turnbull’s claim that Direct Action is “working” was his first big lie as prime minister: emissions are rising under Direct Action.

3) Raising the GST

The backflips kept coming once Turnbulll took possession of the Prime Minister’s Office. In October, the government flagged raising the GST. As Australians filed back to work from the summer holidays, the government spent weeks telling everyone it wanted to raise the GST. But backbenchers hated it, and the polls weren’t good. By early February, raising the GST was off the agenda.

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(IMAGE: Images Money, flickr)

4) Income tax cuts

Since September, the government has also been foreshadowing cuts to income tax for middle-income earners. As the new Treasurer, Scott Morrison dropped a number of hints in September and October. But without an increase in the GST, the government didn’t have the revenue to spend on cutting taxes. So the government walked away from income tax cuts too.

5) Company tax cuts

Like everything else it has said on tax reform, the government has some muddled messages on company tax. In October, the Australian Financial Review reported that “Malcolm Turnbull has all but confirmed company tax will be cut.” But as the tax reform debate progressed, Turnbull’s ambitions for company tax cuts diminished. By this weekend, he as telling the Liberal Party faithful in Victoria that “this budget will not be about a fistful of dollars.

6) Capital Gains Tax

In February, the government flagged cutting the discount on capital gains tax for superannuation funds. It wanted to use the money to fund income tax cuts. Like so many of Turnbull’s proposals, it went nowhere. The next day, he declared the government would not be increasing capital gains tax.

7) Simplified tax returns

In February, Treasurer Scott Morrison hinted that the government was reportedly considering simplifying tax returns, to eliminate many forms of workplace deductions. “The estimate of how much is available on workplace deductions is about $5 billion,” Morrison said at the time.

That idea has now gone by the wayside. The AFR reported last week that the government had scrapped plans to reduce workplace deductions, in return for tax cuts.

8) Funding for the Gonski schools reforms

In 2013, Tony Abbott refused to fund the final two years of the Gonski schools funding promised by the Gillard government. In October, Turnbull appeared to suggest there could be money for the final two years of Gonksi after all. This got education activists and NSW Education Minister Adrian Piccoli quite excited.

It wasn’t to be. The government ruled out any extra funding for the reforms in December.

new matilda, university of sydney
The University of Sydney’s Quadrangle (IMAGE: Andrea Schaffer, flickr)

9) University fee deregulation

Under Tony Abbott, Christopher Pyne made some very controversial reforms to education policy. The Abbott government promised to cut university funding by 20 per cent, and allow universities to make up the difference by charging students whatever they liked in university fees. When Simon Birmingham became Turnbull’s new Education Minister, he postponed the university fee deregulation.

Now $100,000 degrees are back. Birmingham confirmed last week that the government would press ahead with fee deregulation and cuts to university funding.

10) International carbon permits for Direct Action

When Turnbull endorsed Greg Hunt and his Direct Action plan in September last year, he maintained that the government wouldn’t be changing the policy, which he claimed “worked.”

But in December, Greg Hunt quietly revealed the government would in fact be using funds earmarked for Direct Action to buy international carbon permits. This was a massive backflip on Hunt’s sustained opposition to international carbon permits, which he had opposed for years. In effect, the move also puts a shadow price on carbon.

11) Safe Schools

No list of Turnbull backflips would be complete without another look at he debacle that was Safe Schools. The Safe Schools Initiative was an Abbott government policy, backed by the Coalition to combat bullying of LGTBIQ school students. But when the right wing of the Liberal Party launched an attack on the initiative in February, the Turnbull government quickly buckled under the pressure. Simon Birmingham commissioned a review of the program by respected academic Bill Louden. When the report largely cleared Safe Schools as appropriate for students and high schools, the right wing went on a rampage. In the end, Birmingham caved in again, further curtailing the material Safe Schools was able to publish.

12) Section 35P of the ASIO Act

As Communications Minister, Malcolm Turnbull saw no problem introducing draconian metadata laws that set up a spying regime on the emails and social media of everyday Australian citizens. But in February, the government was handed a report by Roger Gyles QC looking into the extensive new powers granted to security agencies like ASIO.

Gyles recommended that the government amend the controversial Section 35P of the ASIO Act, which criminalised any journalism investigating ASIO “special operations.” Journalists found guilty of the offence face jail time. Gyles argued that “the application in this manner of broad secrecy prohibitions to outsiders is not satisfactorily justified, including by precedents in Australia or elsewhere.” Attorney-General George Brandis accepted the recommendation and said the government would move to amend the law.

That’s 12 backflips in seven months — not a bad strike-rate by anyone’s measure.

But there are plenty more we don’t have space to fully detail, including:

flags, new matilda
(IMAGE: Michael Coghlan, Flickr)

13) An Australian republic

Once a Turnbull specialty, now something the PM feels it’s “not the time for”.

14) Tax disclosure

The government backflipped on its position on tax secrecy to do a deal with the Greens on tax disclosure in December.

15) The “effects test” for competition law 

Once a key plank of the Liberal Party’s pitch to big business, the government rolled over to the Nationals on the issue this year.

16) The early budget

The government said there might be one, then said there wouldn’t be one, and then announced that budget would be moved forward to May 3.

17) Income tax for the states

An instant classic. The idea was floated by Turnbull at a press conference at Penrith Panthers football club, but lasted just a day and half before getting shot down by state premiers at COAG.

All in all, it’s been an agile seven months. And we haven’t started the formal election campaign.

Ben Eltham is New Matilda's National Affairs Correspondent.