A Badly Wounded Government Limps To The Long Summer Break

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Malcolm Turnbull will be grateful for the summer, but early indications suggest it might mirror the horrendous year he’s just endured. Ben Eltham weighs in.

Yesterday was the first day of summer, and, perhaps not coincidentally, the last sitting day of federal Parliament for 2016.

The approach of summer will be welcomed by many, not least amongst the dissatisfied backbench of a beleaguered Turnbull government.

A badly wounded government is limping to the long summer break.

For the government, 2016 has been a story of missed opportunities, political bungles and dangerous ideological division.

There’s no getting around it: 2016 has been a horrible year for Prime Minster Malcolm Turnbull. He began 2016 politically ascendant, as the most popular prime minister since Kevin Rudd in 2008. He ends it as the battle-scarred survivor of a near-death political experience. The Coalition is well behind in the polls. Turnbull’s approval ratings have slid to even-stevens. And the Liberal Party he leads remains bitterly divided.

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Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull.

A dominant position early in the year was thrown away in the autumn, as Turnbull dithered on a series of tax proposals. The government failed to advance a substantive policy agenda for its second-term. The GST was originally going to be raised, but the party room took fright. The government also fought a damaging internal battle over superannuation reform. Months were wasted on risible proposals and thought bubbles that seemed to last just a few days, before disappearing. The disorganisation was crystallised in Turnbull’s hare-brained scheme to give the states income tax.

Losing momentum, Turnbull tried to upend the political environment with a bold decision to call a double dissolution over the Australian Building and Construction Commission. At the time, it was hailed as a master-stroke. But, as so often with Turnbull, early promise did not live up to expectations.

The 2016 election turned into a nightmare for the Coalition. A listless Liberal campaign failed, nearly completely, to capture the imaginations of voters. That may have had something to do with a $50 billion tax cut promised to business, but not to householders. In contrast, Labor lucked on a winning message with its campaign to save Medicare, and campaigned well.

Turnbull performed adequately during the campaign, sometimes losing focus. But the real problems were in the Liberal campaign office, with the finger of blame pointed at pollster Mark Textor and campaign boss Tony Nutt. Fundraising was poor; Turnbull had to make a $1 million personal donation to top up the Liberal campaign budget.

Election night itself was a near-death experience. The government lost fourteen seats and came within a whisper of a humiliating first-term defeat. Turnbull’s early morning victory rant on July 3 will live on in the memories of those who watched it.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, on election night 2016.
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, on election night 2016.

The 2016 election returned a fundamentally different Coalition government to the one dissolved by the Governor-General in May. Electorally weakened, the Coalition failed to win a balance of power in the Senate. The post-election Liberal Party revealed deep internal divisions, only hastily papered over in the wake of Turnbull’s coup.

The Turnbull cabinet is effectively a minority government, dependent on the constant support of the Liberal hardliners to hold his House of Representatives majority. The strength of the Liberal right after the election has created a dangerous internal dynamic for the government, one that has played out repeatedly in the months since the election. Internal foes remain Turnbull’s most perilous enemies.

Given all this, it must seem like an achievement for Turnbull to limp to Parliament’s closing time. It’s been a taxing year. His understandable aim is to claim whatever credit available and retreat for the change rooms, hopeful for a better environment come January.

The Prime Minister is putting a brave face on proceedings. The government has finally had some legislative success, of a sort. This week, the Senate passed the long-debated bill to re-establish the Australian Building and Construction Commission.

The passage of the bill was hailed as a victory by a government desperate for laurels. But the amendments agreed to by the cross-bench senators that the government relied on have radically diluted the ABCC act. It now won’t cover a whole category of workplaces with a 2-year phase in. The construction industry is aghast; it looks to be a far more moderate industrial regulation. It’s hardly the unambiguous victory the government had craved.

The government also secured a deal on the vexing backpacker’s tax, a half-billion dollar saving from Joe Hockey’s 2015 budget that has run into deep opposition from rural industries and the cross-bench. Originally set at 32.5 per cent, the new tax has been steadily watered down to 10.5 per cent; Labor and the Greens want 13 per cent; the government held out for 15 per cent. In the end, the government agreed to 15 per cent, but with an extra $100 million funding for Landcare to secure the Greens’ support.

The ABCC bill is symbolically important to the right, and certainly vital to the future of the CFMEU, but has significance for a single industry only. As for the backpackers tax, I suspect few voters really care about the final rate of tax for holidaying fruit pickers.

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Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. (IMAGE: CeBIT Australia, Flickr)

Any way you look at it, this means that the government’s signature legislative achievements of the final sitting of Parliament are two relatively minor bills, neither of which affect the majority of ordinary Australians.

None of this is the vision of the broad sunlit uplands painted by Malcolm Turnbull in September 2015. The modest nature of the legislation being debated shows the poverty of the government’s second-term agenda.

What exactly does Turnbull have in mind for the citizens of Australia, beyond governing? At the end of 2016, we’re no closer to finding out. At the moment, the best you could say about the government’s agenda is that it involves union busting, race baiting and upward redistribution, but without the ideological certainty of Tony Abbott, and with considerable tactical deficiencies. Attacking unions plays well to the Liberal base, which is perhaps all Turnbull is currently focusing on.

In the meantime, the political initiative has passed to the Liberal right. It is Peter Dutton who now seems to lead the government in ideological matters, setting out to forge new political territory in hard-right immigration policies, and in overt hostility to multiculturalism. The government ends the year as divided as ever.

Whether the swing to the right on immigration will really prove an electoral winner for the Coalition remains to be seen. After the extraordinary political events of 2016 in Britain and the United States, the relatively normal political stasis of Australia seems reassuringly moderate. Whatever the provocations of Dutton, Australia does not yet seem ready to embrace the far right.

Despite his fervent hope of a quiet summer, the holiday season may not necessarily be kind to Turnbull. The government is increasingly mired in probity scandals, with unseemly controversies erupting in George Brandis’ portfolio, yet again. There are enormous international developments awaiting: the inauguration of Donald Trump as President on January 20 will mark the beginning of frightening new age of international politics.

It may be an angry summer, not a lazy one.

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Ben Eltham

Ben Eltham is New Matilda's National Affairs Correspondent.

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