Unmasking Malcolm: The Big 5 Policy Failures of 2017
By Ben Eltham on January 9, 2018
The myth of the moderate Malcolm Turnbull dies hard, writes Ben Eltham.
Will 2018 be any different?
At the end of 2017, it was easy to think of the Turnbull government as a spent force.
Given the constant state of crisis that has bedevilled politics for years now, we can be forgiven for thinking that the government is about to fall, or that Turnbull is about to be replaced.
That would be unwise.
Politics is rarely predictable, and even if it were, the fact remains that the government is just 18 months into its second term.
Turnbull doesn’t have to call an election until late 2019. As long as he can hold his government together, Turnbull has plenty of time.
The longevity of the Turnbull government is one of the stranger aspects of Australia’s unsettled political economy.
The Coalition has ruled since September 2013, but really it has been two different governments: Abbott and Turnbull.
You need to grasp that fact to understand politics in 2018.
We are not in the fifth year of a unified Coalition government.
We are 27 months into the Turnbull administration.
Former Prime Minister Tony Abbott (left) and current Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull.
No-one could accuse the Abbott government of lacking a program: its agenda was obvious, as soon as it was elected.
Commissions of Audit, massive cuts to health and education, endless culture wars, a jihad against climate science.
Tony Abbott and his cabinet certainly stood for something.
To their bemusement, it was a something that voters rejected.
Ever since he took office, media coverage (and to a lesser extent, popular understanding) of Malcolm Turnbull’s prime ministership has been framed around wishful thinking – the desire for a particular sort of prime minister, a prime minister that Turnbull has manifestly failed to be.
The idea of a small-l liberal, moderate, progressive Malcolm Turnbull has died hard in the mediascape, even as it has quickly faded in the imagination.
Fawning admirers at Fairfax and the ABC fell over themselves to genuflect in front of a politician that could not help but identify with (the conservatives at News Corporation were a different matter).
Perhaps the paradigm example of the media love-in was when Turnbull ushered Annabel Crabb around the family mansion on Sydney Harbour; but there were plenty of others. When Turnbull announced his ill-fated ploy to call a double-dissolution election, commentators gushed.
Malcolm and Lucy Turnbull on ABC’s Kitchen cabinet, with Annabel Crabb.
In general, many in the mainstream media found themselves invested in the idea of Turnbull as a centrist saviour of Australia’s broken political process, with little more evidence than the fellow-feeling of a similarly privileged class.
The moderate image was fed by the man himself, who positioned himself successfully as a kinder and gentler Liberal, a wearer of leather jackets, a supporter of same-sex marriage, and a believer in action on climate change.
As we know now, he was none of those things.
Malcolm Turnbull no longer supports action on climate change.
He barely bothered to campaign on marriage equality.
The famous leather jacket is missing at the dry cleaners.
Malcolm Turnbull fooled many into believing he was a moderate. But he was lying.
Malcolm Turnbull is not a kinder, gentler conservative.
He has not been a moderate prime minister.
He is a wealthy lawyer and businessman whose main policy commitment appears to be to staying in power.
Turnbull’s government has been right wing in almost every significant respect, and the hopes for a small-l liberal, moderate and centrist government entertained by voters and journalists alike have been dashed.
The evidence is impossible to ignore: Turnbull is a ruthless opportunist who shows little scruples in his dealings with colleagues, with civil society, or with ordinary citizens.
27 months of government has shown us that what Malcolm Turnbull ultimately cares about is power: gaining it, holding it, and finally using it, in the interests of the ruling class to which he demonstrably belongs.
A screencap from Channel 10’s The Project, showing an awkward encounter for the Prime Minister on a train to western Sydney.
In the years since rolling Tony Abbott, media rhetoric has focused on Turnbull’s metric of 30 losing Newspolls as the reason why Abbott had to go.
Perhaps they should re-read the transcript of that first media conference.
Turnbull promised a “thoroughly Liberal government committed to freedom, the individual and the market.” In that respect, at least, he has been true to his word. Turnbull has delivered on his promise as a capital-L Liberal. His government has indeed been one committed to economic freedom, to individualism, and to the supremacy of the market.
How do we know this? Because of the policies Turnbull has implemented.
In this article, I will examine five key policy areas: climate and energy, housing, industrial relations, tax and social policy. In each of these policy areas, Malcolm Turnbull’s government has been conservative and neoliberal. It has governed in the interests of the rich and powerful, rather than ordinary citizens.
It has been, in Turnbull’s own words, “a thoroughly Liberal government.”
1. Climate and energy
Exhibit A is a lump of dead coral. There are hundreds of kilometres of dead reefs all the way up the Queensland coast.
In decades to come, when the politics of the moment have faded, this will be the true legacy of the Turnbull government.
What could better sum up its petty mendacity than the death of a natural wonder, to the cheers of a coal-fondling Treasurer?
Similarly, nothing could better illustrate the indifference of Australia’s political classes to their larger responsibilities than the shocking death of large swathes of the nation’s largest biological organism.
Historians will record that at the same time devastating bleaching was killing a tourism industry worth 70,000 jobs, Coalition ministers were glad-handing a lump of coal in federal Parliament.
2017 was the year when the government’s threadbare arguments against renewable energy were shown up for the lies they always were.
A series of detailed reports by the Australian Energy Market Operator showed the South Australian blackout of 2016 was caused by a cascade of faults beginning with a storm falling transmission lines – not renewable energy, as the government had wrongly claimed.
Cynicism barely begins to describe the dead-eyed psychopathy of the Coalition’s position on energy.
Despite talking incessantly about energy security throughout the year, the government has done precisely nothing to reform Australia’s energy system.
The risible example of the Liddell power plant in New South Wales perfectly illustrates this point.
In their bid for cheap media headlines, the government postured on the closure of a clapped-out hulk.
The Liddell controversy was the purest conservative theatre, allowing the government to gesture and preen about its fossil fuel credentials, even while its owner AGL calmly put together a replacement plan based around renewable energy.
Liddell Power Station (right) and the nearby Bayswater Power Station in the background. (IMAGE: Pete The Poet, Flickr)
For all the jawboning, in the end the government has not forced AGL to keep Liddell running. In fact, the government has not done anything at all in energy policy: a year after the delivery of Alan Finkel’s energy report, the government’s risible response is nothing but an eight page brochure.
There is no contest in Australian energy markets: renewables have won.
The days of coal are coming to an end, and no amount of Parliamentary grandstanding can change that.
Prices for wind and solar keep falling; decrepit old coal plants keep breaking down.
The rapid and convincing success of South Australia’s new 100MW Tesla grid battery is the most mediagenic example: after ridiculing the South Australian government for its energy policy, the federal Coalition has been forced to watch on with gritted teeth as the southern state has made good on its energy infrastructure promises.
Of course, energy policy is not really about the future of Australian energy system, at least not for the government.
It is instead about the internal politics of the Liberal Party, and the donors to that party in the resources sector.
For reasons that have nothing to do with the environment, and everything to do with ideology and money, energy and climate have become litmus tests for conservative doctrine.
Chest-puffing symbolism has become more important for the conservative faithful than any meaningful engagement with the real world, which is heating up rapidly and endangering the future of our children and grandchildren. The real world is also rapidly transforming its energy system. The myopic and stupid figures at the nexus of money and power in the Liberal Party are blind to this reality. But it is happening anyway.
In the meantime, Australia’s carbon emissions are rising. They are rising because the Turnbull government wants them to. That’s what happens when you abolish a tax on carbon, and refuse to regulate against fossil fuel pollution. That’s what happens when your entire energy policy is anti-renewable, and pro-coal. Rising emissions are Coalition policy.
Press link for more: New Matilda