What happened to good government?

JUST when we thought those days were behind us, a familiar and unmistakable air of chaos has descended upon the Turnbull Government.

Remember that one of Malcolm Turnbull’s big selling points in his leadership coup was he would restore good processes and a sense of order to the running of the government after the dysfunction of the Abbott era.

Of course, Abbott made a similar promise when he was elected Prime Minister; remember his “a serious country deserves an adult government” quote to the National Press Club just before the 2013 election?

But a growing atmosphere of panic, coupled with policy paralysis, just a few months out from the election has broken the aura of impregnability that Turnbull once had.

Speaking on the night he became leader, he promised a change from the haphazardness of the past.

But it’s all gone to hell in a hand basket at a rapid pace.

Three ministers gone in two months

On Friday, Turnbull was forced to sack his Human Services Minister, the little-known Stuart Robert — the third minister who has had to resign in less than two months.

Robert’s sin was to involve himself in a private business deal between a Liberal donor and a Chinese minerals company, in breach of the ministerial standards.

The fact that the activities took place before Turnbull became leader makes little difference.

Robert’s resignation follows the dumping on the same day in late December of Special Minister for State Mal Brough, and the Minister for Cities and the Built Environment, Jamie Briggs.

Brough is under a police investigation for his role in the events that brought down former Speaker Peter Slipper, and it was appalling misjudgement by Turnbull to appoint him in the first place.

Briggs, who was an Abbott supporter kept on by Turnbull, brought himself undone during some late night hijinks with a junior female Australian bureaucrat while on a junket in Hong Kong.

Three resignations in a such a short period of time is not a sign of a functional government.

Then we have the retirements last week of some senior and respected wise heads in Trade Minister Andrew Robb and Deputy Prime Minister Warren Truss.

Truss’ departure has caused particularly difficulties for Turnbull, because while he may have been known as mogadon man for his ability to send an audience to sleep whenever he spoke, Truss did manage to keep the Nationals in line.

New Nationals leader Barnaby Joyce will be much harder to control. Joyce — whose personality can be politely described as erratic — is like a bull in a china shop, and has threatened in the past to cross the floor to vote against his Coalition partner.

His elevation as leader adds a new level of unpredictability to the Coalition relationship, which is the last thing Turnbull wants right now.

He is already presiding over a divided Liberal Party. Tony Abbott’s refusal to quit Parliament and instead act as a lightning rod for ultra-conservatives and Turnbull-haters means that leadership issues will remain in the spotlight.

Not surprisingly, this chaotic atmosphere has also infected decision making, leading to policy paralysis within the government.

A case in point was Abbott’s recent visit to the United States, where he spoke as the nominal leader of Australian conservatives.

A story from that visit, which falsely described a lunch Abbott attended as a private meeting with Barack Obama, was deliberately leaked to cause further discomfort for Turnbull.

It is now clear that Abbott and his supporters are not prepared to forgive and forget, and are determined to cause as much mischief as they can. Meanwhile, civil war has broken out between conservative and moderate factions of the NSW Liberal Party over pre-selections for a number of federal seats.

The Cabinet reshuffle announced on Saturday was an attempt to re-establish some order and was made with one eye cast towards the election, but no-one was fooled.

Not surprisingly, this chaotic atmosphere has also infected decision making, leading to policy paralysis within the government.

Approaching six months in office, Turnbull does not have a single significant policy change to put to his name. On just about every issue, he is either treading water or avoiding upsetting Abbott and his backers.

The public is growing tired of the disconnect between the rhetoric of the new Prime Minister and the lack of action coming out of Canberra.

The paralysis has become so deep that the signature policy of tax reform has already been watered down significantly.

Fearing a voter backlash, Turnbull has dumped any plans to raise the GST. So much for the great economic reformer he said he would be.

And there are now reports surfacing of tension between Turnbull and Treasurer Scott Morrison over the GST backdown.

As a result of these mis-steps, discomfort with Turnbull is now being reflected in the polls, and Bill Shorten and Labor are back in the game.

They can chalk the retreat on the GST rise as a victory. While it may mean the scare campaign they wanted to run will be more difficult, voters should give credit to Labor for sparing them from a tax hike.

Now Labor has moved onto the privatisation of Medicare as the next target, and if Turnbull persists with his “I won’t rule anything in or out” mantra, Labor will be onto a winner there as well.

After a long time in the doldrums, there were signs late last week that Bill Shorten also feels like he is back in with a chance and he too sees the chaos and dysfunction in the government as an opportunity for Labor.

“It’s only a matter of time before Mr Turnbull says in his courtyard ‘good government starts today’,” Shorten quipped last Thursday.

It’s important to remember that the election may still be more than six months away, which gives Turnbull plenty of time to rebuild his stocks.

But given the way he has started the year, he no longer seems as invincible as he once did.


Following last week’s column, which lauded the Australian union movement for its principled and consistent stand for a compassionate and humane immigration policy, including the end to offshore processing, it was refreshing to see the ACTU take out a full-page advertisement in the national daily to push the case.

The colour ad, which was on page 11 of Thursday’s Australian newspaper, carried a quote from ACTU Secretary Dave Oliver:

“As a father, I ask myself this question: could I take the hand of a child and lead him up the gang plank or put him on a plane to send them back to Nauru? And I couldn’t, and I couldn’t expect anyone else to do that.”

The quote came from the ABC’s Q&A program last Monday night, when Oliver draw sustained applause when he challenged Melbourne shock jock Neil Mitchell, who supports offshore processing.

Mitchell had no answer and for a moment looked as if he might be ready to reverse his position.

Sadly, despite the growing weight of public opinion for a change of policy, neither the Coalition nor Labor look like shifting from their retention of the Nauru and Manus Island detention centres any time soon.

But for those of us in the union movement, the leadership shown by the ACTU was another reason to be proud to be union.

Originally published at workinglife.org.au on February 15, 2016.

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