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Show us some backbone PM, or lose marginal seats

27 February 2016 No Comment

Show us some backbone, PM, or lose marginal seats

Malcolm Turnbull has had a scrappy few months. While some boosters in the media still are willing him to succeed, the lustre is wearing off and the disappointment certainly is starting to show.

The basic problem is that Turnbull had a plan to become Prime Minister but no plan for running a government.

He’s talked a lot about “agility and “due process, but in almost six months his government has done nothing of substance. Turnbull may be Prime Minister but, to all intents and purposes, it’s still the Abbott government.

Turnbull is Prime Minister only because Abbott won an election.

We know, more or less, what Abbott would have done because he had a record in government and in opposition; but we don’t know what Turnbull may do because he has no economic and fiscal record of his own and, so far, no clear plan.

Turnbull gave the impression that he wanted to change the GST, then he ruled it out.

Although it is far from certain, Turnbull appears to have done the same with regard to any substantial increases in the capital gains tax and changes to negative gearing. Turnbull may change superannuation; then again he may not.

He may support the states and territories if they wish to increase land tax; then again, he may not.

In any event, these are potential changes that a Labor government would most likely make and they all involve raising some taxes to reduce others.

In fact, they involve raising taxes on the most productive and aspirational people to reduce taxes on everyone else.

It’s hardly a recipe for the entrepreneurial, innovative society that Turnbull claims to want.

Policy indecision is potentially ruinous in an election year when pundits and voters expect to hear why either major party deserves their vote.

It’s hardly going to be helped by the fact most of federal cabinet weren’t there six months ago.

Perhaps the biggest problem, though, will be the inevitable tensions between the Prime Minister and Scott Morrison, who after the GST backdown can henceforth never be confident that he will have his boss’s backing once the going gets tough.

The Treasurer, already bruised once, is only too aware that the so-called “bed-wetters who shafted a first-term prime minister without thinking twice (and who often hold their seats by less than 1000 votes) will hardly stomach any serious increase in tax.

For the first time since becoming Prime Minister, Turnbull faces serious criticism, often from those who could see nought but good in him until just a few weeks ago.

Writing for Fairfax Media, Mark Kenny observed: “Turnbull’s most basic promise when replacing the gratuitous conflict machine that was the Abbott office was orderly respectful government. What has been delivered so far has fallen short of that modest goal. In fact, the early Turnbull period has been surprisingly messy, uncannily trouble-prone.

In this newspaper, David Crowe noted: “Malcolm Turnbull and Scott Morrison have been so wary of making the case for substantial tax reform that they now find the opportunity for change is slipping through their fingers.

Crowe’s colleague, Dennis Shanahan, more cautious than most about the coup to remove Abbott, has warned Turnbull not to become the other Malcolm: “Malcolm Fraser, that is, with a reputation as a do-nothing leader who squandered reform opportunities when the Coalition had big majorities and control of the Senate.

The honeymoon finally seems over for Turnbull.

This means the risk is that whatever economic and fiscal reform his seemingly spooked government tries to introduce will be piecemeal and fall well short of the expectations that were set when he took over from Abbott.

Citizens have noticed Turnbull awkwardly distancing himself from the causes close to his heart — especially same-sex marriage, climate change and republicanism.

Although it has been written up as the pragmatism required of a leader, eventually voters want their Prime Minister to believe in something and actually make decisions.

It was only a matter of time ­before serious questioning started about whether Turnbull actually stands for anything other than himself.

Until very recently, few pundits seriously envisaged the Coalition losing this year’s federal election.

But given his government’s well-deserved drop in popularity and without more evidence of the Prime Minister having a backbone as well as a jawbone, Turnbull’s marginal-seat colleagues could feel it badly on election day.

At least Turnbull’s recent ministerial reshuffle appears to have been based more on competence than patronage.

A number of talented Abbott supporters — Steve Ciobo, Connie Fierravanti-Wells, Alan Tudge, Dan Tehan, and Angus Taylor — have all been promoted.

Now that Abbott has chosen to sign up for another three years as the federal MP for Warringah, if he were sensible Turnbull should put his predecessor to work — lest Abbott’s exclusion from any formal role continue to look like malice.

Emeritus professor of history and politics at Griffith University, Ross Fitzgerald has published 38 books, including the political-sexual satire ‘Going Out Backwards: A Grafton Everest Adventure.’

The Weekend Australian, February 27-28, 2016, online. See p 18.

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