Nick Economou

When he took over the Liberal leadership from Tony Abbott, prime minister Malcolm Turnbull committed to instituting what he described as a more traditional, Westminster-style government in which ministers would be consulted and decisions would be the product of careful thought, writes Dr Nick Economou.

At that particular moment, voter approval of Turnbull and his Liberal-National coalition government surged after nearly two years of being in the doldrums. All seemed to be going well for the new prime minister.

Turnbull should have gone to an early election at precisely that moment, citing the need to establish a new mandate for his government and giving himself the luxury of seeking to make policy at the beginning of an election cycle, rather than try to make changes just months ahead of an election. But, in a show of just how lacking he is in political acumen, Mr Turnbull demurred, preferring instead to start a meandering debate about tax reform that broached everything from raising the GST to cutting the company tax rate but which, at the end, achieved absolutely nothing.

Indeed, this has been a recurring theme in the Turnbull government.

Just like the tax debate, the government’s stated interest in looking at weekend penalty rates (a sure vote loser in the marginal seats if ever there was one) has come to nothing. The government decided one afternoon to do something about the Senate, rushed through a series of confusing changes the Senate voting system seemingly as a pretext to calling a double dissolution election, and then – nothing.

The latest manifestation of the Turnbull approach involved the complex world of federal-state relations. With a meeting of the Council of Australian Government (COAG) due, the prime minister suddenly came up with a ‘radical’ and ‘innovative’ plan for re-structuring federal-state financial relations.

The states, he declared, would be allowed to levy their own income taxes.

This statement was made on the Wednesday.

On the Thursday the treasurer, Scott Morrison, made a brave attempt at looking like he had been consulted on this and that he was vaguely in agreement. On the Friday the state premiers said there was no way they would sign up to such a deal. By Friday night, a crestfallen prime minister declared the matter to have been deferred pending further consultation.

Apart from the errors in Turnbull’s assumptions (the states have always had the constitutional power to levy their own income taxes – the reason why they do not is political in that no mainstream state politician would seriously think they could win an election promising a new tax), the scheme proposed by the prime minister was never going to get the support of those states and territories whose economic capacity would not be strong enough to raise the sort of money, they would have to secure to offset a cut in federal transfers (Tasmania, South Australia and the Northern Territory). Queensland and Western Australia, meanwhile, would be reluctant to give up a system that has advantaged them over the long haul.

Turnbull might have contemplated forcing the issue in a way not dissimilar to the brutalisation of state finances by then Labor treasurer Paul Keating back in 1987 in a bid to force state compliance with the Commonwealth’s deficit-cutting and privatisation, but there are great electoral dangers in doing such things.

Keating embarked upon a cut to funds to the states after the 1987 election leaving prime minister Hawke some time to try to resolve the political consequences. Labor did manage to win the 1990 election, but did so with a minority of the national two-party vote.

Getting stuck in to the states might thrill political commentators but it clearly carries significant electoral danger for any government. Malcolm Turnbull can’t afford to alienate states like Queensland and Tasmania given the number of marginal seats the conservative hold in both states.

In effect, the premiers have saved Mr Turnbull from himself, although this latest manifestation of his really poor policy-making skills may yet be contributing to a loss in voter enthusiasm for him and his government.

The Turnbull approach has the potential to do harm to the government on many fronts. Apart from the challenge for any reformer to make changes just ahead of an election, the Turnbull approach is damaging the reputation of his ministerial colleagues who have been constantly marooned by the inability of Turnbull’s forays to result in any real outcomes.

This has been nowhere more evident in the way Scott Morrison’s reputation as a successful minister has been transformed by his shift from Immigration to Treasury.

If this keeps up, the Coalition may well be looking at election defeat!

Voters desire order and stability in politics and governance. If Turnbull continues to launch in to fruitless reform programs that leave the responsible ministers looking weak and indecisive, then the leader will find that the party room will become a problem.

It is noticeable that the strongest block of support for Turnbull in the leadership vote came from ministers and parliamentary secretaries who were clearly unhappy with the way they, as the heart of the government, were being treated by the previous leader.

Turnbull can’t continue to deal with policy in a way that exposes his ministerial colleagues to ridicule in ways as keeps happening to Scott Morrison. The next federal election is the Coalition’s to lose, and if Turnbull manages the debate like he did last week then a loss may well be on the cards.

(Dr Nick Economou teaches Politics at Monash University’s Clayton campus and is a regular commentator on Australian Radio and Television)

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