The Turnbull government loves to announce big new policies, but can’t get any of them to stick
Cliché alert. The definition of insanity, Albert Einstein reputedly said, is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. Whatever its veracity, this rule is one that appears more apt as regards the workings of Malcolm Turnbull’s federal government.
In Turnbull’s case, his administration’s insanity is its fetish for a policy reset. This is a government in perpetual search for that one big-bang announcement that will fundamentally chart a new course of electoral popularity or provide a boost in the latest Newspoll.
Rinse, repeat has yet to achieve any meaningful results for Turnbull and co. It had little effect in the lead-up to the 2016 federal election, when the prime minister stumbled from one big policy reset to another.
Think of his announcements, mooted or otherwise – and the more impolite might term them thought bubbles – in relation to increasing the rate of the Good and Services Tax, a plan hastily abandoned after a messy debate conducted in public by the Coalition.
Shortly afterwards, Turnbull had another grand plan, announced, in all places, on the outskirts of a suburban Sydney sporting ground. He would lead “the most fundamental reform to the Federation in generations”, wherein the states and territories could levy their own income tax. Within two days, following a humiliating Council of Australian Governments meeting, the reform was shelved. Changes to capital gains tax and negative-gearing arrangements were also flagged and hastily dropped. The prospect of high-speed rail came and went within the space of a day. As policy backflips went, in 2016 Turnbull was the Nadia Comăneci of Australian politics. For that and a host of other well-documented reasons, Turnbull just scraped back into government off the back of a one-seat victory. Undeterred, towards the end of 2016, Turnbull had to kill off talk of an emissions intensity scheme.
2017 has witnessed an uptick in “big new policy” insanity: reducing wholesale gas prices (Turnbull later admitted he could achieve little in this space, it was all about “downward pressure”). A few weeks ago the prime minister latched onto a new modus operandi – it was all about “Australia first”. 457 visas were to be “axed”, even though a virtually identical scheme emerged, phoenix-like. Soon afterwards, “Australia first” was extended to values-laden reforms to citizenship requirements and migrant visas. Amid the growing housing affordability crisis, the government mooted an extraordinary proposal to allow first home buyers to use their superannuation to buy a house. Just this week, Turnbull has embraced the needs-based funding model designed by David Gonski during the Gillard years, a policy long opposed by the Coalition. Gonski himself has been recruited to chair (another) review into education policy. As part of “Gonski 2.0”, 24 of our wealthiest schools will see their funding reduced; another 350 will received less than earlier expected. In effect, the “new” policy simply limits the cuts contained in Tony Abbott’s 2014 Budget to a mere $10 billion. As the Catholic school system limbers up for a fight with the Turnbull government, a betting man or woman would be sorely tempted to wager on yet another policy backflip.
The comparison with Labor could not, at this point in the electoral cycle, be starker. Labor has focused relentlessly on housing affordability, penalty rates and other home turf issues. As conservative Daily Telegraph commentator Tim Blair, no supporter of the Opposition leader, wrote this week: “[Bill Shorten] doesn’t back down. And he sticks to his points.”
The prime minister is, to borrow a phrase, certainly agile and innovative. Few would deny his formidable intellect, which makes his penchant for policymaking on the run perplexing to the public. Or perhaps it shouldn’t surprise at all. It is not merely that Turnbull is ill-suited to the iron self-discipline required of a sitting prime minister, or that he is effectively held captive by the hard right of his own party. This is a nearly four-year-old government obsessed with the news cycle and haunted by the spectre of its policymaking-free Opposition years. Indeed, at this rate, next week’s budget, notwithstanding Treasurer Scott Morrison’s recent talk of “good debt” and “bad debt”, might conjure – even rinse and repeat – Tony Abbott’s desultory 2014 effort. That’s if the Australian electorate haven’t stopped listening altogether.
Nick Dyrenfurth is the executive director of the John Curtin Research Centre. He is the author or editor of seven books, including A Little History of the Australian Labor Party, Mateship: A Very Australian History, A New History of the AWU and All That’s Left. Nick is an adjunct research fellow in the National Centre for Australian Studies at Monash University.