Friday, July 15, 2016

Today by Sean Kelly

Turnbull discovers his voice, a little
The conservatives aren’t the whole Liberal Party

You would be forgiven for thinking, most of the time, that there was only one faction inside the Liberal Party.

Ever since the removal of Tony Abbott we have heard almost constantly about the conservatives within the government, the fact that they wouldn’t let Malcolm Turnbull off his short leash, their plans to drive this or block that or not let those things ever happen except over their dead bodies.

This week we got some encouraging signs that the other part of the Liberal Party is beginning to realise it has to fight back.

This morning, in an interview on the ABC, the nation’s first female defence minister, Marise Payne, was asked about the decreasing proportion of female MPs in her party. While not supportive of quotas, she did say “Quite frankly we have not done well enough … if there is a strategy [to increase women] it’s clearly not working.” These are strong words, and welcome. Payne is a member of her party’s progressive faction. She has also spoken out strongly against One Nation in the past.

The earlier portions of this week were partly filled by the prime minister’s declaration that he would be taking the budget in its current form – along with the super reforms it contained – to the parliament. “We’ve won the election, that’s the mandate. All of our policies that we took to the election we will deliver.”

This is significant. Lead troublemaker Senator Eric Abetz has been making noises about Turnbull’s slim margin of victory, “if we can call it a victory”. Turnbull’s words were a pre-emptive rejection of arguments along these lines. A victory, he believes, or at least intends to pretend he believes, is a victory.

Whether this is a sincerely held sentiment is irrelevant. Turnbull is right to act this way. The conservatives have a role to play, of course – but only a role. Showing authority now is the one chance he has of maintaining authority.

Superannuation is the right issue to do it on, too. The retrospectivity argument that conservatives have made – and which Labor, too, has jumped aboard – is bogus. But even if you accept that furphy, the figures make their own argument. As Laura Tingle points out today:

The argument against the $500,000 cap relies on the ‘what if someone inherits $700,000 from a dead relative and blows the cap’ scenario. Shocking, yes. Such unfortunates may be forced to pay a concessional tax rate on the amount of super that breaches the cap! For someone with $5 million of super, it might cost them between $20,000 and $50,000.

There are political benefits to Turnbull holding his moderate ground, too.

On economics, Turnbull will not win back the disaffected conservative voters in struggling regions to whom so many column inches have recently been devoted if his party seems interested only in making cuts to health and education while sparing the wealthy. This was the attack the government suffered from during the election. Some evidence is emerging that mothers worried about their children’s futures formed a significant voting bloc swinging against the Coalition at this election. The superannuation changes are a step in the right direction.

On social matters, it is unlikely to be immediately possible for Turnbull to pursue big-picture shifts like a republic. He is now tied to the marriage plebiscite. But he should be looking for other opportunities to signal that he is still socially progressive and a break from politics-as-usual. Fixing the issues Payne identified could be important (and should be done anyway). He could also move to change donations laws, including with a cap he has previously indicated support for, despite a report today in the Australian that he was forced to donate $1 million to his party himself during the campaign.

Today there were awful, catastrophic events in Nice, in France, with at least 80 people killed in an act of terrorism. September 11 2001 changed our conception of what was possible; before that day we had imagined planes could be hijacked, but not used as weapons. Now we are forced to see humble trucks as instruments of terror, too.

The debate around what measures are required to prevent acts of terror will, as it should, continue, in this nation and in others. Donald Trump’s rhetoric amped up a level today. The discussion will no doubt spread beyond terrorism itself into questions of religion. Pauline Hanson, a much less significant figure than Trump, had already, prior to Nice, called for a Royal Commission into Islam, and a ban on new mosques. Terrible events like these create a febrile atmosphere, and we are currently not short of politicians willing to take advantage of such conditions.

In such circumstances a prime minister willing to be strong – not cowboy-populist strong, but genuinely strong, in the sense of articulating reasonable arguments in the face of attempts to stir up fear – plays a crucial role. We can no doubt expect a reprisal of the right-wing arguments during the campaign that Turnbull was not making enough of national security (with the hypocritical logic that national security is so important that it should be used as a political tool). We must hope that Turnbull’s recent discovery that he can stand up to the extremes of his party extends to this area, too.


Today’s links

Sean Kelly

Sean Kelly is a columnist for Fairfax and a former adviser to Labor prime ministers Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard.



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