Turnbull’s First Year

As the end of the first year of Turnbull’s Prime Ministerialism draws nigh, assessments of his performance are appearing in the media from various quarters. The Weekend Australian’s lead article reports former Treasurer Peter Costello as not directly criticising Turnbull but as calling on the Liberal Party to “explain better its agenda, motivations and priorities” and to “smash the high-tax cheer squad”. The AFR has even published a survey of the views of 50 people regarding his achievements and, in the range from A to F, has awarded him only a D+ (see Results Turnbull’s AFR Survey).  In fact, almost all commentators in the media (including journalists themselves) have reservations about Turnbull’s contribution to the political debate and to where Australia is or should be heading. While they tend to focus on how he has been performing recently against Shorten or on specific issues, rather than the longer term and broader perspective, this suggests that there may not be a ready recovery of Turnbull’s personal polling in the current session of Parliament. This despite  Shorten’s poor handling of the contradiction of Labor’s foreign policy in statements made by Shadow Minister Senator Dastyari.

Of course, Turnbull should be helped by his numerous appearances in the media from his many meetings with world/regional leaders at the G20, EAS, and Pacific Islands Forum. Indeed, one suspects this was a factor in his decision to attend the Pacific Island Forum notwithstanding that it occurred immediately after the other two conferences were scheduled to discuss issues of seemingly greater importance, not to mention domestic issues. I note that even though he was still in Micronesia after the Pacific Islands Forum there, Turnbull felt impelled to respond almost immediately to the achievements questions/ comments and to ensure that the media reported his claim  that he has “a long list of achievements”.

Below I consider some aspects of the Turnbull “reign” and his recent performance while overseas.

G20 and other Conferences

My last Commentary focussed on the G20 conference and drew attention to some inferences from the bilateral meetings and/or the press briefings by some leaders. The post G20 conferences attended by Turnbull have covered the East Asia Summit in Laos and the Pacific Islands Forum (the EAS has 18 members who meet annually after the meeting of the 10 members of ASEAN, which does not include Western countries or Japan or China). He is probably the only leader of the 20 to have attended all three and it seems fair to suggest that he envisaged that he would receive considerable favourable publicity in Australian media just from meeting other world or regional leaders. Which he has.

He probably also envisaged that there would be few “difficult” policy issues for which he would be potentially open to criticism in Parliament on his return. This also appears to be the case, although that is probably mainly because most  of our media is unable to adequately assess what Australia’s policies should be in the longer term. An example of this is the report by David Crowe in Friday’s Australian (see this article on Crowe’s Article on Turnbull Overseas). Crowe, who is one of the more sensible and intelligent journalists, wrote that Turnbull was wrongly criticised (by Andrew Bolt) a year ago for favouring a “political” solution to the Syrian situation. I have responded to that in a letter published in the Weekend Australian (see Letter on Crowe Article) by suggesting that ISIS is unlikely to be defeated unless attacked militarily. My letter also refers to other issues to which it appears Turnbull did not adequately address, such as:

  • While the US is supporting the so-called rebels in Syria, Turnbull is not reported as responding to Putin’s comment that he (Putin) was fighting for the “legitimate” government in Syria (which Putin regards as Assad) or to his question to Turnbull “who are you fighting for?”. (Separately, Turnbull has not indicated what Putin said when Turnbull told him that those responsible for shooting down the Malaysian airline should be brought to justice);
  • Turnbull’s comments that Australia does not have to choose between positions taken on the South China sea dispute  by China and the US raise doubts about the US alliance. Of course, Australia does not have to agree with every US policy. But  given that the US has declared that part of the sea area should continue legally to be open to traffic, that the US has sent ships through, and that Turnbull has supported the arbitral decision on access to the sea, any decision by Australia to support the Chinese position would run counter to the US alliance  (Turnbull has also refused to indicate whether or not Australia intends to send a ship through);

To divert, it should be added here that Turnbull is not the only leader to make inadequate responses on international policy issues. Obama has also used the back-up of threatening  “serious consequences” if North Korea continues to send missiles into seas which are outside its legitimate zone or if nothing is done to overcome the Syrian war. Whether this response to the latest (and largest ever) NK nuclear explosion underground will produce any effective tightening of sanctions must be doubted. Similarly, it is questionable whether there will be any substantive effect from  yesterday’s reported agreement between the US and Russia regarding a Syrian ceasefire starting tomorrow: the Russian foreign minister, Lavrov, said only that the Syrian regime had been informed of the terms of the arrangement and was prepared to adhere to them and US Secretary of State, Kerry, did no more than say that the deal  is dependent on the adherence of all parties, both regime and opposition, and is not built on trust –  “It is an opportunity and not more than that until it becomes a reality”. The trouble is that the reality of aggressive action by countries like China and Russia (and even by tiny NK too) will only be countered if the other side is itself prepared to take aggressive action which would not be acceptable domestically except in dire circumstances.

It should be added here that at the Pacific Forum Turnbull announced a grant of $300 mn to help combat global warming (see Pacific Island’s Assistance for C Change). The references to C Change in his statement are highly sympathetic  to the dangerous warming thesis and arguably go beyond his election promise to the National Party not to make new commitments. See also below for comments on international developments on that issue.

AFR Survey on Attitudes to Turnbull

As a component of the Fairfax Press, albeit with a more middle of the road approach, it is rather surprising that the Financial Review has given such attention to the D+ result from a survey of the views of 50 individuals about Turnbull’s performance in his first year as PM.  The AFR’s accompanying article to the survey -“MUST TRY HARDER” – discusses some of the views of those surveyedand publishes in AFR WEEKEND a summary of the views of 7 of those surveyed. Below is the published view of John Stone, who along with academic economist Nick Economou awarded a “Fail”, while one of the seven surveyed and published awarded an E, three a D, and only two gave a C. Of course, surveys are open to different interpretations but the extent of the questioning is of considerable interest as are the views (only published digitally) ofall the various individuals surveyed (see Views of Individual Respondents to AFR Survey). The lack of any coherent attention to economic reforms emphasises the need for the Turnbull government to do more to “sell” the message.

John Stone    How do you rate the PMs Performance (F)

Former Qld Nats, 1987-90, Secretary to the Treasury, 1979-84.

Category Economists.

What are the prime minister’s greatest achievements in the past year?
Apart from succeeding (at last!) in becoming PM it is hard to think of anything that could be called an achievement. Some might say that winning the recent election was one such, but to adapt the verdict on the Duke of Marlboroughs victory over the French at Malplaquet, many more such achievements like that and the Liberal Party will be undone.

What is the prime minister’s greatest missed opportunity in the past year?
His failure, time after time, to provide the leadership, including the new economic narrative, that he promised on September 14 last year.

What should Mr Turnbull do over the next year?
Focus, firstly, on bringing the budget deficit under control; secondly, the cause of freedom  of speech by moving to amend Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act (which would involve backing down his present obduracy on that matter) thereby helping to heal the split within his party.

Further comments on Mr Turnbull’s first year in power
Twelve months of dithering from beginning to end.

Climate Change

Some media attention has been given to the fact that newly elected Senator Malcolm Roberts (a member of the Hanson group) is a sceptic on global warming with considerable expertise about the issues. He is scheduled to give his maiden speech on Tuesday 13 September at 5.00 pm and the speech can be heard live online  or after the speech here. It is hoped that, with an elected MP, Australian media might start to give more attention to sceptical views and to the reality that  no consensus exists on the so-called science backing the dangerous warming thesis.

It is relevant that in the UK at least one newspaper regularly publishes a column by sceptic Christopher Booker, whose excellent books Scared to Death (2007) and The Global Warming Disaster (2010) expose the defects in that thesis and the enormous waste of public money being spent on subsidising alternative energies. Equally unwarranted is the subsidisation of protective measures against natural disasters because they are said to be increasing: even the last IPCCC report said that does not appear to be the case. Attached is Booker’s recent article on the Paris agreement (Booker in Sunday Telegraph), which he claims will not stop the building of new coal-fired power stations sufficient to “ensure that their CO2 emissions will rocket”. While this may seem an exaggeration, Booker has a good record of exposing the problems with global warming. Turnbull should improve his knowledge of climate change by inviting Booker to come to Australia and address some business functions in particular.

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