The outcome of the imminent last two weeks of Parliament will set the scene for the Christmas- New Year period during which changes in our political leaders may be foreshadowed or possibly even occur. The most prominent change in Australia in this period was probably the overthrow of Bob Hawke as leader and PM by Paul Keating on 19 December 1991. This occurred after a long period of rivalry between the two Labor leaders. The election of Trump as President and the raising of expectation of changes in government policies around the western world has also set the scene for possible leadership changes around the world.
My previous two Commentaries of 15 and 16 November have referred to analyses by three prominent journalists suggesting serious questions about the leadership shown by Turnbull. To briefly recap, on 14 November Andrew Bolt pointed out that Turnbull “still don’t get that a vote for Donald Trump was a vote against people just like you” and that his decision on the day after Trump’s win to announce the ratification of the Paris agreement expressed an “anti-Trump” attitude. On the same day, election analyst Phillip Hudson suggested that it was unclear how Turnbull plans to rebuild the trust of the Australian people. Then on 15 November Terry McCrann argued that Turnbull had only “one last chance” to “wake up and smell the prevailing winds of change, or continue to ‘comfort zone himself … into inevitable oblivion”. He suggested that Abbott was the “most realistic alternative”.
The latest development in the debate over our leadership is an article by former Treasury head, John Stone, published on 19 November in The Spectator Australia journal (see DIS-CON NOTES on The Next Abbott Ministry). This rather cheekily anticipates a challenge to Turnbull based on Stone’s view that “Turnbull is just no good at politics. If he leads the Coalition to the next election, we will have a Labor government”. Stone points out that Abbott is not undermining his leader (because “he has no need to; barely a day goes by without Turnbull doing so himself”) but that the party room can indicate it wants him back. This could, he argues, result in a much needed reduction in the size of Cabinet from its present excessive 30 to 20, the dumping of Turnbull and Bishop as ministers, the promotion of Porter to Treasurer, and the return of Andrews and Abetz to ministerial positions.
Stone accompanies this epistle with one drawing on an article published last month in The Australian by Paul Kelly, who suggested that the “recasting of conservatism” by the new PM in the UK will resonate to Australia (see this article “The Recasting of Conservatism”). Stone points out that the major beneficiary of this recasting here is One Nation, whose leader Pauline Hanson wants a much tougher attitude to immigration policy, repudiates the idea of a cosmopolitan citizenship, and is critical of elites who have little in common with those they pass in the street. She too, says Stone, is like UK PM May who believes her country should reclaim sovereignty from assorted supranational bodies, such as the UN.
It is difficult to say what might bring on a challenge to Turnbull, either by a majority in the party room or directly by Abbott himself. The Weekend Australian draws attention to the joint announcement by Cormann, the Minister of Finance, and Fifield the Minister of Communications who took over that job after Turnbull completed a two years stint as Minister and became PM. The announcement states that the National Broadband Network will need to borrow another $20 billion despite repeated assurances that it would not exceed a $29.5 billion investment cap (see the reports from The Australian “NBN Bailout” and Fifield & Cormann Release). Moreover, this borrowing will be from the government on commercial terms not from the private sector. This suggests that the additional borrowing had to be from the government because the private sector is concerned at the capacity of NBN to become the privately run body it is supposed to be. Note that one of the private sector competitors is reported in The Australian’s report as claiming that “No one will refinance a fibre-building company that is making operational losses as well as capital losses and never meets its projections unless the government is prepared to write-off the substantial capital debt of $30bn that the taxpayer has already invested,” he said.
Whatever, this development suggests that when Minister of Communications Turnbull did not establish a commercially viable framework for NBN. Indeed, his remarks to the Business Council last Thursday (see The Australian’s “NBN Bailout), that it could take about 20 years before the NBN is privatised, do not suggest his ministership was a success.
I suggested in my Commentary of 16 Nov that the importance of maximising the use of Australia’s cheap coal, and the associated Senate inquiry into the retirement of coal-fired power stations, might provide the basis for a challenge to Turnbull to state publicly that he will support a policy designed to make coal a supplier of at least 50 % of energy until 2050.