Winding Down the 2016 Year

Assessing Turnbull’s “Fightback”

We are used to politicians changing their policy positions but, when they do, a question inevitably arises as to whether to accept the latest version as a genuine change. This is particularly relevant to policy positions announced by Turnbull given his well-known history of critiques of Liberal Party policies. So, how to assess what The Weekend Australian’s Paul Kelly describes as “a repositioning of Turnbull” and a preparedness all of a sudden to assault Shorten on character grounds (see Paul Kelly on Turnbull 26-27 Nov 2016)? In fact, not all the change-rationales are canvassed in Kelly’s piece – for example, Turnbull may have at last realised that “something has to be done” to reverse Labor’s favourable polling and to minimise the risk of a challenge to his leadership by Abbott during the Christmas-New Year period.

Kelly asserts that there is no support for Abbott to return to cabinet but Abbott has also been busywith a request that he write a sequel to his 2009 book Battlelines, which his publisher says would make the case for the Liberal Party to return to its conservative roots. He is also having a range of policy ideas costed by the Parliamentary Budget Office, a clear sign he intends to contribute to public policy debate in the Coalition in the period ahead.

Judging by the “LEADERS’ DECLARATION” (Communiqué) made at the two day APEC meeting  in Peru on 19-20 Nov (the theme of Quality Growth and Human Development could have been for any recent international conference), Turnbull would have had plenty of time to cogitate at Lima where delegates seemed to spend much time taking selfies with Obama at his last international conference. Indeed, Turnbull wasted no time on return getting back to business and giving two addresses to Parliament, one on counter-terrorism and the other on the Federal Government’s involvement in investment in infrastructure. Both read as if they could be election policy speeches and an attempt to convince the electorate that his interests lie right of centre. Strangely, neither of these addresses received any significant coverage in the media.

The Infrastructure address on 24 November refers to a 15 year old plan and covers five areas, viz urban rail plans with willing state governments for our five biggest cities, reforms to heavy vehicle user charging, appointment of an eminent Australian to lead extensive community consultation on the costs and benefits of road pricing for all vehicles, and the development of a strategy to increase the productivity and efficiency of Australia’s freight supply chain. An Infrastructure Financing Unit will be established in Turnbull’s own portfolio. The address is replete with generalities but gives the impression that a Turnbull government plans to become heavily involved in the planning and financing of projects operated by the States (see Turnbull on Infrastructure).The increased emphasis on centralist government activity is scarcely to be welcomed given the difficulties being experienced by the Turnbull government on numerous fronts.

The address on 23 November is of particular interest.  He spoke about the importance of counter-terrorism measures (see the text of Turnbull on Counter-Terrorism) and gave the impression that this was a “key-focus” in his discussions with other leaders in Lima (there is no reference to terrorism in the LEADERS’ DECLARATION).  His statement did not however refer to the influence of Islamism (“virulently anti-western ideology” was about the closest he got to religion) but noted that 55 charges involving terrorist threats have been made since September 2014 and that a review had identified some areas that required further attention including how best to protect public places and mass gatherings. About time.

Importantly, Turnbull also refers to the empowering of military to kill “a broader range” of Daesh operatives, the commencement of offensive cyber capabilities, the ability to place control orders on persons 14 years or older, and the ongoing detention of high risk terrorist offenders who are approaching the end of their custodial sentences but continue to pose an unacceptable risk of committing a serious terrorism offence if released. It appears that legislation to implement these powers has yet to be passed but will doubtless be discussed at a meeting with the states on 9 December as well as providing a challenge to Shorten. Turnbull rightly says that “when we see extremist behaviour it should be called out for what it is. And when we see vulnerability it should be addressed”.

It remains to be seen how far, and with what vigour, Turnbull “repositions” himself in these and other areas and whether that improves the Coalition’s polling.

Dutton on Fraser’s Mistakes

Turnbull’s address on counter-terrorism was followed by his public support of Dutton in a dispute which developed after Dutton told Andrew Bolt in an interview that the Fraser government had made a mistake in allowing a large scale entry of Lebanese Muslims without making adequate security checking. The dispute developed because Dutton indicated that (to quote Bolt) “22 of the 33 people arrested for terrorism offences are from Lebanese background, even though Lebanese make up only 20 per cent of Muslims here. Moreover, of the first 21 Australians jailed here for terrorism offences, at least four were born in Lebanon and seven more to Lebanese families” (see Bolt on Lebanese Muslims). Shorten used this reference to attack Dutton as being a racist and The Age editorial continued in its eyes-half-shut way by describing it as “a disgraceful appeal to prejudice … set out to besmirch the legacy of migration to Australia during the Fraser years”. This of course is nonsensical: Dutton made it clear that he was only referring to a small proportion of the Lebanese and was not seeking to denigrate the whole group. His comments should have been welcomed as indicating the importance of having the strongest possible security checking not only of immigrants but of those already here who may be behaving in a way that suggests extremist Islamic behaviour.

The reported arrest of the influential Islamic State  sympathiser (Australian Neil Prakash) at the Turkish border highlights the importance of preventing activism by such terrorists: it is reported that he was for a year the face of Islamic jihad in Australia and was involved in plots to attack Anzac Day commemorations.

Trump’s Policies Unclear But His Election is Influencing Support for Changes in Governments

Comments made by Trump during an interview at the NY Times have led to expressions of concern as to whether Trump has done a back-flip on major policies now that he has won the Presidency (see Trump Back-Flips?). From promising to investigate Clinton’s behaviour, for example, he moved to telling the Times “She went through a lot and suffered greatly in many different ways, and I am not looking to hurt them at all. The campaign was ­vicious,” adding that launching an investigation was “not something I feel very strongly about”. He also indicated that he would ease his stance on climate, saying he was “open-minded” on supporting global accords and appeared to soften his pledge to pull the US out of ­accords such as last year’s COP21 Paris Agreement, which binds countries to national pledges to reduce greenhouse emissions. “I’m looking at it very closely. I have an open mind to it,” he told the Times.

Although some of his previous statements, such as building walls across the US-Mexican border and making Mexico pay for it,  were clearly “over the top”, it is difficult to believe that Trump will make major withdrawals from his previous attitudes. And there are no public indications that his close colleagues/appointees are trying to persuade him to change. One possible explanation for the apparent changes in attitude is that, as Trump is still interviewing people for his Cabinet and to head important departments, he wants to avoid taking firm policy positions at this time. This would be particularly pertinent to foreign policy given that there has been open dispute as to who should be Secretary of State under Trump.

Outside America the election of Trump is causing new thinking about the structure of governments (see this article on The Threat to Existing Governments in Europe). With Presidential elections already underway in France (to be held in April/May next year), that thinking and the apparent inability of Hollande to govern (although standing again his polling is down to +4 %) has raised the seemingly impossible possibility (for France) that an economic rationalist, Francois Fillon (a former PM), has  a good chance of winning. But the most serious concern is reflected in the analysis by the authoritative Gatehouse Institute on 24 November suggesting that France is “on the verge of collapse”, with increasing “no-go” zones for non-Muslims and strong support for jihadism amongst French Muslims (see France on the Verge of Total Collapse). In the Netherlands the decision to prosecute the elected Geert Wilders for making provocative remarks about Moroccans is likely to have adverse political implications for the government even if he is acquitted. In Italy there is a constitutional referendum in December and that has led to reports that a favourable result for the existing government may lead to proposals for Italy to withdraw from the EU. German general elections late in 2017 may also lead to new thinking given that Merkel will have had three periods in office and may be exposed to recriminations for her open borders policy and the adverse effects that has had for many Germans.

These various developments in other countries should be seen as warnings for Australians. But the extent of opposition to Dutton’s exposure of the adverse effects from a small section of Lebanese Muslims is not encouraging. As I have previously suggested, the Turnbull government needs to make a comprehensive statement on the threat from extremist Islamic sources.

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