What Next for Turnbull?
Turnbull’s attempted recovery from declining polls appears to involve two immediate strategies. First, expose and publicise dubious activity by Shorten when he was head of the AWU. Second, attack the energy policy adopted by Shorten now that he is leader of the Opposition. This approach seems to have been welcomed by most members of the Coalition and praised by some in the media, both of whom reacted with comments to the effect “why the hell has he taken this long to point out the defects in Shorten as Labor leader” or words to that effect.
However, some also question the extent to which this will work in practice.
Yesterday’s Herald Sun carried an article by veteran commentator Laurie Oakes suggesting that “One intensely personal speech bagging the Opposition Leader might take the heat off Turnbull for a while, but it will not solve the problem for the PM in the longer term. He needs to apply the same passion and rhetorical skill to explaining his policies and disproving Labor’s case” (see attached Oakes on Turnbull). Spot on.
In fact, yesterday’s AFR did have an article which suggests that Minister for Employment, Senator Michaelia Cash, might be allowed by Turnbull to emerge from her semi-retirement and introduce legislation to cover “ gifts such as free travel and housing renovations ‘reasonably soon’ and require greater disclosure of gifts to union officials, a government spokesman said. It is unclear how the law would work if the union leader had a family-like relationship with the employer” (see Cash on Shorten Relationship with Pratt.). Such action would of course be a reform of sorts but it would not do more than touch on the massive reforms needed to the regulation of workplace relations and the role of the Fair Work Commission, on which Turnbull has made only limited legislative progress by pursuing Abbott’s ABCC initiative.
More to the point perhaps may be that the new (sic) Turnbull himself makes greater use of the Heydon Royal Commission’s report, which as the article notes “identified four separate cases where the AWU received payments that may have been corrupt between 2003 and 2010. The findings, where were referred to police, led to a demotion for Mr Shorten’s protege and successor at the Victorian division, Cesar Melhem, in the Victorian Parliament, where he is now a Labor MP”. There is scope to use such findings (why are they still with the police?) to not only attack Shorten personally but justify the case for more broadly based reforms. As mentioned in my Commentary on Thursday, former Treasurer Costello told the HR Nicholls AGM dinner that the government has not yet made any response to the resignation from the FWC of Vice President Graeme Watson and his exposure of the unworkability of that body.
As to Energy Policy, Turnbull is on delicate ground in attacking the Opposition on “extreme” targets for using renewable energy when the Government itself has a target of 23 percent by 2020, which experts say is not achievable and which would in any event put Australia ahead of most Western countries. This article by Chris Kenny outlines the absurd situation in which South Australia has got itself under its Labor government (but on which Liberal leader Marshall seems unable to announce opposition on energy policy notwithstanding continued blackouts). But the problem extends beyond South Australia to the Turnbull government. As Kenny says,
“The serious complication for Malcolm Turnbull is that while Weatherill’s climate crusade is all his own doing and the political consequences for him ought to be dire, it has all occurred under a federal RET that has had bipartisan support. It is classic case of our muddled federation where we have different levels of government acting at cross-purposes. Setting a national RET at less than 25 per cent doesn’t stop self-harming states using it to achieve their own unilateral targets of 50 per cent (Queensland is aiming for 50 per cent, Victoria 40 per cent and Western Australian Labor has been flirting with 50 per cent).The states are responsible for their own foolhardiness. And the Turnbull government’s RET ambitions seem eminently responsible compared to Bill Shorten’s shapeless and uncosted plan to more than double the RET to 50 per cent by 2030. Yet Turnbull and his Environment and Energy Minister, Josh Frydenberg, need to deal with the reality that the current chaos is occurring under a RET to which they subscribe.Remedial action is urgently needed to turn their political ascendancy on energy policy into a practical prescription’.
Turnbull may try to escape from the problem by drawing on advice from Chief Scientist Finkel, who has been commissioned to review energy security. But experts outside government say that Finkel has no background in climate policy and is likely to produce a report which would accept the use of “up to” a limit of renewable sources. The AFR is running an article this weekend (not accessible digitally) which mistakenly claims that Finkel is “highly regarded”. Finkel has also chosen a panel of two supporters of climate change policy. The article quotes Finkel as saying it would be “hard to change the rules” for South Australia but limits on renewable might be an option for other states. That would of course create a (further) problem for federal-state relations and raise the question as to how the Commonwealth would enforce limits.
As previously suggested, the Turnbull government needs to change its climate policy by markedly reducing the target for renewable on the ground that it has adverse economic effects and telling states that it will reduce grants to any who do not observe the lower target. That would indicate that we have a really “new” Turnbull. Perhaps an opportunity for our new Conservative Party to move in the Senate?