Turnbull on the “loose”
As I experienced a bout of flu, I have had a “enforced” quiet period for a week (my last Commentary was on Monday 17 July). During that past week, however, it was impossible not to notice Turnbull being unusually active on a number of political fronts attempting to improve the Coalition’s — and his own– polling. My conclusion is that any improvement is unlikely: rather the opposite.
His most important decision was to announce a major change in Ministerial responsibilities which, he claims, implements a major reform and was presented as a “big” policy announcement. But, as discussed further below, it involves no reform and is designed more to combat the accusation that he has neglected the conservative side of the Coalition and to show Abbott and his cohorts that he (Turnbull) can do more than just debate possible major reforms, as he did before with possible tax reforms. Looking back, it seems likely that, while overseas at the G20 meeting (7-8 July) and an official visit to France and the UK shortly after, Turnbull was using discussions with various leaders to help develop an activist strategy designed to lift his appeal back home.
An obvious issue requiring attention was Turnbull’s climate policy and his response to the Finkel report, but his only public comment on such policy after returning from overseas was his 15 July address to the LNP convention in Brisbane. At that convention he said nothing about Finkel but told the assembly how important coal is. Interestingly, this was reportedly greeted with applause, but Turnbull has yet to give any hint as to just how important coal might be in his policy, if of any significance at all.
His proposal to establish a new Ministry of Home Affairs headed by Immigration Minister Dutton will maintain there the responsibility for immigration but will also assume responsibility for ASIO, Australian Federal Police and two other security/intelligence agencies. Despite claims that such a possible change has been under Turnbull’s consideration for some time, these announced changes lacked detail and will not become operative until early next year (assuming the needed legislative changes pass the Senate). Thus Turnbull’s Media Release concludes by saying:
“These reforms are significant and complex; they will take time to fully implement. Planning to implement the changes to the Australian Intelligence Community, the establishment of the Home Affairs portfolio and the strengthening of the Attorney-General’s portfolio will be undertaken within the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet. The Attorney-General, the Minister for Immigration and Border Protection as Minister-designate for Home Affairs, and the Minister for Justice will work with the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet to develop these plans with a view to their implementation from early 2018” (see Turnbull Release on Home Affairs, 18 July).
On that very same day, the AFR reported that Turnbull’s activism had experienced difficulty at a private dinner in persuading senior businessmen to assist with Coalition funding. According to this report, “Malcolm Turnbull upbraided the business leaders for not helping out more with donations and generally not being more vocal in advocating the government’s agenda. This invited complaints from the corporate leaders that much of the government’s agenda was not friendly to them. One CEO listed as examples the imposition of the bank tax, the implementation of changes to section 46 of the Competition and Consumer Act, or an effects test, an ongoing aversion towards substantial industrial relations reform, and even the decision to phase in company tax cuts over 10 years, putting big business last”. Note that “Mr Turnbull’s attempts to reforms energy policy were also discussed at length” (see Turnbull V Corporates).
Then, on 20 July The Australian reported Abbott as saying “the new ministry… was a ‘massive bureaucratic change’ and challenged the Mr Turnbull to reveal what advice he’s been given to support the new department. “The advice back then was that we didn’t need the kind of massive bureaucratic change which it seems the Prime Minister has in mind, and I can only assume that the advice has changed since then,” Mr Abbott told 2GB. “No doubt the Prime Minister will give us more information in due course about the official advice that he’s had on this.”
“Turnbull then hit back at Abbott’s claims that he was advised against a national security overhaul during his time as prime minister, saying he has received no objections to the home affairs super ministry from security agencies. He denied he received advice from agencies urging him not to go ahead with the super portfolio”. ‘No. The answer is I have not received objections from our agencies,’ Mr Turnbull told 3AW. ‘Again, the bottom line is that I’m the Prime Minister. I make these decisions’. “This is essentially a question of getting the national security architecture in the best shape to keep Australians safe. “We do not design these arrangements for bureaucratic convenience. We design them in order, we make changes always to optimise them so that our agencies can do a better job to keep Australians safe. That’s the objective.”
Also on 20 July, Andrew Bolt wrote “WHAT a scandal if Malcolm Turnbull has indeed given Peter Dutton control of all our big security agencies just to stay Prime Minister. That may seem a conspiracy theory, but Attorney-General George Brandis has given a joke of an excuse for this huge concentration of power. Turnbull has stripped Brandis of responsibility for the spy agency, ASIO, and given it to Dutton, the powerful conservative keeping Tony Abbott off Turnbull’s back. Dutton, now the Immigration Minister, will over the next year also get the Australian Federal Police and other security agencies to become the new Home Affairs Minister.
Brandis on Tuesday was made to publicly approve of the changes he’d privately resisted, and offered a humiliating self-criticism of the kind given by Chinese prisoners. Brandis suggested that losing ASIO was just what he deserved after neglecting our safety”. ‘Though my focus has been on national security, it has not been able to be an exclusive focus,’ he admitted. ‘There are always other things within the Attorney-General’s portfolio which also occupy my attention.’ But Dutton ‘can give 100 per cent of his time and his attention to national security’. “Which is false. Dutton is no more able to give national security ‘100 per cent of his time’ than was Brandis” (for full text of Bolt, see Bolt Explains Reasons For Home Affairs).
On 22 July, Paul Maley of The Australian claimed there has been no Cabinet agreement on the net merits of such changes. Indeed,” a picture is emerging of a rushed, shambolic process that critics across the government believe was driven by political expediency rather than good policy … some of the key ministers affected by the changes were not told of the Prime Minister’s decision to go with the idea, which had been under consideration for some time, until just a few days before Tuesday’s announcement” (see Turnbull’s Own Decision on Home Affairs, 22 July). If this report is correct, it would seem that Turnbull pushed the decision almost as a matter of desperation.
Greg Sheridan, who has probably more knowledge and contact with the workings of overseas intelligence agencies than any other journalist (or serious commentator on foreign policy), is extremely critical of Turnbull’s decision and suggests that “ The politics of this all have a long way to run”. He rightly concludes that while “Turnbull may well think he is shoring up his support in his party’s right wing. It’s a way of dealing with the Abbott problem without dealing with Abbott. But it looks too unstable and embodies such poor process that it is unlikely to be effective”. Sheridan also notes that
”Four structural factors make its re-election extremely difficult. First, there is the mathematics of its one-seat majority, Labor’s necessary gains are so small. Second, there is the disunity in the party, which is extremely unlikely to go away. Third, Labor will enjoy a huge funding advantage and a similar massive advantage from the de facto third-party endorsements of policy positions from all the quasi-government bodies it has created or staffed with people who share a centre-left world view, which the Coalition in government has done nothing to change. And finally, in our hyper-driven social media environment, six years of Coalition government will seem to the electorate like a lifetime” (see Sheridan on Home Affairs 22 July).
While Abbott raised a serious question about Turnbull’s decision to establish a Home Affairs Ministry, so too have many other commentators, most notably Greg Sheridan. Whatever the effect on Newspoll, that would have to be attributed to Turnbull himself. But Opinion Poll effects aside, the “initiative” by Turnbull must surely be interpreted as foolish and likely to add to the Coalition’s electoral problems. Sheridan’s comment that “it looks too unstable and embodies such poor process that it is unlikely to be effective” is a let off. It smacks of a leader who doesn’t know which way he is going but is trying desperately to survive as leader. That, after all, is Turnbull’s principal interest. As Henry Ergas wrote in Weekend Australian, it is somewhat ironic that Turnbull received a prize honouring a man (Disraeli) of whom it is said that “he never thought seriously of anything except his career” (see Ergas on Disraeli).