02 January 2016
by Nick Dyrenfurth
In 2015 the captain’s calls continued under Turnbull
Despite calling for an end to political sloganeering and spin, Malcolm Turnbull is repeating many of his predecessors’ sins.
Too much power in the PM’s office persists in leading to poor policy development.
"No one puts new wine into old wineskins; otherwise the wine will burst the skins, and the wine is lost, and so are the skins; but one puts new wine into fresh wineskins."
Is Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, a practising Christian, unaware of this parable attributed to Jesus? For all his "new" politics talk of Australians living in "exciting times", "agility" and an innovation agenda born of some "ideas boom", Turnbull's popular three-month government remains caught in the paradigm of old politics. Despite calling for an end to political sloganeering and spin in favour of reasoned argument and substantive achievement, Malcolm, the Messiah of Australian politics, is repeating many of his predecessors' sins.
Take the events of Tuesday. Minister for Cities (and prominent Tony Abbott backer) Jamie Briggs announced his resignation after a complaint by a female public servant of inappropriate behaviour during an official government trip to Hong Kong in November.
That announcement was quickly followed by Turnbull's revelation that embattled Special Minister of State Mal Brough was standing aside pending a continuing AFP investigation into his role in the so-called Slipper affair.
Labor accused the government of a "shocking" level of cynicism, given that the twin-announcements were made in the sleepy political period between Christmas and New Year. And it does beggar belief that Turnbull suddenly judged Brough a political liability or, more charitably, acquired a heightened sense of prime ministerial probity since Parliament rose at the beginning of December.
Ditto claims that the delayed nature of Briggs' demise owed to merely procedural matters.
Turnbull's new golden age of politics seems rather like the old, where, for instance, controversial decisions by both sides are delivered to the press late on Friday evening in an attempt to defeat the news cycle.
Memo to Malcolm: the tactic didn't work. The duo's ministerial resignations featured on the front-page of almost all significant mastheads.
The lingering stench of old politics is not restricted to ministerial comings and goings. Policy announcements hastily made in the shadow of the singing of Auld Lang Syne add to the image that Turnbull's administration is the Grinch who didn't merely aim to steal Christmas.
See, for example, revelations that the Turnbull government will not fund the final two years of the once-bipartisan Gonski schools funding deal, estimated at some $30 billion. Then there is the recent removal of the bulk-billing incentive for pathology and radiology services, in effect creating a new patient co-payment that will increase out-of-pocket expenses for those who can least afford this latest attack on Medicare by stealth.
These policy reversals, none flagged by Turnbull before or during his tilt at the Coalition leadership, are precisely the sort of chicanery that sent the approval ratings of Team Abbott downhill and, in the case of Julia Gillard's 2010 election "no carbon tax" promise, helped to cruel her prime ministership.
A more curious case of politics gatecrashing the silly season emerged on Wednesday. The Abbott government-inspired trade union royal commission, which cost taxpayers anywhere from $46 million to $80 million, depending on who you ask, released its findings after nearly two years of hearings. The report made 79 separate recommendations, including the creation of a new regulatory body and, to be sure, unearthed instances of bribery and appropriation of members' monies.
Yet Dyson Heydon's report referred only two former union officials to police for prosecution. One of the duo, Kathy Jackson, originally received kid-glove treatment during her commission appearance. This belies the commission's talk of having identified "widespread" and "deep-seated" misconduct by officials variously labelled "louts, thugs, bullies, thieves, perjurers".
Behind the highfalutin' rhetoric is this reality: the commission's main target, Opposition Leader Bill Shorten, emerged from the drama largely unscathed (as did Gillard); a political embarrassment that necessitated a December release date.
In any case, the public is likely to see through the commission's politicised findings, no matter their mixed feelings towards unions. They may mark Turnbull down for reaching back to the hyper-partisanship of recent years.
Meantime, Turnbull has followed the path of two of the past three prime ministers. Gillard and Abbott, like Turnbull, each promised to reassert the primacy of cabinet decision-making in the face of a long-term trend towards the centralisation of policy co-ordination and power in the Prime Minister's Office.
None were at fault. Structural changes to the public service, the disruptive effects of communication technology, globalisation and the "hollowing" out of the major parties in favour of leader-centred electoral-professional organisations, have each conspired to transform institutions that once acted as a brake on domineering prime ministers.
Despite his desire to end a culture of policy on the run and "captain's calls", Turnbull appears unlikely to break the mould. His basic political instinct is to control from the centre, just as Kevin Rudd, Abbott, and, to a far lesser extent, Gillard, struggled to devolve power into a governing style that produces far superior process and policy.
Just ask that other one-time messiah, Bob Hawke.
Putting new wine into used wineskins is asking for trouble, just as a prime minister seeking to advance a new politics can't succeed by continuing old habits. As the nation wakes, hungover or not, to a new year, our prime ministerial messiah's resolution ought to be clear.