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The shrinking Malcolm Turnbull

By Syd Hickman - posted Friday, 11 March 2016

Turnbull's honeymoon was always going to end but it should have led to the next stage, not just fizzled out.

The relief at Abbott's departure has faded and expectations of action by Turnbull have grown. The great start, with calm replacing fear-mongering, rational policy discussion and tactical cleverness, including the emphasis on women, has not led to action.

Buying the whole idea that 'tax reform' was important was a mistake. There is no rejigging of a few taxes that is going to make the economy operate with significantly higher efficiency. Reviving the debate just let all the vested interests loose to argue that what was good for them was great for the country. It was all a time-bomb left by Abbott and it should have been defused rather than made the centre of attention.


It appears the main reason the tax debate was embraced so enthusiastically by Turnbull was Treasury advice that lifting the GST from 10 to 15% would pay for big spending on health and education. Then this advice was changed and the gains shrank to the point where the policy was not worth pursuing. No wonder he is not thrilled with his Treasurer.

Turnbull was prepared to push for equitable changes to superannuation and negative gearing but when the ALP jumped him with its own policy announcements in these areas he lost his nerve. Instead of calmly saying the ALP went too far and maintaining more moderate proposals he panicked and decided to revert to scare campaigns against the entire idea of change. Backbenchers, catching the air of panic, piled in with the usual desire to do nothing in case someone somewhere got upset.

Perhaps Turnbull's biggest failure is his apparent belief in his own propaganda. The enthusiastic talk about innovation and creativity was quite effective as part of the switch to the positive and optimistic persona. But he seems to have convinced himself, if no one else, that the economy can really be saved by start-up firms leaping into the new economy. Someone should tell him how little tax these firms will pay and how few jobs they will create.

His enthusiasm for small business also started well but degenerated into raving about the number of new businesses being registered as sole traders and the like. Most of the people he is boasting about are the precariat, or new proletariat. That is, people with no job security and living a precarious existence on casual rates or short-term contracts. In an economic downturn they will suddenly lose all income. They are not budding entrepreneurs. There are now more such people than union members.

Missing the chance for an election before the budget has left an air of uncertainty about the date that helps destroy the image of calm control. It also provided time for Abbott and others to create mischief.

Underlying most of these problems is the failure to accept the situation that the government faces. Spending is too high because Howard spent like a drunken sailor through the resources boom and the ALP failed, over six years, to take money back from wealthy Coalition voters and added much more spending of its own. The sort of tax changes and spending cuts that are required should be talked about after, not before, an election.


A loss of nerve is also clear in the daily PR tactics. On the TV news we now see Turnbull doing silly things with kids or lecturing IT folk on their roles as national saviours. Can vis-vests be far away? In question time we are back to long boring answers blasting the opposition rather than explaining the future.

If Turnbull is again to grow in our estimation he needs to refine his story and regain his nerve.

Most importantly he, and his minders, should accept that he must use tactics in line with his public persona. Just as Abbott had to run scare campaigns because he had no credibility being positive, so Turnbull is hopeless at scare campaigns. In part that is because no one believes anything really bad will ever happen to Malcolm Turnbull. He is our rich uncle, and we hope some of his success will come our way. He is not the guy next door, nor the prophet of doom, and never can be.

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About the Author

Syd Hickman has worked as a school teacher, soldier, Commonwealth and State public servant, on the staff of a Premier, as chief of Staff to a Federal Minister and leader of the Opposition, and has survived for more than a decade in the small business world.

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