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Turnbull, back from China, faces critical week

Malcolm Turnbull has returned from China after his first visit as prime minister. The visit was a modest success. It did not change much, for better or worse. Tensions between Canberra and Beijing over Chinese military actions in the South China Sea are up a notch, but Turnbull wisely refused to engage in shirt-fronting, while reminding both the Chinese prime minister and the president the many disputes over Pacific territory are best solved through international law.

Thus Turnbull stuck to his script, Beijing was unmoved, and life goes on. The two-day trip was given short shrift in international media, and even the tABC’s main 7pm news producers seemed to think that NSW premier Mike Baird’s supposed backdown on building a football stadium and a PR visit to Sydney by a Japanese submarine more important than the PM in China.

Which is a pity, for two reasons. First, Turnbull is at a pivotal, some might say crisis point in his six-month period as leader. What happens in Canberra this coming week will be critical. Secondly, the visit to China was less about policy, but more about trade. Wo way trade between Australia and China was worth $150 billion last year. Turnbull led the 300-strong business delegation to China, the biggest ever.

In an interesting speech, mostly unreported in Australia except on Sky News which sent its political editor to cover it, Turnbull reminded people Australia’s engagement with China was deeper, broader and richer than most people imagine, not some latter-day product of the resources boom. He reminded them that there are four grand old department stores, all still standing on the Nanjing Road in Shanghai, and all built by Chinese-Australians between the two world wars, based on the architecture of the Anthony Hordern store in Sydney.

Turnbull also reminded us what China trade means today – Australian architects and engineers building Shanghai skyscrapers, an e-commerce market larger than that of the United States. He listed Autralian businesses that are already gaining benefits in China from the free trade agreement signed last year, and turned to gains at home.

“Last year more than 1 million Chinese visitors holidayed in Australia, spending more than $8 billion. And now that China has proclaimed, next year together with us to be the ‘Australia-China Year of Tourism’ I can safely wager that our hotels, our restaurants, our tour operators will soon be investing in new capacity to meet that new demand”, he said.” More than one million people in Australia today have Chinese ancestry. And half a million people in Australia were born in China. More Australians are learning Chinese language, understanding Chinese history and culture.”

Back home the fact the Australian economy is growing at 3% annually with unemployment down to 5.7% on the back of 300,000 new jobs will be quickly forgotten as the recalled Senate gets down to  reconsidering Government bills to restore the construction industry watchdog. A royal commission recently confirmed evidence of corruption, bullying and criminal activity in this key industry, but the Senate has twice rejected the legislation, and is likely to do so again in coming days.

At that point Turnbull is pledged to call elections for July 2, and go to the polls on this issue and economic management.

The fly in the ointment is that Labor has countered with demands for a royal commission into corruption, cheating and other misdemenours in the nation’s financial system, including the big four banks. While union thuggery on building sites is notorious, it has had a lesser impact on most people than those who have lost money through the banks. A poll published April 18 show most people, including Government supporters, favour a royal commission.

The result is that Labor is climbing in the polls. Whatever the result of a July election, it will not be the shoe-in Turnbull anticipated, and a hung parliament is highly likely.