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Ending first year as PM, Turnbull has a rare good week

One week after a three month break — the longest anyone can remember — Australia’s federal politicians took another week off and left Canberra with plenty of vacant hotel rooms and another policy vacuum.

Senior ministers were scattered around the world.  Prime minister Malcolm Turnbull had a full agenda, attending first the G-20 leaders’ meeting in Hangzhou, China, then flying to Laos for the East Asia Forum and an ASEAN summit, and finally a meeting of the Pacific Islands Forum in the Marshall Islands.

Trade minister Steven Ciobo went to Brussels to seek traction on the Australia-European Union free trade agreement negotiations. He went on to London to open talks with UK trade minister Liam Fox, picking up the threads of Turnbull’s earlier meeting with British prime minister Theresa May. Both Australia and Britain are keen to conclude an FTA, and while negotiations cannot formally begin until Britain is out of the EU (at least two and half years away) the two countries have set up a working party to agree a road map and identify differences.

The British market offers attractive opportunities to Australia’s food and wine sectors, especially if London imposes quotas on European produce, as it may if no agreement with the EU is forthcoming.

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Malcolm Turnbull

Turnbull has ended his first year on a high note despite his overall dismal performance as PM. His dealings with Asian leaders in the past week have been faultless, as even his detractors acknowledge. He was firm, calm and composed with the Chinese leadership, making clear Australia expected China to respect the rule of law in the South China Sea, and its strategic decisions on Chinese investment in Australia. At the same time, he called for disputes to be settled peacefully and offered to host an ASEAN Plus meeting in Australia to help this process. He welcomed progress between China and ASEAN on the latter’s proposal for a code of conduct on the South China Sea. He invited the leaders of Indonesia and Malaysia to visit Australia, and appears to have developed a warm relationship with Joko Widodo, a prospect that seemed impossible 18 months ago. Turnbull also gave strong support to Xi Jinping, Theresa May, Barack Obama and ASEAN on the need for free trade as a major driver of growth at a time of rising protectionism.

By contrast, Opposition leader Bill Shorten had a wretched week, mired by his own unwillingness to sack from his front bench the ambitious senator Sam Dastyari.

Dastyari had earlier admitted to asking a Chinese donor to pay a $1600 travel overspend, as well as $5000 in legal expenses. At a subsequent news conference, contrary to his party’s and government policy, he said that Australia should adopt a neutral stance on China’s military expansion in the South China Sea. After refusing to take action, Shorten back-flipped and accepted Dastyari’s resignation. It was not a good look.

Parliament returns on Monday (Sep 12) to business as usual. Labor will pursue its demand for a royal commission into the banks, and we can expect more bickering over how to reduce the budget deficit. Turnbull’s troubles are not over, as Abbott seeks a return to the top job, unlikely though that sounds. News Corp columnist Andrew Bolt, a friend of Abbott, has been using his air time on Sky News to canvas this possibility, and to rubbish Turnbull.

Glenn Stevens, the outgoing governor of the Reserve Bank of Australia had more important things to say. In a valedictory interview with the Australian Financial Review, he said that 25 years of uninterrupted economic growth had led the public into complacency, with voters and politicians sharing the deluded view that this is the norm and growth will continue without any change in policy settings. “It’s not a game. It’s not a sporting event we like to spectate on. It’s real”, he said.