As a New Year begins, you have to conclude that if they are honest with themselves Australia’s political leaders can only look back on 2016 with a great sense of disappointment. Like a yacht with a broken mast in the Sydney to Hobart, the country is listing without much real purpose. We have no political Perpetual Loyal, and not much of a crew to steer Australia on a sensible course.
That is not how politicians see it, of course, surrounded as they are by sycophantic advisers who lack imagination and don’t have the skills to guide them through what is thrown at them by a restless media and dysfunctional Parliament.
I came to this view after reading a column in The Times that was critical of Britain’s prime minister Theresa May. Clare Foges, who wrote some of David Cameron’s more notable speeches, argues that leaders are either “strikers or defenders – strikers are risk-takers who make bold strides into new territory, pursuing policies that aim at transformation”. Ms Foges places Mrs May in the defender category. “In her Downing Street speech on fighting against ‘burning injustice’ and her conference speech warning that ‘a change has got to come’ there was the suggestion that the defender might turn striker. But almost six months in, this is settling into a risk-averse administration”, Ms Foges wrote.
The same is true of Turnbull and Shorten. Turnbull promised so much after his overthrow of Abbott, creating a frisson of excitement in his early speeches. He said he would model himself on New Zealand’s John Key, who has just retired after leading the Kiwis out of an economic morass and welfare dependency into the promised land of growth and prosperity.
It was Key who insisted that “good government is more than doing what’s popular; good government is more than blindly following the latest opinion poll; good government is about leadership, providing our nation with an economic and social road map for enhancement.”
With the help of the highly competent finance minister Bill English (now the prime minister), Mr Key persuaded New Zealanders of the good sense of raising GST from 10% to 15%, cutting income tax to a top rate of 33%, company tax to 28%, and reorganising the welfare system to get people back to work. Money going into super is taxed at the same 33% rate, but its earnings are protected and untaxed. All kinds of dubious tax deductions have been stripped away; if you pay less tax you don’t need hundreds of tax lurks and perks, or bountiful middle class welfare, Australian style.
Turnbull has turned out to be the opposite of the bold and competent John Key. What we saw through 2016 was not good strategy or leadership, but the same kind of sloganeering for which Turnbull condemned Abbott. There were no new foreign policy initiatives, and a jumble of contradictory economic policies which appeared as ‘thought bubbles’ and burst as fast as a child’s balloon.
Turnbull – and treasurer Scott Morrison – seemed incapable of explaining economic policy to the Australian people. This was partly because they did not hold on to policies for long enough to do so, but also because they choose to present them through hostile media outlets like the ABC, rather than directly and skilfully to the people, as trade unions have done.
Turnbull’s one move on trade was meaningless. He offered Theresa May a trade deal when anyone could have told the hapless trade minister Stephen Ciobo (a poor substitute for Andrew Robb) that no negotiation can begin until Britain is out of the EU, assuming this actually happens.
He tried unsuccessfully to reignite the Republican issue, saying that nothing can move until after Queen Elizabeth’s death; but at that point Charles becomes king, whether we like it or not.
Meanwhile much bigger issues are pending, such as the change in the relationship with China that will inevitably follow the appointment of Rex Tillerson as U.S. secretary of state, and the impending trading discussions in the Asia Pacific that will get under way after January 20. Is Turnbull ready for this? I doubt it.
Bill Shorten is also a great disappointment. You would have thought that anyone seeking to lead Australia would try to sever the ties that have made him the puppet of backward-looking trade union leaders. You would hope he would pay more attention to shadow treasurer Chris Bowen, and start to try to save Australia’s Triple A credit rating, which still hangs by a thread.
Shorten is an instinctive defaulter. He seems not to care about piling up debt; periodically he talks glibly about cooperating with the Coalition on cutting Australia’s burgeoning welfare bill but will in practice only do so on his terms. Curiously, under a Shorten-led government, it will be those who work hardest who will cop the increased tax bills to fund higher spending. According to the Grattan Institute, about half of budget debt is a result of increases in net transfers to households aged over 65 over the past decade.
You might assume that Shorten would start speaking out against the worrying protectionism of the unions and the nonsense peddled by Nick Xenophon. Unfortunately, like Turnbull, he has no bold vision for Australia’s future, no road map for returning us to prosperity.
There is no doubt Labor is suffering – and will continue to suffer – from not making the members’ choice, Antony Albanese, the party leader. ‘Albo’, though further to the left than Shorten, is stronger, wiser, and has a better concept of Australia’s future.
In a New Year message, Jennifer Westacott, the head of the Business Council of Australia, said: “Our parliamentarians will need to demonstrate vision and leadership in the year ahead.” How true – but it is unlikely to happen without Turnbull or Shorten showing they have leadership skills. We cannot be optimistic about that.