Christian Kerr writes:

Malcolm Turnbull has already led three
interesting lives, as a journalist, a lawyer and a businessman. What he does in
his current role may prove be more interesting still. Turnbull entered parliamentary politics
relatively late, a few days short of his 50th birthday – but already
weighted by perceptions shaped by a decade of debate over the republic.

Turnbull remains beyond the pale to many
monarchists. At the same time, however, he is also the butt of republican
resentments. He may have said John Howard was the man who broke the nation’s
heart on referendum night in 1999, but Turnbull became the symbol of the
republic campaign’s failure.

If the truth be told, though, there
wouldn’t have been a referendum without Turnbull. And in the 15 months or so
since he became an MP, it’s been interesting to see just what he’s agitated for
– tax reform, public transport, water and population policy. It’s been just as
interesting to see where the PM placed him in last month’s reshuffle.

If I was an Egon Zehnder, after the
republic I would have suggested that Turnbull try his hand at running some supranational
body rather than parliamentary politics. The skill set seemed better. There’s
always a demand for people who can deftly bang heads together there.

Still, that’s a handy ability in politics,
too – as long as you concentrate on the deft. Turnbull’s stack of Wentworth wasn’t deft.
Having to contest it as a marginal, though, meant he had to learn to be.

Now, we see him on the first rung of the
ministerial ladder, as Parliamentary Secretary to the Prime Minister, with
responsibility for water policy. A contentious matter. One where head
banging might come in handy, given the different interests involved.
Particularly when done deftly.

Last night Turnbull gave his first major
speech in the role, kicking off The Policymakers series organised by the Centre for Independent Studies.

The challenge, of course, for junior
ministers is what they do with their briefs. You want to show that you know your brief, but
the last thing you want to be is boring, spouting public-servicese.

A paragraph like “Australia
is the world’s driest inhabited continent and many of Australia’s
rivers have highly variable flows. The ratio between the maximum and minimum
annual flows of the Rhine and the Yangtze is 2.0. That same ratio, a measure of variability,
for the Murray River is 15.5 and for the Darling it is 4,700!” provides the seeds for a
cute example – if rewritten.

But last night Turnbull steered
water policy into an area he excels in – making deals. He called on government
to overcome hostility to private-sector investment in water infrastructure.

Governments have
often been hostile to private sector interest in water. Services Sydney, the
proponent of a large-scale recycling system for Sydney, had to
fight tooth and nail right up to the Competition Tribunal to get the right just
to negotiate access rights to Sydney Water’s sewage system… It is difficult to
break even from (recycled) water sales. However, every megalitre of recycled
wastewater is a megalitre of sewage that is not going into the ocean. An
external benefit? Definitely.

It’s a good message. It’s common sense to
say “if water rights are freely tradeable then they will be used, like any
other scarce resource, by the more efficient producers”, that “markets are
better at picking winners than governments”.

Successful politics, of course, is
successful deal making. Turnbull seems to have passed the audition. Now, he
can’t disappoint with his performance on the big stage.

Peter Fray

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