The first Turnbull ministry, and its accompanying announcement, is a determined attempt not merely to refresh a Coalition government but push the reset button on the Abbott years (both of them).
Critically, there’s a mostly new economic team to prosecute a more upbeat narrative. Whereas everything Tony Abbott offered the electorate was based on fear — fear of debt, fear of ending up like Greece, fear of Labor stealing your super/savings/everything else, fear of Chinese real estate investors, fear of racism about China, fear of the death cult, fear of refugees — Turnbull’s message is about seizing opportunities, about being “agile”, a word he has used repeatedly since becoming prime minister. Turnbull explicitly wants us not to be afraid.
New Treasurer Scott Morrison so far has been more of a doer than a talker in his two years of ministerial experience. Deliberately, he said very little as immigration minister, since his agenda was one of blocking any information of any kind from getting out about his portfolio. His short stint as social services minister revolved around putting together a families package that remains unlegislated because he can’t secure Senate support for the savings that would fund it. Now he has to be the face of economic reform, offering a cut-through message of why reform is needed to enable the country to respond more effectively to the challenges and opportunities facing it. While inexperienced, Morrison has the advantages that he’s not Joe Hockey, which means he’ll start with considerable goodwill among business and voters, and that unlike Hockey he won’t have Tony Abbott ruling out whole swathes of reform areas.
Morrison has an inexperienced Assistant Treasurer and Small Business Minister in Kelly O’Dwyer, who has replaced Josh Frydenberg. A key question about O’Dwyer is whether she chooses to continue prosecuting the Coalition’s jihad against industry super funds, a sector that the Coalition wants to destroy by any means possible. But O’Dwyer’s inexperience (she worked for then-treasurer Peter Costello, but as a legal adviser, and that was eight years ago) means Mathias Cormann is now the corporate memory for the budget process at a political level, with a Mid-Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook, and maybe a mini-budget, due in less than three months.
Turnbull’s focus on an “agile” economy sounds great — who wouldn’t want to be agile? — but when we already have a flexible exchange rate and a flexible workplace relations system (according to the Productivity Commission and the Reserve Bank), strong banks and a huge savings pool, it’s not clear what that exactly means. Enter Christopher Pyne, as the new Minister for Industry, Innovation and Science. It’s unlikely that Turnbull’s mantra of last Monday night about “freedom, the individual and the market” will be implemented rigorously in this portfolio, which Turnbull singled out as driving innovation and investing in science. Asked by The West Australian’s Andrew Probyn about this yesterday, Turnbull replied:
“We do a lot of great things in Australia. We do a lot of great research and development, a lot of great science. One of the things we do not do well at all is the collaboration between primary research, typically in universities, and business. We’re actually the second worst in the OECD, so it is, that is a very, very important priority to make a change to that.”
Trying to fix Australia’s perennial problem of failing to commercialise its inventiveness — there’s never been an Australian Apple, or Google, or even an IBM — is par for the course for previous governments: the Gillard government focused heavily on innovation in order to offset the impacts on manufacturing of the strong dollar, for example. But the Abbott government’s precise attitude to innovation was never clear, and seemed to vary between ending the age of entitlement and panicking about its electoral prospects in South Australia and Victoria.
And Turnbull announced another shift that varies significantly from the direction of the Abbott government, and previous Coalition governments of any kind, by appointing Jamie Briggs as Minister for Cities and the Built Environment. This flies directly in the face of Coalition tradition, which has seen urban infrastructure as a matter for the states while it gets on with funding boondoggles and rorts in regional areas to keep Nationals MPs happy. Moreover, Tony Abbott, in his failed quest to be an “infrastructure prime minister”, explicitly saw infrastructure as strictly limited to roads. Turnbull attacked both of these approaches yesterday:
“We shouldn’t be discriminating between one form of transit and another. There is no — roads are not better than mass transit or vice versa, each of them has their place. Infrastructure should be assessed objectively and rationally on its merits. There is no place for ideology here at all. The critical thing is to ensure that we get the best outcome in our cities… cities have been overlooked, I believe, historically from the federal perspective.”
Turnbull has always been happy to steal Labor ideas in a way Tony Abbott never was — for Abbott, anything that emerged from Labor had the mark of Satan on it. Anthony Albanese has been shadow minister for cities for two years.
Another likely area of theft from Labor is renewable energy. Under Abbott, renewables were hated and reviled and a concerted effort was launched to destroy the sector. Already that has changed. Yesterday, Arthur Sinodinos said something that simply could never have been said under Abbott:
“There’ll be a bit of an end to the idea that the environment and development have to be at loggerheads, that somehow it’s a zero-sum game. It’s not. Good environmental policies can also be good economic policies, and good economic policies give you a capacity to deal with environmental issues. And so I don’t think we should be hung up on the — if you like, the battles of the past, the battles of 2009 and whatever and also to accept that existing resources as well as renewables have their place — forgive the pun — in the sun.”
Even Greg Hunt, who masquerades as Environment Minister, tweeted yesterday about “an increased focus on renewables”. Renewables investment, of course, enables Turnbull to more aggressively act to curb carbon emissions without a carbon price.
It’s almost as if, in some areas, the Abbott government never existed. Which is exactly what Turnbull will be hoping voters think.