In opposition Tony Abbott was labelled “Teflon Tony”, as Labor was unable to make any negative stories on him stick, and for now it appears we can call the Prime Minister Teflon Turnbull.
As the first full sitting fortnight for Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull comes to an end, it is clear Labor hasn’t figured out exactly how to pin down the new Prime Minister. The Fairfax Ipsos poll this week putting the Coalition ahead of Labor on a two-party preferred basis and Turnbull 46 points over Labor leader Bill Shorten as preferred prime minister has Labor hoping the numbers still reflect the honeymoon period for the newish government.
After last week’s failed attack on the Prime Minister’s investment arrangements in the Cayman Islands, Labor this week initially tried to pin Turnbull down on the former Abbott government’s unpopular 2014 budget policies. It went nowhere.
Labor gained little from the Senate estimates process to attack the PM, either. For all the lengthy discussion of marble tables and red-faced emoji, Labor hasn’t gleaned anything that is has been able to use.
The biggest news came from Turnbull’s old portfolio, with NBN revealing it would be spending $14 million on 1800 kilometres of copper for Turnbull’s fibre-to-the-node NBN. It’s not a great look on the surface, given NBN has insisted it is not replacing the legacy Telstra copper lines with new copper, but due to the nature of fibre-to-the-node mixing in with the existing network, some new copper will need to be installed from the existing Telstra pillars on the streets to the “node” boxes that link homes to the NBN. The existing copper lines will continue to be used from the pillar out to each home. It’s a complexity most people will not care to understand, but Turnbull was only too happy to do some Malsplaining in question time on the issue. Labor, for the first time in the last two years, asked three questions in question time on the matter, but even that seemed to backfire: Turnbull was keen to answer questions on the NBN, and called for Labor to ask more.
The government’s response to the Murray inquiry into financial systems was one of the two major policy announcements of the week, but the weak response to a watered-down report meant it was quickly forgotten. As we reported earlier this week, the government has responded to an inquiry by announcing more inquiries, or working around the edges, such as the planned legislation to crack down on credit card transaction fees, and legislation to make it easier to get crowdsourced equity funding for startups.
It was a mixed week for new Social Services Minister Christian Porter, who, along with his predecessor, Treasurer Scott Morrison, announced changes to the government’s original plan for family tax benefit payments. Gone were plans to drop parents from the payments after the youngest child turns six. Instead, benefits will end at 13, with a focus on getting parents back to work once their children enter high school. Single parents and grandparent carers with children over 13 will receive a yearly $1000 payment from the government.
Porter initially struggled to sell the policy on Sky News, suggesting 15-year-olds could potentially still be in childcare, and grandparents could go back to work. In question time, he also argued not all grandparents are pension-age, and that they are working longer than they used to — just look at the Prime Minister. Given it is unlikely Turnbull is the full-time carer of his grandson, it was an odd comment from the new minister. The key to the passage of this change will be the Senate crossbench. Liberal Democrat David Leyonhjelm is in favour of the windback of what he sees as middle-class welfare, Independent Senator Nick Xenophon said he was keen to keep talking to the much more talkative government, but Jacqui Lambie said the changes would still hit the most vulnerable people in society.
The proposed legislation will test whether Turnbull’s new approach to the crossbench with new Senate leader George Brandis will be more successful than Abbott’s was with Eric Abetz, who spent the week on a strange tour complaining to almost every media outlet that conservative politicians like him don’t get a fair run in the media.
Another politician who claimed he was hard done by the media was Joe Hockey, who this week gave his final speech in the House of Representatives just over a month after being dumped as treasurer after the leadership change. It was the usual blaming of the 24-hour media cycle and social media for the revolving door of politics, and the government’s inability to sell its policy. Perhaps because Turnbull has changed so little of the government’s existing policy to date, there is a current justification in Hockey’s current belief that the government had good policies, but was just bad at the politics. Almost every media commentator has said that, sorry Joe, it was, in fact, bad politics and bad policy.
One area where there was a marked difference between the style of Abbott and Turnbull was the latter’s handling of the China-Australia Free Trade Agreement stand-off. Towards the end of Abbott’s tenure, Abbott was increasingly using ChAFTA to wedge Labor. Labor had backed itself into a corner in arguing it couldn’t support the agreement unless there was sufficient labour market testing for work agreements, a market salary rate for 457 visas, and certain conditions for 457 visas.
Turnbull allowed Labor to be “talked off the ledge” by giving up concessions that ultimately require no change to the ChAFTA legislation. Shorten himself noted that the changes would be made to migration law. Labor was allowed to save face, while the government gets another free-trade agreement under its belt. It is difficult seeing that ever happening under Abbott.
As the week ended, Turnbull made a deliberate point to attempt to earn back the government’s much-maligned science credentials. In a speech for the Prime Minister’s Prizes for Science dinner on Wednesday night, Turnbull said science had to be at the heart of the nation’s agenda:
“Now you have seen the way we have put innovation and science at the centre of our agenda. This is of critical importance, absolutely critical importance, to our success as a nation, to our success in the world.”
We are still waiting for the policy announcements to go with it, beyond just the tech buzzwords of “disruption”, “agile”, and “innovation”, but a good move to start was the government revealing it would not go ahead with plans to fund a $4 million research centre headed by Danish climate skeptic Bjorn Lomborg. The original proposal was rejected by the University of Western Australia, but the federal government was searching for a university to host the centre. The decision to withdraw the offer came from now-Innovation Minister Christopher Pyne shortly before the cabinet reshuffle.