Malcolm Turnbull

By the standards of the Turnbull government, this wasn’t that bad a week domestically: it only had to delay the ABCC bill — notionally urgent and vital to the economy — stymie efforts to bring the backpacker tax bill on for debate before it was ready, fend off serious questions about what it knew about Bob Day, cave in to the right on an inquiry into the Racial Discrimination Act and engage in a humiliating backdown on George Brandis’ direction about the Solicitor-General. Oh, and Turnbull made a factual howler about the Human Rights Commission that could have come straight from Tony Abbott. But at least the Prime Minister and his predecessor weren’t at each other’s throats and the government didn’t lose votes on the floor of the Parliament.

But along came the Trump shock on Wednesday. And don’t be fooled by Turnbull’s “warm” phone call with Trump (did he mention it was “warm”? It was “warm”) and his “two old businessmen having a yarn” act. Trump is terrible news for Turnbull. Not merely is he bad news for the Australian economy and regional stability over the medium and long term, he is actively opposed to a core component of Turnbull’s economic agenda. The Trans Pacific Partnership, which the government has been trumpeting for so long, is dead — bury it in a secret grave, so it can be in death what it was in life — and free trade agreements and free trade itself are on Trump’s hitlist.

(By the way, will anyone actually mourn the death of the TPP apart from a handful of trade lawyers? This is an agreement the government refused to ever submit to an independent cost-benefit analysis, because it knew the results would be, at best, a negligible gain for Australia. Even its own, decidedly half-arsed, materials released after the agreement was signed couldn’t identify significant benefits.)

[Trump: it wasn’t the economy, stupid — it was racism]

But worse, though, is that Trump’s victory is seen as a vindication of bigotry, economic irrationalism and culture wars by the hard right both within his own ranks and outside. Having been forced to agree to a parliamentary inquiry into the old white male obsession of 18C could be only the start for Turnbull as One Nation and the likes of Cory Bernardi and George Christensen take their cue from the election of racist, misogynist thug as president. Limacine mouth-breather Christensen has already complained that the government should have continued to prop up car manufacturing — apparently unimpressed the government will be spending 100 times more propping up local defence industry. Bernardi, keen to establish his own conservative moment, is delighted that a “movement against the establishment political parties, who have consistently and wilfully ignored the mainstream majority” is travelling around the world and, he hopes, to Australia. And One Nation naturally sees Trump as a full endorsement of their own agenda of hate, anti-Semitism and White Australia-style protectionism.

[Whisper it softly: is this government any better than Abbott’s?]

For Turnbull, who is struggling now to balance the expectations of an electorate that lives in the real world and far-right colleagues who live on a wholly different planet, it will only make life much harder. His economic agenda reflects exactly that precarious balancing act: it contains openly contradictory commitments to free trade agreements like the TPP and big-spending protectionism in the form of the absurd commitment to waste tens of billions of dollars to support fewer than 3000 jobs building submarines, while Barnaby Joyce runs a traditional rural socialist agricultural policy and Chinese investment is demonised and restricted. It’s a balancing act that achieves an uncanny mix of the worst of both worlds — trickle-down economics and meaningless preferential trade agreements coupled with traditional protectionism and xenophobia. Worse, it’s not working politically.

[Turnbull’s task: reversing from an ideological dead end]

Now either Turnbull allows himself to be dragged ever further to the populist right to appease the likes of Bernardi and Christensen and the 18Cistas who see threats to white male supremacy everywhere — thus, more attacks on asylum seekers, more culture wars assaults, more protectionism — or he finds a way to resist them. Not to become the leather-jacketed progressive of Q & A audience fantasy, but to at least appear to be his own man, not a permanent hostage to a claque of reactionaries. The only good in all this for Turnbull is that maybe it has brought forward the make-or-break moment where he has to start leading instead of following the right-wing rump of the his coalition.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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