It’s not true, as some commentators have suggested, that Malcolm Turnbull entered 2017 with no core message for voters or that his government lacks a narrative of some kind. Turnbull started the year with a key message in mind. He chose a New Year’s greeting — why politicians feel the urge to issue such things is a sublime mystery — to set out his message for voters. It was to be one of fear.

“Our police and security services have foiled a number of terrorist plots designed to undermine our society and scare us into changing our way of life which is the envy of the world. The way Australians responded to the most recent arrests says a lot about our great nation. We refused to be cowed or frightened and we went about our business — attending Christmas church services, including in one of the locations police believe was a terrorist target; lining up to attend the cricket; shopping in the sales; seeing the New Year in. We will continue to root out Islamist terrorists and violent extremists and put them behind bars…”

On and on it went, paragraph after paragraph. “Rest assured,” Turnbull insisted, “that national and economic security will again be my priority”. A sobering message as one recovered from a New Year’s hangover.

Remember, from long ago, the Turnbull of optimism? The man of “never a more exciting time to be Australian” who delighted at our capacity to embrace the challenges and opportunities of a rapidly changing world? Gone, replaced by a fearmonger who devotes a New Year message to extirpating Islamist terrorists.

Not that that’s entirely Turnbull’s fault. It said much about the narrow-mindedness of National Party and Liberal MPs that during the election campaign they objected to Turnbull’s sunny optimism about the future and his insistence on the importance of innovation, believing their constituents wanted to have their fear pandered to instead. They wanted a Little Australia, a timid country jumping at its own shadow, convinced everything was going to hell. So now that’s what they get from the Prime Minister.

Peter Dutton, who in his own mind, if in few others at this time, is Turnbull’s replacement, was poised to chime in with his boss, proposing a new, hardline citizenship test that would replace John Howard’s genial Bradman’s average-level factoids with, presumably, a learnt-by-rote recollection of every ASIO annual report of recent years. And last week, Dutton offered an incoherent and poorly written piece on Invasion Day and “a minority [that] comes to Australia with little respect for our values.” New Year’s Day, Invasion Day … one by one our holidays shall be transformed into pretexts for fear.

By last week, of course, the “Live In Fear” campaign had already gone to hell courtesy of the ongoing disgrace of Centrelink’s fake debt collection and volume 327 of the entitlements scandal. The latter claimed the scalp of one of the government’s most competent ministers, Sussan Ley; duds like Dutton, Greg Hunt and George Brandis and ministers with stronger factional support like Julie Bishop and Mathias Cormann were revealed to have committed far more egregious rorts, but kept their jobs.

Like the Abbott government, the Turnbull government is never more than five minutes away from another stuff-up, scandal or reshuffle. It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that there simply aren’t very many competent people in the Coalition — an impression reinforced by Greg Hunt and Arthur “I don’t recall” Sinodinos being the promotees in the latest, though doubtless not the last, reshuffle. 

Turnbull gamely battled on, trying to use the visit by Japanese Prime Minister Abe to promote his economic agenda. “While there is more than a whiff of protectionism in the global political environment,” he said in a joint press conference, “the Prime Minister and I are thoroughly committed to free trade and the open markets, to bringing into force the TPP … protectionism is not a ladder to get an economy out of a low growth trap, it is a shovel to dig it deeper.”

To his credit, Abe kept a straight face, given Japan had been given a deal to build Australia’s next fleet of submarines by Tony Abbott only for that to be abandoned in favour of building them, at exorbitant cost, in Australia (“with Australian steel”, Turnbull insisted at the time) in the worst protectionist decision by any government for generations.

And while Turnbull and his anonymous Trade Minister Steve Ciobo were continuing to play Weekend At Bernie’s with the TPP, still more micro-level protectionism was on the way. In an effort to prop up the unviable, emissions-intensive Portland aluminium smelter in regional Victoria, Turnbull and the Andrews government threw a quarter of a billion dollars at a multinational company and convinced AGL Energy to give the smelter the subsidised electricity it needs to operate with a semblance of competitiveness. What, exactly, AGL Energy gets in return isn’t clear, but John Durie nailed it when he noted that it would result in consumers paying higher electricity bills.

Indeed, the entire story of the Portland smelter has been of consumers paying higher electricity prices for decades to subsidise a multinational to produce aluminium there and employ, as it currently stands, less than 600 jobs.

That’s the insidious nature of protectionism — non-transparent deals in which the community wears an invisible tax that subsidises the jobs of a handful of manufacturing workers — because manufacturing has some semi-divine status in this country as somehow a more real form of work than services industries. Equally insidiously, it’s bipartisan. Indeed, if there’s a political consensus in Australia at the moment, it’s in favour of such grossly inefficient economic interventionism.

Portland and the submarines are, likely, just the start. Turnbull lacks any capacity to explain to Australians even simple things, let alone why protectionism hurts us, why it will cost jobs, not protect them, why it will cost families more, not less. Terrified of the Nationals in his own government, whip-smart economic interventionist Nick Xenophon and the fascist clowns of One Nation, Turnbull doubtless feels he has little choice but to keep pandering to protectionists. All the more so when the new American president declares: “we must protect our borders from the ravages of other countries making our products, stealing our companies, and destroying our jobs. Protection will lead to great prosperity and strength.”

It’s no longer the whiff of protectionism, it’s a stench, and it’s here too. This will not end well. Judging by the 1930s, it will end very badly indeed.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey