Malcolm Turnbull hoped to use this week to set the political agenda ahead of the commencement of the parliamentary year next Tuesday. Bill Shorten had spoken at the Press Club and offered a fairly timid vision, leaving the field open to the Prime Minister on Wednesday to use the power of his office to determine what issues would dominate the formal opening of the political year.
Donald Trump wrecked all that: Turnbull spent the first half of the week refusing to comment on Trump’s Muslim ban, despite the clear threat it posed to national security. Then yesterday happened. All of that was out of Turnbull’s control — for better or for worse, Turnbull had his strategy settled for Trump, and it didn’t work. Now he picks up the pieces.
But there were two moments in Wednesday’s Press Club address that in retrospect are alarming for those hoping Turnbull might lift his political game in 2017. Both are variants of the same problem.
The speech was scheduled on February 1, which everyone knows is the day the Australian Electoral Commission releases political donations data for the previous financial year. Even in a normal year, that would be likely to mean a political focus on donations — especially given there was an election on July 2 last year. But Turnbull has a particular issue of his own on donations — his own colossal contribution to the Liberal Party to prop up its election campaign. Moreover, that issue was going to be unresolved because Turnbull made the contribution after 30 June. Perhaps scheduling requirements meant there was no alternative day for the speech, but any sensible planner in the Prime Minister’s Office should have known the issue would come up on Wednesday. Perhaps one or more did, but Turnbull decided to keep silent about his donation — indeed, glibly dismissed a question about it despite minutes earlier talking about the importance of transparency. Within a few hours, he’d worked out what a shocking look this was, and went on 7.30 to try to fix it.
Apart from looking awful, Turnbull’s unrevealed donation has deprived the government of what should have been a killer line about Bill Shorten’s promise to improve political donations laws — that Shorten himself is the single most egregious violator of those laws of recent years (and that’s a pretty big call).
The second was on clean coal. Whatever you may think of the fiction that clean coal is a viable solution to either the broader challenge of decarbonisation or the government’s problem that it has no policies except the Renewable Energy Target to meet its Paris Agreement commitments, it’s now part of Turnbull’s agenda. He flagged that the government may be prepared to subsidise clean coal power plants, probably the one actually new element of his speech.
Except, again, either no one in his office had done the proper planning, or Turnbull pressed ahead in the face of it. Energy companies and energy industry bodies queued up to dismiss new coal-fired power investment out of hand; The Australian Financial Review ran not one but two articles on the industry’s rejection of the idea, sometimes in quite brutal terms.
Good planning would have involved getting Energy Minister Josh Frydenberg’s office to sound industry out about the level of interest in clean coal investment, perhaps even with the thought of teeing up support from industry in the wake of Turnbull’s announcement. If it happened, the answer would surely have come back negative and the PMO might have reconsidered going hard on it.
Apparently it didn’t happen. The only people welcoming it were the climate denialists at the Minerals Council.
Both bungles must frustrate Liberal insiders and old hands who know these are eminently avoidable problems. You can’t do much about a renegade US president. But you can do the basics in your own office properly, you can anticipate problems and questions and plan for them, you can make sure your agenda isn’t derailed the moment you reveal it because of foreseeable problems. Turnbull on Wednesday sought to make a virtue of his lack of political ideology and his pragmatism. Maybe that’s fine for a Prime Minister, maybe not — but his office should be intensely political, and politically astute. Turnbull’s recovery can’t start until that happens.