Malcolm Turnbull
Malcolm Turnbull (Image: AAP)

How much do you trust the Turnbull government to actually get something done that would benefit Australia? To deliver the NBN? To run a major IT project? To safeguard your privacy? To deliver major defence projects on time and on-budget? To deliver affordable power, and safeguard against climate change? To ensure wages grow faster than inflation?

The answer probably has a lot to do with the way you vote, of course. But there is clear evidence that Australians’ trust in government at a low ebb. Earlier this year, Crikey looked at some of the reasons behind this fall in trust: the way governments have infantilised themselves when it comes to basic service and infrastructure delivery; rising inequality, the perception that governments are working for vested interests, not citizens.

It’s clearer now that something else can be added to this. Something we might call the Turnbull Syndrome. That’s when you add ideology and malice to pre-existing low levels of competence, creating the policy and political equivalent of toxic sludge — and accelerating the erosion of citizens’ trust in government. Some examples:

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NBN: When we privatised a vertically integrated Telstra, we outsourced our capacity to build telecommunications infrastructure. When Labor decided to build the NBN, few understood that meant rebuilding the capacity to build such infrastructure within the public sector, as well as build the network — while it was expected to price assets commercially. But to that mix was added Malcolm Turnbull, implementing Tony Abbott’s ideological demand to “demolish the NBN”. The result — a disastrous mix of incompetence and ideology, with Turnbull’s version of the NBN facing massive delays, running over budget and frustrating consumers with disastrous technology choices.

Energy: Twenty years in the making, the stuffing-up of electricity on the east coast was the fault of both parties and privatisers and government owners alike, creating a system ripe for exploitation by oligopoly energy companies. But enter Tony Abbott and his climate denialist agenda to destroy a low-cost, effective carbon pricing system and kill off renewable energy, creating massive uncertainty for investors at a key moment in Australia’s inevitable transition to renewables.

Wages: Having abandoned centralised wage-fixing, curbed the role of unions and allowed companies to dominate markets, Australia set the scene for our current period of wage stagnation over an extended period. But during our current bout of wage stagnation, the Turnbull government also supported cuts to penalty rates, warned against increases in the minimum wage and demonised trade unions at the behest of business.

Privacy: As the 2016 census demonstrated, public sector agencies now lack even the skills to properly oversee their private sector contractors, let alone carry out IT functions themselves. But to this well-earned reputation for IT bungling was added the Abbott and Turnbull government’s surveillance agenda — not merely via data retention and powers for security agencies, but its own demonstrated willingness to use private information for its own political purposes — NBN sending the AFP after politicians’ emails, Alan Tudge using a robodebt critic’s private information against her, the AFP accessing a journalist’s phone records. The result: a scheme like My Health Records is, correctly, not trusted by large numbers of Australians because they believe the government can’t protect their data or will use it against them.

Financial regulation: Both sides of politics backed the Wallis Inquiry recommendation about giving ASIC regulatory power over consumer finance. Both sides presided over a toothless ASIC that the banks treated with contempt. Both sides imposed efficiency dividends on ASIC. But it was the Liberals who tried to reverse Labor’s Future of Financial Advice reforms and bitterly resisted a banking royal commission and it was Tony Abbott who carved a huge chunk out of ASIC’s budget as it was becoming clear it was hopelessly inadequate. Malcolm Turnbull even cut ASIC’s budget again in the most recent budget. The result: the mess of financial regulation that we’ve seen unfolding this year.

Why call this the Turnbull Syndrome? Wasn’t Abbott just as much to blame? The problem is, we’d all hoped Turnbull would be the exact opposite of Abbott. We expected a more moderate, less ideological, less nasty type of leadership from Turnbull. Above all, we expected competence, at last, from our Prime Minister. Instead, he deserves blame for combining incompetence with ideology and malice in a way that has wrecked Australians’ faith in government.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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