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Two years after he took power, it is possible to judge Malcolm Turnbull against the standards he set when he challenged for the leadership. By Karen Middleton.

Making sense of the PM’s first two years

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull in Canberra this week.
Credit: AAP Image / Mick Tsikas

On the eve of the second anniversary of Malcolm Turnbull toppling Tony Abbott as prime minister – and on the day he overtook him on duration – both men were out fighting fires.

Abbott’s were literal, the former leader having taken a day’s parliamentary leave to join his local Davidson rural fire brigade in battling an early-season blaze on the fringes of his northern Sydney electorate.

Back in Canberra, his successor was facing metaphorical outbreaks – new backbench rumblings over the government’s approach to renewable energy that had, as they often do, just the tiniest whiff of arson about them.

On the first anniversary of his opponent’s elevation, Opposition Leader Bill Shorten had declared the Turnbull government to be marked by Liberal Party infighting and parliamentary chaos under what he dubbed “the second coming of the Sun King”.

Better with the fire hose than he was a year ago, Turnbull marked his second anniversary with a spring in his step and an unconvincingly charitable nod to his predecessor.

“It’s been two years of great achievement,” he told parliament. “But above all it’s two years since I became prime minister building on the outstanding work of the Member for Warringah. And what that has done is delivered strong jobs growth.”

The previous night, in a troublesome senate, he had brokered a crossbench deal that had eluded successive governments to ease Australia’s strict media ownership laws.

If he pulls it off, Turnbull will count this high among his successes.

His existing list includes the creation of 300,000 jobs in the year; the overhaul of schools funding, including recruiting the architect of Labor’s funding blueprint, David Gonski; a small business tax cut; the big-bank levy; a feasibility study into “Snowy Hydro 2.0”; and the resurrection of the construction industry watchdog, albeit marred by this week’s forced resignation of its chief, Nigel Hadgkiss, who admitted breaching the very rules he was supposed to be enforcing.

Turnbull is a self-described pragmatist, a trait that has resulted in dizzying public changes of direction, including on tax and energy.

At the two-year mark, Turnbull biographer, journalist and ABC presenter Annabel Crabb detects a marked change in the politician she first wrote about as Liberal leader in 2009, in her Quarterly Essay Stop at Nothing.

“The fascinating thing about Malcolm Turnbull as PM, I think, is that he is in many respects the opposite of what everyone expected,” Crabb says.

“His last stint as Liberal leader showed him to be impatient with fools or internal opponents and much given to the reckless grand parries – think Utegate – for which he was well known in his legal career.”

But Crabb observes a shift in Turnbull. “When he returned to the leadership, most believed – some in hope, some in dread – he would be a champion for moderate causes within the Coalition. What he’s actually turned out to be is a patient negotiator with the senate and a leader of seemingly endless tolerance for the persons with whom he disagrees within his own party. It’s actually quite extraordinary, this change in him.”

Others interpret the change less generously.

To mark the prime minister’s second anniversary in office, The Saturday Paper asked some public policy proponents to assess the government’s work, considering economic wellbeing and prosperity, the social fabric, management of natural assets, security, and Australia’s place in the world.

These measures add to Turnbull’s own metrics which he had levelled at Abbott in justifying a leadership change: a failure of economic leadership; poor communication, defined by a style that favoured slogans over advocacy and didn’t respect people’s intelligence; the loss of 30 consecutive Newspolls; failure to consult or run proper cabinet government; and policymaking on the run.

Independent economist Saul Eslake credits Turnbull with having grown full-time employment and improved business conditions.

“Perhaps most encouraging of all,” Eslake says, “are the clear signs that have emerged over the last couple of months that business investment – outside of the mining sector – is starting to pick up.”

But he said growth in gross domestic product and household income had slowed, leading to a drop in household savings and weaker consumer confidence.

“The Turnbull government has done much better than its immediate predecessor in getting legislation through the parliament, despite having a less favourable position,” Eslake said.

But he says Turnbull has failed to deliver the promised economic narrative. “Such ‘narrative’ as there has been has been obscure, unpersuasive, and not clearly grounded in any obvious principles. It has, rather, been reactive and at times incoherent.”

Eslake argues that Turnbull has run a more effective government than Abbott and consulted more widely but that slogans remain.

For his part, though, Turnbull is trumpeting his record. “Jobs and growth is not a slogan,” he says. “It is an outcome.”

Citing economic statistics in his defence, including a rise in growth, Turnbull declared: “Our economic plan is working.”

Former deputy prime minister and Nationals leader Tim Fischer praises Turnbull’s diplomatic efforts.

“PM Malcolm has done well on the international front,” Fischer tells The Saturday Paper.

He credits him with quickly establishing good relations with Canadian counterpart Justin Trudeau and Singapore’s Lee Hsien Loong.

“His pivot to hub Singapore is smart on all fronts,” Fischer says. “Malcolm deserves more credit for putting some lateral thinking into the Australia–Germany connection, which has not always been prioritised.”

He says Turnbull has done “extremely well under duress” in managing the United States relationship under President Donald Trump.

“However, he needs more traction on the domestic front and maybe this will emerge over the next quartile,” Fischer says.

Social researcher and author Hugh Mackay says the economic and social picture is somewhat gloomy.

“The truth is, people are feeling actually worse off than they were a few years ago,” Mackay says.

He says Turnbull’s rise coincided with the palpable decline in voters’ esteem for politics and politicians.

“The fact that we’re in the state that we’re in is certainly not his fault,” he says. “They don’t necessarily think anyone else would do any better … But he certainly gets zero.”

Mackay says voters mark Turnbull down because he raised expectations, pointing to a gap between Turnbull’s image before and his priorities afterwards.

“People assumed that if he got the top job, suddenly the republic would be back on the agenda because he’s Mr Republic.”

Instead, he was “off to meet the Queen” and Bill Shorten was taking the lead on that issue instead.

“There’s no score for him on that and there’s no score on same-sex marriage,” Mackay says, arguing he is seen to have compromised in its handling.

Likewise, his prime ministerial priorities on energy seem contradictory. Voters remember he supported emissions trading but are now asking: “Is this the man who’s talking about clean coal and keeping Liddell running? Is this the same guy?”

Melbourne University professor and Indigenous leader Marcia Langton credits Turnbull with better handling communications about terrorism and Islamophobia than his predecessor.

“I never thought I’d be saying this, but I think they’ve got the settings right on homegrown terrorism,” Langton says. “I’m not as freaked out by it as I used to be. Attention-seeking politicians are going off the reservation every now and then but mainstream politicians are dealing with it in a reasonable way.”

But Langton also has criticisms. She says the government still doesn’t adequately value universities or the core subjects of science, technology, engineering and maths.

“We’re not keeping up with the rest of the world in turning out smart science graduates,” Langton says. “We really need to do a lot better. The chickens will come home to roost on this issue. Our economy simply won’t be competitive.”

Langton is concerned that too much responsibility in Indigenous affairs has been handed to the states, where she says issues and funding just disappear.

The prime minister has also not yet responded to the Referendum Council report on Indigenous recognition, received three months ago.

“I think he’s slipped it away because he just doesn’t want to deal with it,” she says. “So that’s very disappointing.”

Businessman and former Howard adviser turned Australian Conservation Foundation president Geoff Cousins makes a similar criticism on energy policy.

Cousins was part of a group of 17 business people calling themselves the Energy Transition Leadership Forum who, in November last year, handed the government a blueprint for shifting to clean energy.

“I haven’t heard a word from the government from that day to this,” Cousins says.

The former ad man whose lobbying tactics saw Turnbull previously describe him as a “rich bully” is scathing about the prime minister’s environmental record.

“During his prime ministership we had Australia sign the Paris agreement,” Cousins says. “Not a single policy in that area has changed since we signed that. We set targets. We didn’t change a single thing to reach them.”

He describes Turnbull’s energy policy as “a series of stunts” and “Trumpean showmanship”.

Cousins says he had welcomed Turnbull’s elevation.

“I think there was a great sigh of relief from everyone … that things have to be better,” he tells The Saturday Paper. “He raised expectations. He particularly raised them in the tax area.”

But Cousins says they have not been met. Instead, Turnbull has floated ideas then quashed them.

“That is a fundamental political error and the work of an amateur.”

He concedes Tony Abbott’s behaviour has made Turnbull’s job harder.

“What should the prime minister do? He should call him out. But he doesn’t do it. He hasn’t got the ticker. He just wants to hang on to his job by any means.”

Unsurprisingly, Opposition Leader Bill Shorten agrees, calling Turnbull “a failure”.

“Two years ago we got a new prime minister who promised economic prosperity,” Shorten told The Saturday Paper. “He supported marriage equality, he was a warrior for the environment and tackling climate change, he said he would pursue advocacy instead of slogans, and he pledged to respect the intelligence of the Australian people. Today he is completely different to the bloke he said he was two years ago. The only thing he has kept is his name.”

Shorten accuses Turnbull of presiding over wage stagnation and falling living standards.

“Two years ago I thought my job would get harder,” Shorten says. “But I also thought politics would be better for the change. But nothing has changed. I don’t know why the Liberal Party bothered replacing Tony Abbott at all.”

Greens leader Richard Di Natale criticises Turnbull’s stewardship, especially of energy policy.

“Malcolm Turnbull has been a huge disappointment and it’s now clear that he doesn’t stand for anything,” Di Natale tells The Saturday Paper. “He may be prime minister, but it’s obvious that Tony Abbott and the coal club are the ones pulling the strings.”

Di Natale also condemns Turnbull’s approach to human rights.

 “He has put questions of basic rights to popular surveys,” Di Natale says.

“[He has] allowed innocent people seeking asylum to rot in offshore hell holes and stands silent while hateful far-right groups are mobilising in our backyard … What’s the point of being leader if you have to sell out everything you once believed to get there?”

Several think tanks also offer a mixed report card.

The chief executive of the Grattan Institute, John Daley, marks Turnbull high for his schools funding reform.

“It’s a substantial step forward in something that’s been vexed for a very long time,” he says.

But he says microeconomic reform is “not a very happy story”.

“The biggest obstacle to reform is not the senate,” Daley says. “It’s getting it through the party room.”

Daley is concerned about the of interventionism, saying recent developments in energy policy are a spectacular example of the historical French economic model of state intervention.

“Dirigisme is back,” he declares.

The Australia Institute’s senior research fellow, David Richardson, rests his critique on rising emissions and sluggish wages. He says inequality has also risen.

“Turnbull has given us the unique experience of business confidence generally increasing while consumer confidence deteriorates.”

The director of the Institute of Public Affairs, John Roskam, says the Turnbull government hasn’t delivered on its promises.

“The prime minister said he would lead a thoroughly liberal government and we’re still looking to find where that sentiment might be,” he tells The Saturday Paper.

Roskam singles out concern over higher taxes, describing the education changes as a negative not a positive. “They don’t go to the quality of what is taught,” he says.

But for Roskam, the key is what he calls “the emerging values debate” and a perceived reluctance to engage.

“Until the Coalition finds a purpose, it is going to continue to struggle,” he says. He said a Liberal government should stand against demands for more government intervention, spending and interference.

“The challenge for the Liberal Party over the next five to 10 years is whether what divides the party … is greater than what unites it,” Roskam says. “There is a limit to how broad the church can be.”

Turnbull continues to be haunted by the very specific benchmark he set for himself two years ago, in criticising Abbott for losing “30 Newspolls in a row”.

“Maybe he could repair the situation a bit by, on something, just being a bit courageous,” Hugh Mackay suggests.

Turnbull’s supporters take comfort that even after what are now 19 bad Newspolls, he still outrates Bill Shorten as preferred prime minister.

But then, in 1996 the same polls showed voters preferred incumbent Paul Keating to the greyer John Howard, right up until they tossed him out of office.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 16, 2017 as "Making sense of his first two years ". Subscribe here.

Karen Middleton
is The Saturday Paper’s chief political correspondent.

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