Opinion

Paul Bongiorno
Malcolm Turnbull’s first 100 days since election assessed

Malcolm Turnbull is still blaming “Labor’s big lie” over the privatisation of Medicare for the fact he barely held on to government. It was 100 days on Monday that he scraped back in. Bill Shorten marked the day by trying to bring on a debate over Medicare. He’s convinced the government hasn’t learnt the lessons of July. But it’s not Medicare that has dominated the first period of the second Turnbull government. That title has gone to same-sex marriage. And if Shorten thinks Medicare will be just as potent next time round, there is every indication marriage equality will be, too, if the issue remains unresolved.

In the campaign Shorten promised he would deliver a parliamentary vote on same-sex marriage within the first hundred days if elected. A nice piece of symmetry, considering Turnbull was struggling within the same time frame to establish a national plebiscite on the issue. The opposition’s birthday present was to finally announce it would join the Greens, the three Xenophon senators and Derryn Hinch in blocking the move.

Whatever the merits of this – and there are many according to reputable experts in mental health and constitutional law – Turnbull smelt a bigger rat. “Honourable members opposite should remember that it was not long ago that their own leader … supported a plebiscite,” he told the parliament. “He advocated a plebiscite. What’s changed?” Turnbull continued: “The thing that’s changed is the politics. The Labor Party is not so much interested in same-sex couples being able to marry as they are in wringing every ounce of political gain out of this debate.” 

Of course, he is half right. But the politics Labor is playing has been given to it on a silver plate by a Coalition that was divided on this and other key issues before the July election and since. The difficulty for Turnbull is the split between the hardliners and the moderates. Throw in bruised egos and thwarted ambitions and all Shorten has to do is add water and stir. And stirring he certainly is.

Turnbull insists this term of government is all about delivery. Already his government has set in train $195 billion in spending over the next 10 years on defence assets. But he was reminded at a news conference this week – called to highlight a restructuring of the ASC (formerly the Australian Submarine Corporation) – that he, too, had flipped on the worth of the plebiscite, but in the other direction. Three times he was asked if he had a plan B that would allow a free vote of the government parties. Three times he avoided answering the question, instead demanding the parliament do its job. 

Turnbull can hardly bale out before the parliament has actually voted on the issue. With Attorney-General George Brandis, he accuses Labor of standing in the way of a reform they all support. But there is agitation in the ranks. The Coalition hardliners, such as the Nationals’ Andrew Broad, are warning that their support of the Coalition government is tied to the plebiscite only: “What we took to the election.” The clear threat is any deviation will see that support withdrawn.

Liberal supporters of reform are pushing the argument that once they have discharged their duty by voting for the plebiscite, they should all be free to follow their consciences when it comes to a private member’s bill. And that includes ministers. To back their view, they are circulating the transcript of a news conference Tony Abbott held on the night of August 11 last year. That was the night he engineered the plebiscite and killed off a free vote. The transcript in question has mysteriously disappeared from the web.

In it, somewhere close to midnight, the then prime minister told the bleary-eyed media: “I’ve come to the view ... that this is the last term in which the Coalition party room can be bound, although we will definitely maintain the current position for the life of this term.” We are now into that new term. The one that Abbott thought the party room could not be bound.

The issue has framed the first 100 days. Labor, the Greens and marriage equality advocates intend to make it just as prominent in the remaining 995 days of this term. In fact, Alex Greenwich, of Australian Marriage Equality, believes – maybe hopes – it will be done and dusted by the end of the year.

It won’t take too many attempts to suspend standing orders to bring on a private member’s bill, to firmly establish that it is the Turnbull government and not the Labor opposition that is saying no to same-sex couples wanting to marry. The senate will certainly pass such a bill. The tug of war over that will again keep the issue alive. It is, as Turnbull himself said last year, a distraction the government can do without.

The 100-day anniversary fell on the same day Newspoll showed Turnbull’s approval on a continuing downward trajectory. The Coalition trailed for the second successive poll, 52-48 two-party preferred. Wits around Parliament House were noting the PM has only 28 more bad Newspolls to go before he equals Abbott’s record of 30, the number used to trigger the 2015 coup.

One of the achievements Turnbull trumpeted this week was the parliament’s passing of the so-called Country Fire Authority bill. Government senator Michaelia Cash was able to persuade 10 of the 11 crossbench senators to come on board. It needed nine when Labor and the Greens were opposed. Union emissaries thought they had Pauline Hanson with her three colleagues onside. But in the end it was the politics of the issue that won her and the others over. 

As he did in the election, Turnbull played it for all it’s worth. He delivered, he says, on his commitment to the brave volunteer firefighters who save lives and property. “Their independence, their autonomy is being undermined by the Labor state government. It is supported here by the federal opposition at the behest of a militant trade union.” There is still smouldering anger in federal Labor at the complacence of the Andrews government and its failure to use all its resources to “put the facts on the table”. No counter-campaign, no full-page ads, no TV spots is the lament of one key Labor strategist.

ACTU secretary Dave Oliver told Radio National the cynical distortion of a standoff over an enterprise bargaining agreement became an effective weapon to bash unions. He says this bashing was blind to the fact that 1000 Country Fire Authority professionals also stood to get substantial pay rises. Some of the independent senators told the unions they might have won the argument with them, but they had lost the politics. Winning the politics has not been much in evidence from Turnbull since then.

Not helping him is the performance of his close ally, Attorney-General Brandis. His latest pasticcio – a lovely Italian word for mess – has him facing serious and credible charges that he has deliberately misled the senate. It is over no trifling matters. Rather, it goes to his handling of contentious legislation on the marriage plebiscite and the stripping of dual-nationality terror suspects of their citizenship. But beneath it all is his relationship with Solicitor-General Justin Gleeson, SC.

Gleeson was fed up to the point of supplying a 48-page submission to a senate committee contradicting the attorney-general. With forensic detail, he established he wasn’t consulted as Brandis claimed he was. Further, he was verballed when the AG said Gleeson’s advice was that the citizenship bill would survive the High Court.

Labor won the support of 36 senators to 29 to set up the inquiry. It’s looking into a directive Brandis snuck into the senate at the last minute before the election. That directive requires everyone from the governor-general down to first ask his permission before seeking advice from the solicitor-general. This power grab is sure to be disallowed. When the committee reports next month, it will also most likely recommend the senate censure Brandis.

Not a good look for trust and accountability. But feeding into it all is crass partisan politics. Brandis’s fellow Queensland Liberal senator Ian Macdonald let the cat out of that bag when he launched a scathing attack not only on Gleeson but also the president of the Human Rights Commission, Gillian Triggs. Brandis tried to force her out in one of his earlier glorious interventions. Her crime, like Gleeson’s, is that she offered a different view from his government’s. Evidently, if advice from statutory independent officers is too fearless it must be tainted.

Macdonald railed in the senate: “If you want to be captured by the Labor Party’s political approach, if you want to become a player in the political system, then do the right thing by your position ... resign.” He accused both Gleeson and Triggs of being involved in political games and of diminishing their positions. But what is actually being diminished is the standard of behaviour tolerated by a government led by a man whose record shows he knows better.

The arrival of Turnbull at the top was welcomed as a restoration of civil standards. Like so much else, it is a work in stalled progress.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 15, 2016 as "The hundred days score". Subscribe here.

Paul Bongiorno
is a columnist for The Saturday Paper and a regular commentator on ABC Radio National Breakfast.

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