Opinion

Turnbull isn’t convincing on the so-called bread-and-butter issues. And there is growing pessimism that it is already too late for him to turn that around. By Paul Bongiorno.

Paul Bongiorno
Republican Turnbull’s thorny crown

Tonight Malcolm Turnbull will help the Australian Republican Movement celebrate its 25th anniversary. No one has done more for the movement or been more closely identified with it. The expectations are high among republicans and the moment is dreaded by monarchists. But that is only half of it.

The man who would like to see the end of the crown sitting on top of our federation is himself more like the king in Shakespeare’s Henry IV. As one commentary situates the famous lines in Act 3 of the play: Henry is tired, sick, guilty and beset by rebellion. He laments that the young sailor perched high on the mast of his ship, despite the winds and waves, can nod off to sleep. But not him. He laments: “Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.”

While Henry probably regrets seizing the throne from the pathetic Richard II, Turnbull certainly doesn’t regret dethroning Tony Abbott. In fact, he often says he’s never been happier.

But tonight is particularly anticipated because the republic – along with same-sex marriage and a price on carbon to deal with climate change – is an issue strongly identified with him. Even his conservative critics in the media, such as Andrew Bolt and Janet Albrechtsen, believe he is in so much strife politically because he is widely perceived not to have the courage of his convictions.

But the mere fact of his turning up at such a high-profile republican bash is more than enough as far as the Australian Monarchist League is concerned. Its chairman, Philip Benwell, sees it as a provocation and warns Turnbull risks a severe backlash in his party room that could split the government. Benwell says the prime-ministerial presence gives an imprimatur to the Australian Republican Movement’s goal of having a plebiscite leading to a referendum within five years.

Republicans aren’t so sure. Since becoming prime minister, Turnbull has tied the republic to the death of the Queen. His friend, current ARM supremo Peter FitzSimons, says Turnbull is looking to him to build a popular groundswell for the change. If that is still the case, and no one is expecting a Keating-like timetable to be part of tonight’s speech, it is naive. The reason we got to a referendum in 1999 is precisely because Paul Keating as prime minister seized the initiative to put it on the national agenda. John Howard had no option but to go on with it. He then used his status to undermine support for the “yes” case. The fact remains that without the prestige and gravitas of the head of government pushing the need to repatriate the ultimate symbol of our independence with a homegrown head of state, it’s not going to happen. So far, Turnbull’s greatest gesture as prime minister on this front was ditching Abbott’s knights and dames from the Australian honours.

But there are some on the government backbench, sympathetic to the republic, who still can’t understand why Turnbull accepted the invitation to be the star turn at the event. One says it’s a lack of judgement, sending the message that the prime minister is out of touch with the struggles and concerns of ordinary Australians. There is a view that this is not the issue to turn around the government’s fortunes and Turnbull’s standing.

Maybe not, but this is always the argument put up by the republic’s opponents. It presumes Australians can’t walk and chew gum at the same time. What gives this view potency is the fact that Turnbull isn’t convincing on the so-called bread-and-butter issues. And there is growing pessimism that it is already too late for him to turn that around.

The handling of the government’s climate change policy review and the mess that is national energy policy is a case in point. Western Australia’s premier, Colin Barnett, summed it up when he told the Council of Australian Governments gathering last week that “Australia hasn’t had a rational national energy policy for a decade”.

That summit broke up in hostile disarray with no agreement on a cost-effective way to reach our emissions targets agreed to in Paris – let alone what we’ll do beyond 2020 to reach zero net emissions by 2050. The New South Wales premier, Mike Baird, is curious as to how Turnbull proposes to do that. The suspicion is he doesn’t have an answer. It will be someone else’s problem. He has the next election to win.

There can be no other explanation for the head-in-the-sand attitude pushed by those who want a rerun of the carbon tax scare campaign no matter what at the next election. On this score, Turnbull is sounding more and more like the man he deposed. He pledges this government will do nothing to push up electricity prices. He conflates an “emissions intensity” scheme with such a tax – even though it is the market that puts the price on carbon and the polluters who pay for it. Consumers and taxpayers benefit in the long run. That is the view of the CSIRO and the government’s chief scientist.

Underlying much of the scoffing from the right at those who are convinced Turnbull has sold out on climate change is the fact that Australia’s emissions account for 1.3 per cent of global output. No matter what we do, they say, we won’t make any real difference. What they ignore is that Australia’s ageing, dirty, coal-fired power stations are being progressively closed down. Engie, the French company that owned and shut the brown-coal-fired plant at Hazelwood in Victoria, is pulling out of high-emission fossil fuels in line with worldwide economic trends. Australia is being forced into a transition without any credible national policy to cope with it.

The emissions intensity scheme was an opportunity passed up for crass political purposes. Worse, it has now emerged that the demonising of South Australia’s renewable energy policies ignored the ridiculous restrictions imposed when the national grid was set up and power stations privatised. Sitting at Pelican Point near Adelaide is a cleaner gas-fired, base-load power station. It can’t be fully utilised when needed due to national competition rules and contractual obligations. At least at Wednesday’s energy ministers’ meeting in Melbourne this absurdity began to be addressed.

But don’t let mere facts get in the way, especially when the Australian Energy Market Commission report found that the abrupt closure of Hazelwood would push up annual energy bills by an average of $78 for the next two years. This is a happy dovetailing with the Turnbull narrative. Victoria’s energy minister, Lily D’Ambrosio, insists prices will start coming down as more wind power comes online.

If that happens ahead of the next federal election, due in 2019, it may deflate Turnbull’s plan to make electricity prices a defining difference with Labor at the poll. Labor sees Medicare as a bigger defining difference. The opposition believes the government has not twigged to how its treatment of Medicare is a running sore. Turnbull is still railing against Labor’s big lie on the privatising of the national health insurer. But he has done nothing since the election to show he has learnt anything.

Symptomatic is a whistleblower’s claim from within Medicare that it has an increasing backlog of outstanding rebate claims. The figure is now 180,000 and growing, according to this source. These claims used to be handled in a couple of days before the government stopped them being processed in Centrelink offices. Now people are waiting five to six weeks for the rebates to be paid. Those affected are mainly older Australians confused by the new arrangements.

The backlog is denied by the government. It points out that 97 per cent of claims are done electronically at doctors’ clinics but admits instances of patients double dipping, unaware their rebate has already been paid and heading off to Centrelink to make a paper claim. “This can gum up the system,” a source told me. But Labor says the people affected are the very ones Malcolm Turnbull accused Labor of scaring with its privatisation campaign.

GetUp! is urging people to contact government MPs and complain about “backdoor privatisation”. It says the continuing freeze on the Medicare rebate for GP visits is “driving doctors out of bulk billing and leading to gap fees of $40 for patients”. Echoing Labor’s arguments, it says that while it impacts everyone, “it hurts pensioners, the chronically ill and people on low incomes the most”.

Treasurer Scott Morrison has spent much of the week softening up the nation for his Mid-Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook update on Monday. Besides blaming everyone else – and mainly Labor – for his worsening deficit, he has drawn attention to the cost of running welfare and health. We learnt that Medicare expenditure will, for the first time, exceed $25 billion in 2019-20. It is already running at $21.8 billion. Never mind that our universal health insurance scheme is one of the most cost-efficient in the world and about half the expense of the inequitable United States system. But perhaps, like his prime minister, the treasurer is blindsided by the numbers and cannot grasp how the patients who are also voters see things.

Eventually they may take the crown from Turnbull’s uneasy head, and give it to someone else.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 17, 2016 as "A republican’s thorny crown". Subscribe here.

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