Well it wasn’t what was hoped for, and certainly not what was required; but it was better than nothing.
That was the objective assessment of Malcolm Turnbull’s week – indeed, the entire Autumn session of parliament, perhaps even his whole political career.
And given the fulsome plaudits of his backers (The Australian’s Paul Kelly gushed pontifically PM UNDER PRESSURE COMES UP TRUMPS, with apparently no pun intended) it will have to do – at least, it should suffice to secure his leadership until the next major crisis, which should be for a couple of days or so, unless Tony Abbott erupts yet again.
The new yardstick of the government is, it seems, near enough is good enough, or perhaps the mantra of the previous Labor firebrand but now convinced Murdochian Graham Richardson: whatever it takes.
Thus vast amounts of political goodwill and taxpayers money were bargained away to Pauline Hanson (sugar) and Nick Xenophon (nominally energy but actually South Australia) to ensure the passage of a little less than half, in dollar terms, of the corporate tax cuts which formed the basis – if not the totality – of the national economic plan Turnbull took to the last election.
Even in his own terms it is a fizzer; giving the loot to small and medium businesses (up to $50 million each) may give a veneer of fairness, but will deliver very little, if anything, in the way of jobs and growth, the alleged point of the whole exercise. There are more small to medium businesses than big ones, but they deliver very little bang for the buck; if there is to be any worthwhile trickle down to the workers, it needs the economies of scale that only the big boys can provide to start the process moving.
Turnbull’s compromise will spend almost half of the cash to be allocated (and Labor and the Greens will still maintain that it should have been spent on health and education, no doubt with numerous examples of the penury of both) but will make no difference at all in the immediate future and not much even in the furthest distance. The best that can be said (and has been by the gleeful right wing commentators) is that that will be $24 billion Labor cannot count on for its next election platform. True, but hardly the unalloyed triumph the backbench was demanding.
Turnbull will keep the rest of his $50 billion budgeted (more zombie measures?) and will now have to look for a plan B (which the business community does not believe he can manage) to keep the momentum going. But before he settles down to that, he will still have to hose down the disgruntled punters over his support for reduced penalty rates, his submission to keep the minimum wage as minimum as possible, and the continuing threat to cut benefits, still enshrined, or perhaps entombed, in the deliberations of the senate.
And even before the last, frantic two days of parliament as the desperation to pass something – anything – that could be ticked off for the welcome recess consumed the headlines, there were still the week’s normal distractions and blunders to manage. The ratification of the extradition treaty with China, which was supposed to be Turnbull’s farewell gift to the visiting premier Li Keqiang,
But Tony Abbott said he wasn’t happy about it, and when Turnbull’s troops briefed journalists that Abbott had in fact promised to ratify the treaty himself, Abbott responded by leaking advice from his then department of Prime Minster and Cabinet warning against it. The Australian’s Greg Sheridan was apocalyptic, partly on his dear friend’s behalf and partly because that’s just what he does. But by then Cory Bernardi and the Liberal heavies were already openly revolting, so Turnbull performed a pre-emptive surrender, to the acute embarrassment of many of his cabinet colleagues and, presumably, the annoyance of the Chinese. Labor, which had always been consistently against ratification, gloated gently.
But the gloating became more vociferous when the same bunch so determined to preserve human rights – in China, that is, to hell with human rights for asylum seekers incarcerated in Nauru and Manus, and of course total damnation for the bleeding hearts of the United Nations – failed in their bid to secure the right to insult, offend and humiliate their fellow Australians whenever a so-called “reasonable person” who could be found to defend the Brandisian proposition that they were allowed to be bigots.
This defeat was, of course, far less important than the extradition treaty – indeed, even the electors in Barnaby Joyce’s chosen pub would have probably marked it about evenly for utter relevance to their concerns. But the angst within the party room, remained unassuaged. And of course they were sooled on by the elitist ideologues of the Murdoch press, who rushed to return to their own vomit. So if it was better than nothing it was only just better, and suspicion the remained that Turnbull himself had run dead on the issue, he had been dragged reluctantly into the fight and before it had even begun, he had made his excuses and left.
So in the end the fact that bribing Xenophon had provided half a win, which could just as easily be characterised as half a loss, was hardly the crowning triumph to the Autumn session which might, perhaps, have been hoped. But in reality not too many, even within the government’s own ranks, were ever very optimistic. Increasingly parliament is seen as a chore best avoided, a place where mistakes can be and frequently are made, and ministers – including the Prime Minister – dither and stumble. Thus the troops will be only to happy to have a decent break before the next big crunch: the budget.
Here, it is already clear that Turnbull and his tacticians are planning to spend their way out of trouble: housing and rental affordability will be the big ticket item, but there are bound to be plenty of other sweeteners on the way. And the bill? Yet to be totted up, but with the down payment of some $24 billion for the company tax cuts already signed off, it won’t be pretty, which means nor will be the debt and deficit.
Still, Morrison will still maintain that it will be less than it would have been under Labor. It’s not much, but it’s better than nothing.