MUNGO MacCALLUM. Malcolm Turnbull’s future.

Dec 27, 2016

The Chinese will be celebrating the year of the rooster. But for Malcolm Turnbull it is more likely to be just another year of the chicken. If not the feather duster.  

‘Twas the week before Christmas, and such was the case, the bad elves were planning to blow up the place: terrorist incidents and threats around the globe, even a dastardly plot thwarted by the good elves in marvellous Melbourne. And there was an explosion in the Canberra car pack of the Australian Christian Lobby; although unfortunately for the Lobby’s head prophet Lyle Shelton it turned out to be a non-political event, despite his fervent prayers to the contrary.

But for Malcolm Turnbull, it was still a time of peace and goodwill: the ratings bomb was not dropped. To the great relief of Malcolm Turnbull and Scott Morrison, their fiddle with the Future Fund, along with persistent grovelling, had paid off: Santa Claus Standard and Poors, Moodys, and whoever the third one is allowed them to retain their AAA status – well, at least until the new year, so the holiday break can proceed on schedule, as long as you discount Cory Bernardi.

As the invaluable Ross Gittins has pointed put, the ratings agencies actually don’t matter much; whatever credibility they once had was demolished by the GFC. But the self-appointed arbiters of fiscal virtue continue to cower politicians across the world.

The reality is that they have little or no power; their influence comes from the perception of power – rather like Cory Bernardi, in fact. In the global economy, investment decisions are not made by self-appointed bean counters in their darkened rooms, but on the hard facts surrounding the returns likely to be screwed out of nations who can be sufficiently desperate to accommodate their rapacity.

But tell that to Turnbull and Morrison (not to mention Bill Shorten and Chris Bowen) who have elevated the teetering edifice of the AAA rating into an icon rivalling the Australian flag – a kind of national virility symbol, where even the smallest evidence of a droop portends disaster and chaos.

This has given the agencies the ability to engage in a prolonged prick-tease: will they or won’t they downgrade? The closest analogy is, remarkably, the Great Barrier Reef. In a similar manner the bureaucrats of UNESCO constantly threaten to list the reef in danger – it could be moved down the world heritage listings. Obviously their decisions will have no direct effect on the reef itself, but they could – indeed, probably would – affect the Australian tourist trade, and it is for that reason that our various governments, mainly those in Canberra and Brisbane, are running, leaping and crawling to their supposed masters.

And this, perhaps, is the good news: the imaginary threats are the most likely incentive for action. Without the ratings agencies and the world heritage commission our various administrations would most likely just bumble along as usual. So perhaps the shiny bums of Paris and New York are not merely parasites; they are more in the nature of gadflies.

Which brings us to the real question: what, if anything can Turnbull and Morrison scavenge up for the new year, when, yet again, they will be expected to provide, if not answers, at least a smattering of progress?

We have been reliably informed (well, by the Murdoch press, which is the best thing we have for a conduit to the Prime Minister’s Office) that our glorious leader is preparing to make a major statement (yes, another one) outlining his agenda in the early days of 2017. This new national economic plan is to be all about delivery – budget repair, responsible fiscal management, far-reaching but practical. And above all it will be firm, but fair. There will be losers, but they will be across the board. So probably everyone will hate it, not just the usual victims.

The theme of this manifesto is not yet decided, but it is unlikely to reprise jobs and growth, given that unemployment has just risen and the GDP has just plummeted. Nor will there be a lot spoken about innovation, which the punters now realise is newspeak for insecurity, job losses and lower wages.

But for the formula to be even half-way credible, it will have to be fairly drastic. Turnbull will have to break the habits of the last year and embrace a smidgen of daring, even of conviction. He will have to abandon his easy lines about how awful the Labor Party is, was, and always will be; he will have to start taking responsibility for his own government while he still has it. In short, he will have to be positive.

This will not be a simple task, given the multiple balls and chains with which his party have garlanded him with, and the masochistic eagerness with which he has embraced them. But to secure the goodwill of the ratings agencies – and, perhaps more importantly, to show some spine if they abandon him – there is no alternative. So Malcolm Turnbull’s new year’s resolution is a horribly straightforward one: grow a pair, or at least one small one to start with.

His swansong for 2016 was to put a tiny toe in the water: he addressed the Republican Movement shindig and said that he was really, truly, still one of them. But – and with Turnbull these days there is always a but – the time to raise the masses was not yet.

It would be only courteous, not to mention prudent, to wait until the long-lived royal boiler, our beloved queen Lizzie, finally dropped off the twig. Then perhaps, after a decent interval, we might begin to consider thinking about commencing a tentative campaign towards an initial plebiscite towards – who knows? — a full scale referendum.

It is more than 17 years since the last one, but Turnbull is still not ready to get back on the horse. And judging by the furious mutterings of the right wing over even this timorous proposal, he may never manage the remount. And so, as the promise of a new year emerges, the Prime Minister fades even further into the sunset.

The Chinese will be celebrating the year of the rooster. But for Malcolm Turnbull it is more likely to be just another year of the chicken. If not the feather duster.

Mungo MacCallum was a senior journalist who worked for many years in the Canberra Press Gallery.

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