When Malcolm Turnbull successfully challenged Tony Abbott for the Liberal leadership, and the prime ministership, he cited the fact the Liberals had been behind on 30 successive Newspolls. This, he argued, necessitated a leadership change, and a change in policy direction.
Now, Turnbull is quickly catching up to Abbott’s poll record, with not much to show in terms of policy reform.
With the Federal Parliament taking a five-week break before the May budget, it is timely to review the Turnbull government’s policy record and the challenges it faces.
Although the government has faced numerous hurdles in getting its legislative program through the Parliament; internal dissent, the defection of Cory Bernardi, and the ever-present white-anting by the Abbott-led conservative clique, have greatly contributed to the impression the prime minister is under siege.
Three issues have dominated the policy debate in the past 12 months.
First, same-sex marriage. While Turnbull promises to uphold Tony Abbott’s commitment to a plebiscite, it is clear a majority of federal parliamentarians would pass enabling legislation if the prime minister decided to allow a conscience vote.
This issue is a distraction Turnbull could quickly remedy. The die-hards on the right can be dispensed with. The prime minister’s appeasement of them hasn’t brought any benefits so far, only more dissent.
Second, the capital versus labour debate, which is fought out over penalty rate cuts and company tax cuts.
While the Fair Work Commission recommended some cuts to Sunday penalty rates in the retail and hospitality industries, the government took some time to avoid their support for lowering the wages of some of Australia’s lowest paid workers.
With the backing of employer associations, government ministers were out there extolling the economic benefits of cutting wages for the lowest workers in the most highly-casualised industries.
It must be remembered annual wages growth is the lowest on record. The proportion of wages compared to profits is also at a record low. So, at the same time as cutting the wages of the lowest paid, promoting a tax cut for Australia’s largest companies will never be an electoral winner. Labor will ensure this is a major issue at the next election, which may be in late 2018.
Third, budget reform. Debt and deficit is no longer a mantra the government can pursue, because it is saddled with even larger issues than the Abbott-led government faced. With most of the 2014 budget cuts still on the books, but blocked by the Senate, the deficit continues to increase.
The 2017 budget will be the defining economic document which, with other major issues, determines the electoral future of the Turnbull government.
More of the same economic rhetoric aimed at ostracising low-paid workers and welfare recipients will fail. An alternative vision appears constrained by the economic rationalists in Treasury and senior government ministers.
When Turnbull became prime minister, many of his supporters believed the Coalition government would be more inclusive and egalitarian. Little did they realise the hold the hard-right had on the government, and Turnbull’s reluctance to challenge them.
Ian Tulloch is an Honorary Associate (Politics) at La Trobe University.