PM Turnbull promised us serious but we’re getting soap opera

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When Malcolm Turnbull took the leadership last year from Tony Abbott, he reasoned his predecessor just wasn’t up to the task of providing the economic leadership the country needed. This is what Turnbull said:

“The big economic challenges that we’re living through here and around the world offer enormous challenges and we need a different style of leadership … a style of leadership that respects the people’s intelligence … we need advocacy, not slogans.” It was a profound thing to say, and he was exactly right.

Roll forward several months and here is the current character of the economic policy conversation.

There’s an intraday fixation about whether Turnbull and his treasurer, Scott Morrison, are not very secret frenemies – in large part because the prime minister and treasurer look and sound like they want different things just about every time they open their mouths.

As fixations go it’s reasonable enough. Reforming governments require prime ministers and treasurers to work together, synthesising their various conflicts, in the national interest, and if they can’t or won’t then governments will find themselves in trouble fairly quickly.

But, frankly, I am not very interested in whether or not these guys want different things or refuse to share their play lunch, or dream big and scheme small – I actually just want them to get on with delivering what Turnbull promised, which was a serious conversation about economic policy.

I really don’t give a stuff about Turnbull and Morrison’s first-world problems. Let me repeat. I don’t care.

I strongly suspect voters don’t give a stuff either. I suspect voters have had more than a gutful of political discussion and political reporting manifesting as little more than commodified narcissistic dysfunction ­– clickable and shareable soap opera – because dealing with substance is just too hard, both for politicians and for political reporters.

So let’s push past the soap opera to the government’s substantive conversation, which started out broad, and dangerously free flowing in the best sense.

Recent evidence suggests it’s now shrinking into predictable formulations and short-term tactical flourishes that do nothing to address the substance of Australia’s medium-term problems.

After a long amble around tax reform, with a brief rest-stop at new federalism, we are back to the Abbott-era absurdity that Australia does not have a revenue problem. There is also a near meaningless formulation that Australia just has to live within its means.

On the ABC on Monday morning, journalist Michael Brissenden attempted to cut through the vacuousness of the formulation by pointing out that taken to its logical extent, we would not borrow for infrastructure, we would not build for the future, we would not allow students to borrow money to fund their education. What does this living within your means concept actually mean?

The treasurer said he believed Australian households knew exactly what living within your means meant. “It means you manage your finances responsibly, it means if you do need to spend extra money then you find savings.”

This explanation is just a whisker away from suggesting Australian households don’t borrow, or seek supplementary income, in order to provision productively for their future – which is an absurdity, and one really unworthy of an occupant of the treasury portfolio.

Over this past weekend I read a Quarterly Essay from journalist George Megalogenis, who did not mince words about Australia’s current economic policy predicament.

Megalongenis’s essay made me ropable about the seemingly inexorable recurrence of stupid and vapid in the economic policy space. In the opening passage of the essay he pushes past the oft-repeated weasel words of “economy in transition” to explain what that actually means.

“Australia is in transition. Saying it is easy. The panic kicks in when we are compelled to describe what the future might look like. There is no complacent middle to aim at. We will either catch the next wave of prosperity, or finally succumb to the great recession.”

Megalogenis contends we need a profound debate in Australia about the role government plays in our economy: “It is being forced on us by the market failures of the 21st century. Both sides cling to the open model because it tells them a reassuring story of Australian success – but that open model has been exhausted by capitalism’s extended crisis and the end of the mining boom. It cannot guarantee prosperity in the future without an active state.”

He also has some advice for the prime minister: “If Turnbull is to reset the budget debate, he has to abandon the Liberal mantra that taxes must always be cut. Both sides of the budget have to be deployed in the search for fairness and efficiency, and in the present climate that means an active search for ways to unwind the Howard Gift without crushing the economy.

“The Coalition can’t lay claim to the future until it adjusts to the two big shocks of our age. The first shock is that the version of capitalism favoured by conservatives is broken. The crisis entered its ninth year in 2016, which places it in the same category as the global depressions of the 1890s and 1930s. The epicentre has shifted from the American housing market and Wall Street to Europe. Now it threatens China, the nation most likely to end Australia’s long economic winning streak.”

Megalogenis notes the prime minister “is to the right of most Australians on economics and a little to their left on social policy. He has faith in markets and multiculturalism. However fate has dealt him the responsibility of renewing the open model by going against his own instincts for smaller government.”

It’s a big challenge, that kind of reshaping, and one worthy of a politician who likes to consider himself a serious person.

The government has, in essence, set its own election clock. We have the budget period coming up. This will allow for a reasonable test of whether Turnbull and by extension, Morrison, were serious or not in the opening gambit concerning the importance of restoring economic policy leadership.


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