Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata once said, “It’s better to die on your feet than live on your knees”.
Contrast Malcolm Turnbull. Our Prime Minister is like Napoleon in Russia in 1812. He’s retreating from his electoral Moscow, harassed and attacked every step of the way by a rampantly populist Bill Shorten and Labor from the left, picked off from the right by snipers like Pauline Hanson and Cory Bernardi, and his troops’ discipline is crumbling.
Turnbull isn’t helping himself either. Last week, just for starters, he excruciatingly dodged attributable positions over the Fair Work Commission penalty rates decision, the hate speech section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, and overreacted to the latest criticism by the man he rolled 18 months ago, Tony Abbott.
Flattened by Labor
On penalty rates, Shorten, Labor, and the unions are flattening a tentative Coalition simply by rejecting the FWC decision – pursuing populism over policy just as they did so devastatingly last year with Mediscare, and in gainsaying almost every significant Coalition attempt since 2013 to rein in the burgeoning deficit Labor themselves left.
Even with two years to the next election, the Turnbull government is living on its knees. It’s high time it prepared to die on its feet.
The May budget is the government’s survival tipping point. The first budget after an election is where the toughest political and economic calls are made. It is always high-risk but, if successful like John Howard and Peter Costello’s in 1996, a tough, saving budget can set up the government for the term and beyond. If botched like Tony Abbott and Joe Hockey’s in 2014 it can cause a world of pain, leaving the Turnbull government’s chances of recovery at slim to zero.
Senior minister and self-styled “fixer” Christopher Pyne has said the government will not push its luck in putting big bold savings plans to the Senate and the populists controlling the political agenda. But even the fixer should know this fixes nothing. Worryingly, insiders indicate a piecemeal budget reflecting Pyne’s risk-averseness, Band-Aiding political problems like housing affordability and Medicare but capitulating to the Senate on debt and deficit.
Time to go for broke
Instead, Turnbull and Treasurer Scott Morrison should imagine they have clear majorities in both houses of Parliament, and frame a go-for-broke budget for Australia, not their political survival.
They should embody Liberal core beliefs in free enterprise and personal responsibility. Set out a clear, understandable narrative. Reject big-spending populism for fiscally responsible centre-right policies and mainstream community values. Ensure each new dollar spent is at least matched by one saved. Scrap the questionable $50 billion submarine project, not the $50 billion company tax cuts. Find offsets to fund unfreezing GP Medicare rebates. Go further with labour market reform. Take ideology out of energy security. Embrace penalty rate reform that keeps small businesses open. Maintain a strong social safety net but reduce welfare dependence, slash waste and red tape, and reduce public debt. Balance tolerance and respect with fixing the excessive reach of 18C and the obscene human rights industry it has spawned. Anticipate the looming impacts of huge disruptive technological change, robotics and automation on jobs and the economy.
In short, show some leadership and ticker.
Malcolm, use your budget and remaining political capital to bell the populist cat. Stop retreating and take a stand. Choose your ground, challenge your opponents, and make them account for their irresponsibility when they inevitably move to block you. Negotiate with the Senate opportunists but, if all else fails, do not cave in and be prepared to take your reasoned case to the people.
Done boldly but strategically, framed by a clearly understood vision calling out its shamelessly populist antagonists, the Coalition can yet claw back lost support and give business added confidence. But if it can’t, it’s better the government tries and fails, standing for more than itself by confronting populism on all sides.
Voters and businesses want a government that governs, not necessarily yet another leadership change. Turnbull and his team can win back doubters by boldness and courage – but only if they dare to fail. If the Coalition’s drift and lack of cohesion, conviction and purpose continues, and the Prime Minister’s own vacillation persists, it is doomed to a political generation in opposition. Turnbull must channel Zapata, and get his struggling government off its knees and on its feet. He has nothing to lose.
Terry Barnes is a policy consultant and former Howard government adviser. This op-ed first appeared in the AFR.