Tuesday, 11 September 2012

Turnbull and Rinehart show the challenge for reformers

There is a lack of demand for reform now because the system seems to work well, writes Peter Reith. But that would soon change in a crisis.

Reform is often not pursued because the public do not see the need for change. Two case studies presented in speeches last week demonstrate the challenges for true reformers.

Malcolm Turnbull is one of a kind and has a lot to offer. He is a strong intellect, good on economics, respected in the commercial world, and a good speaker. So when he announced he would retire from politics before the 2010 election, I was among those who rang him and said, 'If you are not sure about leaving then stay in the Parliament, otherwise you will regret leaving prematurely'.

I was not alone in making the call. He stayed. But he is not now, and not about to be, a threat to Abbott.

Turnbull has not furthered his political standing within the Coalition since his defeat at the hands of Tony Abbott. Abbott, meanwhile, has cemented his position. Of course, nothing is certain in politics, but I reckon Turnbull is more likely to do "an Ian McLachlan" than enjoy the tenure of "a Philip Ruddock".

I will never forget Turnbull's Sunday TV performance before the leadership contest. Turnbull was at his best and worst; he put his case forcibly and with eloquence, but at the same time he savaged his own colleagues with a ferocity rarely seen from a leader who had hoped to continue to work with the colleagues he had just torn asunder.

His recent speech on constitutional reform is a good read. But he still does not mind giving his colleagues a burst; for example, where he says some direct electionists in the 1999 referendum were deceived by self-delusion and trickery generated by Coalition monarchist opponents. With that statement alone he killed two birds with one stone - and both from his own side.

It was interesting to note that he remains fairly opposed to the direct election model despite his view that:

In practice, if the first few directly elected presidents performed the duties of their office soberly and impartially, and eschewed populist demagoguery, then I believe the presidency could evolve into a constitutionally functional institution in line with most views of what is needed. The office would be defined by its early occupants, especially the first.

I opposed the 1999 model because, for me, it was a second-best choice compared to the direct election model that has worked so well in Ireland. I have no doubt that candidates for president would campaign on the premise that the conventions of the governor-general would continue, thus cementing Turnbull's prediction. In fact, all candidates would be under intense pressure to make a statement to that effect.

Turnbull's speech was to celebrate the work of the late constitutional expert George Winterton. He was not out to create trouble and apparently showed the speech, in advance, to Abbott's office.

I am glad Turnbull made the effort to reflect on the debate. I have no doubt the issue will be revisited simply because Australia is, in practice, a republic, and one day the country will want to align its reality with its constitutional arrangements.

There is a lack of demand for change of our monarchical system because most people feel the system works well enough, and they mix that with apathy. Apathy would soon disappear if a constitutional crisis suddenly appeared.

Similarly for the economy, if people feel that living standards are dropping and unemployment is on the rise then the support for genuine reform would rise. Australia has had over 20 years of GDP growth so naturally there has not been a lot of public pressure for economic reform. But now, as the mining boom tails off, the poor performance of the Australian economy under Labor will be increasingly laid bare.

Turnbull calls for better quality in the public discourse. That could start with ABC radio. It put up unionist Dave Oliver and John Buchanan (a supporter of Labor's workplace system) to ridicule a perfectly sensible contribution to the public debate by Gina Rinehart.

It would have been far more balanced to have an economics commentator noting that Rinehart was merely supporting a mainstream view of good economic management. Her basic message was that costs of business are running out of control and that government is not listening to the business people who know first-hand what it takes to employ a worker.

Rinehart made a number of comments that are irrefutable. Fortescue put off a thousand people last week and Xstrata announced another 600 job losses yesterday. She said Australia was becoming too uncompetitive. This is a statement of the accepted truth. It has been said by numerous business people for the past two years e.g. Jack Nasser, chair of BHP, and his CEO Marius Kloppers when announcing the deferral of Olympic Dam.

Nasser also noted the need for workplace relations reform. This is also a no-brainer as even the Government's own handpicked panel on IR admitted that the current provision for greenfield sites was a problem.

Recently the World Economic Forum ranking dropped Australia from 16 to 20 in one year - the biggest slide of any country. WEF also noted constraints on our infrastructure. BCA noted much higher labour costs in the resource sector and backed up the claim with a detailed study of comparable costs in the US. Rinehart mentioned labour rates in Africa - she did not advocate $2 wages in Australia. Her comment on statistics was immediately manipulated by the Treasurer and most of what she had to say was soon lost.

Turnbull's remarks were fitting to the Treasurer's response to Rinehart. Turnbull said:

In my view, all of this requires politicians to be especially careful to remember our responsibility to explain the big issues of our time. Dumbing down complex issues into sound bites, misrepresenting your or your opponent's policy does not respect "Struggle Street", it treats its residents with contempt.

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