After events this week it is hard not to conclude that Australia would have been better off had Malcolm Turnbull never become prime minister. Certainly anyone with a progressive outlook should share that view.
Harsh? Perhaps, but look where we are. This supposedly moderate leader is completely hostage to the right, and any voices at the other end of the pews in the Liberal party’s supposably broad church are conspicuously quiet.
With Turnbull as prime minister we still have all the negatives of an Abbott government – indeed Turnbull is so desperate to prove his conservative bona fides he’ll even go further than Abbott did on issues such as 18C. And on other issues where the hope was he would change direction, such as climate change policy, he steadfastly sticks to Abbott’s path.
This supposedly moderate leader is completely hostage to the right
But a Turnbull prime ministership is worse because it lacks Malcolm Turnbull in the ministry providing any meagre level of pushback to the most base nationalistic impulses.
Where is the man who once counselled with regards to changes to citizenship laws that “this is not a bravado issue; they’ve got to be the right laws”? Where is the man who once promised the Australian people he would offer “a style of leadership that respects the people’s intelligence”?
That man is now reduced to speaking lines more suited to a particularly poor contestant in a Donald Trump lookalike contest.
What a waste.
That man now stands next to Peter Dutton, spouting nonsense about foreign workers and Australian values that is greeted with glee by Pauline Hanson.
He must be so proud.
At least under Abbott there was a hope that perhaps Turnbull would become leader and put an end to the politics of divide and debase; that he would end the style of politics that sought to use terrorism to justify policies that carry the taint of racism.
But no. Now even that – admittedly small and misguided – hope is lost, and the conservative rump of the Liberal party is more rampant than ever.
The announcement on 457 visas was a prime example of how it has all gone wrong.
Done without anywhere near the proper level of consultation, the policy change was a perfect case of a government’s political solution making the policy worse.
The issue with the visas is not the workers but companies. Companies that use 457s to undercut wages, to exploit vulnerable workers, and to avoid the cost of training domestic workers. They get away with it because the “labour market testing” processes which are in place are so weak that advertising on your Facebook page is good enough.
And yet the thrust of the changes were focused on workers. Turnbull opened by arguing that “we are ensuring that Australian jobs and Australian values are first, placed first”.
The use of “values” in an announcement on employment visas should have been a warning siren for what was to come.
Typically for this government, the changes were a mix of things that will have no impact (damn, no more foreign goat herders) and things that have negative unintended consequences. Some of the occupations removed from the eligibility list, combined with the new requirement for workers to have had two years’ work experience before coming to Australia, means that some vital work – such as medical and science research – will likely suffer.
At a time when Trump is effectively telling the world the US doesn’t believe in science, Australia should be taking advantage to grab as much foreign talent as we can. Instead we’re putting up the shutters.
The use of 'values' in an announcement on employment visas should have been a warning
As for changes to labour market testing: despite a review into 457s that recommended the current system be abolished and replaced by an independent agency, no such changes will occur.
Instead, Dutton told reporters, the government was “going to work with the companies to make sure that they understand that they need to advertise”.
Yeah, that’ll do it.
Perhaps the biggest change to the 457 visa system was that the new measures would deny for some the ability to achieve permanent residency. This change was a precursor to the prime minister’s nadir on Thursday when he (again with Peter Dutton) announced changes to Australia’s citizenship laws.
Among the changes were a requirement to be proficient at English, a lengthier time as a permanent resident and a new test on Australian “values”.
In an extraordinary press conference, the prime minster found himself all at sea when he was (not surprisingly) asked if he could give a summary of the values he believed all Australian citizens should sign up to.
This was his answer:
“What we will, the answer is yes, but the discussion paper that Peter’s department has released is going to engage public discussion on this, as indeed Phil Ruddock and Connie Fierravanti-Wells’ work did a little while ago, and that’s been a valuable part of that too, but I think it is a, I think we understand, you know, Australians have an enormous reservoir of good sense, and we know that our values of mutual respect, equality of men and women, democracy, freedom, rule of law, those values, a fair go, they are fundamental Australian values.”
You can always tell when Turnbull knows what he is saying is foolish – his own brain rebels.
This very articulate man – easily the best orator in parliament – starts to jibber. He also tends to get defensive, as he did when he responded to a Fairfax journalist, James Massola, by charging: “Are you proud of our Australian values? Are you a proud Australian? Well you should stand up for it!”
He also clings to feeble logic, such as his argument that we need these changes even though we are already “the most successful multicultural society in the world”, because we need to “reinforce our success”.
Yes Turnbull, the great hope for intelligent government, is now arguing that changes which inherently make it more difficult for people of different cultural backgrounds to become Australian citizens will enable our multicultural society to be “more successful”.
It’s the type of logic you use when you have to make up a reason to do something that has no need to be done.
A look at the document outlining the proposed changes also shows just how false is the entire premise.
The introduction uses “recent terrorist attacks around the world” as the reason for justifying the changes. Dog whistling used to be so much subtler.
And among the values listed is “welfare as a safety net, not a way of life”. Now to me that sounds more like a Tony Abbott political statement than an “Australian value”.
But then I wonder how the prime minister’s view of the “fundamental value” of the “fair go” sits with his government’s treatment of people on that welfare safety net?
A treatment that has an automated system trawling for people overpaid by Centrelink and using debt collectors despite numerous administrative errors. Or does that fair go also include Turnbull’s own minister for social services using dodgy figures to falsely argue that the system is so broken that thousands of people on welfare are better off than were they to have a job?
But maybe all hope is not lost.
At times you can see Turnbull’s voice of reason struggle to the surface. This week in Tasmania, he said of renewable energy that “sometimes in a state like South Australia, where they have got a lot of wind, the price can actually can go into negative territory, there is so much energy being generated by wind”.
It was certainly not a line he pushed when accusing the Labor policy on renewable energy of forcing up electricity prices.
Alas, after this week it’s hard to have much hope. When prime ministers are seen to mouth things at odds with their own views merely to placate rumps within their party, things never end well.
And worse still, his poor performance has led to a development that should sadden anyone hoping the Liberal party is not lost to lunacy. The general consensus is that the most likely next leader of the Liberal party is Peter Dutton – he who has tarred migrants with the brush of criminality, vilified asylum seekers on Manus Island and joked about climate change.
There was a time when such a thing would have been considered laughable but this week, while Turnbull was undertaking his dash to nationalism, our high commission in India was promoting an Australian company that is selling “pure air” in a can to Indians.
Clearly we are at a point where no idea is so stupid it cannot occur.