By Jonathan Bogais —
Australia’s new prime minister Malcolm Turnbull singled out Tony Abbott’s apparent denial about the serious challenges facing the country’s economy and his inability to communicate his economic agenda to explain why he challenged his predecessor in the ruling Liberal Party on September 14. Turnbull said, “The prime minister had not been capable of providing the economic confidence that business needs.”
Turnbull says he intends to initiate new debates on the economy and introduce policies to replace the previous focus on deficits and surpluses with serious discussion about how to stimulate long-term productivity growth. In a sign of support for the new prime minister’s reform efforts, Abbott’s closest ally, Treasurer Joe Hockey, introduced a bill in parliament on September 16 to alter existing tax laws to target mostly (international) companies suspected of avoiding their fair share of taxes in Australia through complex offshore arrangements.
As Australia’s 29th prime minister, Turnbull has said he is committed to be “a consultative leader who runs a traditional collaborative cabinet government,” as he moved to distance his approach from the controlling, unpredictable style of the man he had just dispatched. Abbott was notorious for his idiosyncratic, self-styled captain’s picks and some unilateral decisions reflecting his personal world view. Turnbull said his style – and the policies he would support – would be that of a “thoroughly Liberal government committed to freedom, the individual and the market,” adding “there are few things more important in any organization than its culture”
Recently, Australian federal politics has gone through a tumultuous time. The trashing of trust, never-ending instability, the bitter divisions on refugees and asylum-seekers Abbotts’s willingness to involve Australian forces in armed conflicts, and the secrecy around policymaking (especially policies curtailing freedoms) have left much of the Australian public feeling short-changed by its political leadership. Whether Turnbull can break the mold remains to be seen, as difficult challenges, both domestic and international, lie ahead.
Domestically, Turnbull will promote more women in his cabinet, and has promised transparency, consultation, and better communication. He is in favor of same-sex marriage and has previously supported proposals for a conscience vote on the issue within the Liberal Party.
Unlike his predecessor, Turnbull believes that climate change is real and must be addressed. Yet, the only concrete policy issue he addressed the night he seized the premier’s mantle was to confirm the Abbott regime’s Direct Action climate policy, which environmental advocates have opposed. Turnbull said “he did not want Australia to take leadership in climate change policies.” He would prefer, for now, a circumspect approach that would allow the continuation of current policies, especially regarding coal production.
Defense and Security
Australia is about to release a White Paper reflecting the government’s overall strategic, fiscal and broader policy defense and security priorities. It is also in the midst of a tender for a $38.8 billion submarine-building program, part of a nearly complete overhaul of its navy. There is domestic pressure, because many members of parliament hope for a major strategic and industrial shift under a Turnbull-led government to help South Australia’s shipping industry secure a greater share of the project.
Turnbull’s comments on security stand in stark contrast to those of Abbott, who has criticized the opposition for “rolling out the red carpet” to terrorists. The Labor Party had expressed concerns about recent citizenship-revoking legislation. Turnbull has previously downplayed threats to national security from Islamic State militants, warning against turning the counter-terrorism debate into a “caricature” and stirring-up ethno-cultural divisions in Australia. Instead, he called for a balanced debate on national security and civil liberty. “Like Americans, Australians do not define national identity by reference to race, religion or a particular culture; rather in a shared commitment to common civic values,” he said.
Turnbull’s experience in risk assessment and negotiation could become his greatest asset in foreign policy. As opposed to Abbott’s muscular approach to diplomacy, Turnbull said that “responding to China’s rise and its implications for Australia’s place in Asia requires a more sophisticated diplomacy from Australia than has been seen so far.” He added that, “a careful balance in Australia’s positioning with both powers [United States and China] is needed.”
Turnbull’s ability to balance trade and security paradigms – for instance, the implementation of the China-Australia Free Trade Agreement – signed on June 17 in Canberra and due to be in force by the end of this year – and the trilateral defense cooperation between Australia, the United States, and Japan, in the midst of China’s growing assertiveness, will be a decisive factor in his leadership.
Dr. Jonathan Bogais is a non-resident senior associate with the Sumitro Chair for Southeast Asia Studies at CSIS. He is also an adjunct associate professor in the Department of Sociology and Social Policy at the University of Sydney.Visit his personal site: www.jonathanbogais.net.
Dr. Jonathan Bogais is a senior associate (non-resident) with the Southeast Asia Program and an adjunct associate professor in the Department of Sociology and Social Policy at the University of Sydney.