By Malcolm Mackerras

Australia’s Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, celebrated his first anniversary in that office on Wednesday, September 14. The celebration/commemoration was the consequence of the fact that he won the 45th general election for the House of Representatives on July 2. Coincidentally, Pauline Hanson, the de facto winner of the 8th Senate general election, made her maiden speech that same night. For my comment on the reaction to that speech, see below.

On the night of Thursday, September 15, I appeared on Switzer TV to have a public conversation with Peter about Turnbull. I rated his prime ministership a B minus, which Peter noted, was better than most pundits who rated it as “pathetic”.

In this article, I explain my relatively generous rating of Turnbull, which is essentially an expectation of his second year, rather than a consideration of his first.

Looking back over the past three years of my articles on this website, I notice the large number dealing with former prime ministers. They are “Rudd a gutless wonder”  on July 3, 2013, “Why I admire Julia Gillard”  on July 24, 2013, “Musings on Gough” on November 10, 2014, “Remembering Fraser and a rewrite of history” on March 31, 2015 and “Former PMs share one thing in common” on October 22, 2015. I now believe Turnbull is firmly established in the office for a term of at least three-and-a-half years, so in the reasonably near future, I shall offer an article assessing his 28 predecessors. In the meantime, I note that past legislative achievement ranks highly on my scale to assess greatness, and I consider Turnbull on that score.

Turnbull’s first year

In Turnbull’s first year, his only legislative achievement was the Commonwealth Electoral Amendment Act 2016.

In purely historical terms, as an electoral reformer, that places Turnbull into the company of the following of his predecessors: Billy Hughes, who legislated for preferential voting in 1918; Ben Chifley, who introduced Senate proportional representation in 1948; Gough Whitlam, who achieved “one vote, one value” for the House of Representatives in 1974, and Bob Hawke who, in 1984, was able to achieve a massive reduction in the informal Senate vote, which had previously been scandalously high.

There is a difference between the cases, however. Hughes, Chifley, Whitlam and Turnbull all suffered a significant quantity of egg on their faces, but Hawke was able to stay Prime Minister for another eight years!

History shows that Hughes, Chifley, Whitlam and Hawke were proved right over the long term. I do not believe that will be true of Turnbull. I simply refuse to believe that a system as dishonest as this present Senate one can last very long. I think that, eventually, they will introduce a Senate system along the lines I have advocated for the past 60 years. For details, see my article “Senate reform still crucial” posted on January 15.

However, let’s get one thing straight. Notwithstanding the Greens’ denial that the new system DID resurrect Pauline Hanson’s One Nation Party. Her party did, indeed, get 600,000 Senate votes, but Hanson herself received only 250,000 in Queensland, or 9.2%.

Under the old system, at a half-Senate election, she could never have reached a quota of 14.3%. Obviously her Queensland number two, Malcolm Roberts, would not have been in the hunt with his miserable 77 votes. Nor could her interstate supporters, Brian Burston (NSW) or Rod Culleton (WA) have hoped to be elected. The interesting thing, however, is the different reactions to her maiden speech. The other three parties assisting her resurrection (Liberal, National, Xenophon) listened in respectful silence. The Greens, by contrast, stage-managed a walkout after ten minutes. That was a display of bad manners which, no doubt, played well to their particular gallery, but left the rest of us distinctly unimpressed.

Turnbull – Year Two

Turnbull’s second year got off to a flying start. On Friday September 16, royal assent was given to the Budget Savings (Omnibus) Act 2016 which provided for $6.3bn in savings and $4.6bn in tobacco excise increases, an $11bn improvement to the budget bottom line. Here was bipartisanship at its best, with both Coalition and Labor securing wins.

I have no doubt that the revised superannuation package will be legislated by year’s end – thus putting the government out of several month’s torture from the Liberal Party’s base. It will also improve the budgetary situation by $3bn if my reading of press reports is correct. All this has proved that Treasurer Scott Morrison and Finance Minister Mathias Cormann have operated as an effective team – with some help from shadow treasurer, Chris Bowen.

On Monday May 9, the Governor-General, Sir Peter Cosgrove, by proclamation dissolved the Senate and House of Representatives simultaneously, and listed three proposed laws which met the conditions of Section 57 of the Constitution. They were the Building and Construction Industry (Improving Productivity) Bill 2013, the Building and Construction Industry (Consequential and Transitional Provisions) Bill 2013, and the Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Amendment Bill 2014. During the 44th Parliament, they had been passed by the House of Representatives and rejected by the Senate in a way which created a Section 57 deadlock. Their future is still unknown, but I confidently predict all three bills will pass both houses soon. There will be some further amendments to secure passage, but there will be no joint-sitting of the two houses. To that extent, the double dissolution was justified by these bills and will be seen by historians to have been a success.

Problematic plebiscite

In one sense, a big problem for the government is the Plebiscite (Same-Sex Marriage) Bill 2016. It was presented to the Parliament at the very tail end of Turnbull’s first year. My own view continues to be that which I expressed in this website on September 4 last year, namely “Same-sex plebiscite a waste of money”. I expect the bill to be rejected by the Senate, but, in the unlikely event of the plebiscite being held, I would cast an affirmative vote, though without any great enthusiasm for the cause.

On the politics of the situation, I think Turnbull is positioned well. His speech on the bill was impressive, a neat balance of moderation and resolution. It looks as though Labor will take my advice and reject the bill, but its arguments for doing so will ring hollow. It lacks consistency on this subject, unlike The Greens.

Suppose the plebiscite is not held and Turnbull wins the next election, likely to be held in May 2019. Australia would then be without same-sex marriage, Turnbull having held the line, quite properly so. He would still be the Prime Minister, having won the July 2016 and May 2019 elections. Labor would then have rejected Turnbull’s plan to settle the issue in February-March 2017. Were that to be the way it works out, I would then be entitled to publish another article similar in judgment to that published on this website back on July 22, namely “Should Malcolm Turnbull be quietly crowing?”.

(Malcolm Mackerras is a visiting fellow at the Australian Catholic University’s Canberra campus.