Malcolm Turnbull must live up to his promise

Bookmark and Share Ideas & Liberty | James Paterson
The Australian 1st October, 2015

Malcolm Turnbull's first press conference as Prime Minister struck the right rhetorical note: he promised to lead a "thoroughly Liberal government committed to freedom, the individual and the market".

This was music to the ears of Australians who want to see the Liberal Party stand up for freedom. With these words, the new Prime Minister placed himself firmly in the philosophical tradition of the free-market Right, the broad cross-section of liberals and conservatives in Australia committed to the philosophy of individual liberty and free enterprise.

The Abbott government had many significant achievements, including making Australia the first developed country to repeal a carbon tax, embarking on an impressive and ambitious free-trade agenda, and brave decisions to end corporate welfare handouts by turning down demands for bailouts from SPC, Qantas and the car industry.

However, the Abbott government disappointed the free-market Right on fundamental issues such as tax, industrial relations and freedom of speech.

Turnbull's rhetoric must be reflected in policies. He set the standard, which he now must live up to.

Some of the Prime Minister's early decisions are puzzling. The announcement the government will seek a seat on the UN Security Council in 2029 is a strange early priority. Australia must ensure its strong, values-based foreign policy is not compromised in the pursuit of votes at the UN.

The recent National Reform Summit, jointly sponsored by The Australian, The Australian Financial Review and KPMG, was a worthwhile exercise born out of a frustration that economic reform has stalled in Australia. But the government's decision to reconvene a mini-summit today in Canberra includes those who were the biggest obstacles to a pro-growth reform agenda at the original summit, particularly the increasingly partisan and backward-looking union movement.

They ensured that essential components of a pro-growth reform agenda were not canvassed at the summit. Discussion of industrial relations reform, without which productivity growth is likely to continue to slow, was vetoed. Support for the landmark China-Australia free-trade agreement was unmentioned. No agreement was reached on the need to cut high and increasingly uncompet­itive corporate and individual tax rates. The ACTU is not a good source of advice for a new Liberal Prime Minister.

Turnbull should demonstrate that his government has learned the lessons of the Coalition's first budget. The "temporary budget repair levy" was a mistaken effort to help sell the budget politically.

This income-tax increase left Australia with one of the highest marginal tax rates in the world, broke an election promise and undermined the Liberal Party's brand as the party of lower taxes.

What's more, the government received zero credit from the media, its political opponents or the public for doing so. The deficit levy should be abolished. The government also should go one step further and promise any tax reform will result in lower taxes - not more revenue for the federal government.

The lack of progress on industrial relations reform is a significant source of dissatisfaction for many who believed the Coalition would lead at least some liberalisation of the workplace. Turnbull does not need to launch Work Choices 2.0 - yet. But at the very least a modest deregulatory agenda would boost business confidence. The government should focus on penalty rates, the anti-employer bias of the Fair Work Commission, oversight of rogue unions and removing barriers to disadvantaged Australians joining the workforce.

A core issue for the free-market Right is freedom of speech. It was deeply disappointing when the Abbott government abandoned its pledge to fix section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, the law that sent Andrew Bolt to court.

Turnbull is on the record as supporting a compromise measure proposed by Family First senator Bob Day, and co-sponsored by Liberal Democrat David Leyonhjelm and Liberals Dean Smith and Cory Bernardi. Day's bill would remove the words "offend" and "insult" from 18C, meaning it would still be an offence to "humiliate" or "intimidate" someone on the basis of their race. It's a proposal so reasonable many on the Left support it. An announcement that it will vote for Day's private member's bill would be a powerful demonstration of the values of the Turnbull government.

Equality of all Australians under the law is a core principle of our modern liberal democracy, but it was threatened by Tony Abbott's personal crusade for constitutional recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders. Many Australians hold the view there is no place for race in the Constitution. They may be willing to support the removal of outdated provisions that refer to race, but they will not accept any new references to race being inserted because they believe all Australians are equal and should be treated as such in the Constitution. The Constitution should be changed - to remove all refer­ences to race and the power for federal government to enact laws based on people's race. Proceeding with a change that divides Australians is not only bad policy but also risks splitting the Liberal Party.

The government will be assessed against the standard it has set for itself. Australia will be a better place if the new Prime Minister delivers on his promise to lead a "thoroughly Liberal government committed to freedom, the individual and the market".