Turnbull's Coalition: The most destructively divided government in Australian history?

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Australia's reputation falls from the second most admired global citizen to laughing stock as the post-Abbott rancour and division in the Coalition lives on. Alan Austin assesses the damage.

ALL VIBRANT governments and oppositions have internal policy differences. No surprise in that. No shame either. But nowhere in the developed world is there a government rendered so dysfunctional by internal dissent as in Australia?

How can we tell? These internal conflicts have allowed the best-performed economy in the world in 2013 to fall to about 15th-ranking now. They have undermined social cohesion and pushed the disadvantaged further to the margins. They have stultified national confidence and achievement. They have caused Australia’s reputation to fall from the second most admired global citizen to laughing stock.

At no stage in its history has Australia suffered such abysmal reverses in all these facets of administration in such a short period.

The ferocity of the factional fighting inside the Coalition today can be seen in pre-selection punch-ups across the country. Long-serving former minister and speaker Bronwyn Bishop is one of several casualties of bitter contests. Most new candidates appear to be male, confirming that the internal brawl over the role of women is being won by those who believe they should be home doing the ironing.

In recent weeks, damaging divisions have been exposed in at least 12 areas.

1. Climate change denial

Attorney-General George Brandis told the Senate last week that climate science wasn’t settled. This contradicts statements by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and other senior Liberals.

Environment Minister Greg Hunt said last June:

“We firmly and absolutely accept that climate change is real and taking action to combat it as imperative.”

This division renders that action less effective than it should be.

2. Allocation of funds to regions

Prominent Liberal ex-MP Sophie Mirabella revealed last week the Coalition had allocated $10 million to a hospital in her electorate, then withdrawn the funds because she lost the 2013 election. Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce has slapped her down.

3. Taxation policy

When Scott Morrison took over as treasurer from the hapless Joe Hockey, it was obvious to all that tax revenue had plummeted and action was required. Cabinet members advocating tax reform – including Morrison and Turnbull – seemed ascendant.

Proposals “on the table” related to negative gearing, the GST percentage, superannuation tax concessions, bracket creep and chasing the tax-dodging corporations.

This week Turnbull announced that supporters of the status quo – optional taxes for the rich and increasing imposts on the poor – had won. Next month’s budget will offer no serious tax reform.

4. Health care funding

Turnbull knows there is a serious shortfall in funds available to the states for hospitals and supports a funding increase – preferably, as the vote-winning centrepiece of the budget. The treasurer is opposed.

The Australian – in a headline unthinkable when Abbott was leader – declared:

‘Federal election 2016: PM and Scott Morrison split on $1bn health deal’.

5. Government borrowing

This is not so much a conflict between opposing individuals as a deep policy contradiction at the core of current economic management. The main line of attack against the previous Labor Government was over its “debt and deficit disaster”. In Opposition, the Coalition vowed to slash both. In government, they have increased both enormously.

6. Government spending

Similarly, the Government declares spending must be cut. Actual decisions have increased spending dramatically. According to the Mid-Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook [table D1], spending will increase from 24.1 per cent of gross domestic product in Labor’s last year, 2012-13, to 25.9 per cent this year.

7. High speed rail

Last month, Turnbull announced a high speed rail network along the nation's east coast to boost regional centres and ease capital city congestion.

This month, with Turnbull out of the country, the assistant minister for Cities, Angus Taylor, derailed the plan:

"In reference to media speculation surrounding a high speed rail connection from Melbourne to Brisbane, there is no commitment from the Federal Government to fund this project as it stands."

8. Banking inquiry

Senior Liberal and National members accept the glaring need for a banking inquiry following revelations of appalling rorts. Turnbull doesn’t. A stinging report by Fairfax – one of few accurate critiques – claimed:

‘Veteran Liberal MP Warren Entsch has lashed Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and senior frontbenchers for making a "captain's call" to oppose a royal commission into the banking sector.’

9. The United Nations

In opposition, the Liberal Party condemned Labor’s push for a UN Security Council seat. Now, in office, they have hypocritically milked it for every drop of kudos.

Currently, Liberals are split on whether to back Kevin Rudd for job of UN secretary general – which would enhance Australia’s standing in the world – or former Labour prime minister of New Zealand, Helen Clark.

Foreign minister Julie Bishop said

“Should Kevin Rudd nominate, then of course the Australian Government would consider what sort of support he would require.”

Tony Abbott and his supporters remain vehemently opposed. Even the pro-Coalition Murdoch Press has reported that ‘A war of words between Tony Abbott and Julie Bishop has erupted again’ over this.

10. Rural property sell-off

An unprecedented sell-off of pastoral land is underway with virtually every cattle and sheep station to come on the market being snapped up by non-resident investors.

Cabinet is split on this, with strident objections voiced when the iconic Kidman empire came on the market late last year. Last week, the sale to a foreign buyer was approved.

11. Tougher competition laws

This spat between cabinet supporters of small business and backers of big business has been won by the latter. Bruce Billson, a fierce advocate for a fairer go for the little guy, lost his job as small government minister in the last spill. Billson had tried – unsuccessfully – to get cabinet to approve amendments to curb the power of big companies.

12. Fremantle Port

The Nationals and the Liberals in the WA government are publicly brawling over the sale of Fremantle Port. In what The West Australian described as ‘a breakout of open hostility between the leaders of the governing parties’, Premier Colin Barnett said the Nationals were “abrogating their responsibility to govern”.

These are not the only current disputes. Others include the future of the steel industry, the Shenhua Watermark coal mine, defence procurement, rural water security and renewable energy. These follow more than 50 disputes splitting Abbott’s cabinet documented here and here.

These should be of profound concern to Australians who wish to enjoy a well-run economy, a harmonious community and the respect of the watching world. Clearly this category does not include the mainstream media, which refuse to scrutinise these destructive internal divisions.

These are particularly disheartening to those who had hoped Turnbull’s ascendancy would end the rancour of the dismal Abbott months. Clearly little has changed.

You can follow Alan Austin on Twitter @AlanTheAmazing.

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