Malcolm Turnbull’s coup against Abbott has been the subject of much commentary, and I didn’t have anything to add. But now it’s time to look beyond the juggling of Cabinet positions and to consider some of the long term implications. Turnbull’s rise takes off the table, or radically changes the politics of, a number of issues that would have been central to an Abbott election campaign. Most obviously, there are the issues (climate change, equal marriage, republicanism) where Turnbull is known to agree with Labor but has said he will stick with Abbott’s policies. Obviously, Turnbull can’t run hard on these. It remains to be seen whether Labor can make political mileage out of the contradictions involved.
The ground Turnbull wants to fight on is that of economic liberalism, primarily as represented by the so-called Free Trade Agreements with Korea, Japan and, most importantly, China.
Turnbull has the near-unanimous support of the elites on these deals, even though it’s hard to find even a single economist who would support them with any enthusiasm. Anyone who has looked seriously at the issue understands that the trade aspect of these agreements is trivial. What matters are the side clauses on issues like Investor-State Dispute Settlement procedures, intellectual property, environmental protection and so forth. Unfortunately, political journalists, as a class, don’t do much thinking.
Here, for example, is Laurie Oakes, asserting that
>Labor needs to end up supporting this trade deal. That is the bottom line
but not providing a single argument in favour. In typical “Insider” style, Oakes says
The government charge that Labor is sabotaging jobs would not be a difficult one to sustain.
without worrying about whether this charge is actually true (it isn’t).
In the case of CHAFTA (the unlovely acronym for the China deal), the big problem is not in the agreement itself, but in a “Memorandum of Understanding”, which provides for circumstances under which a Chinese company can import its own workforce, without labour market testing (that is, even if there are Australians willing and able to fill the jobs) and without matching existing conditions.
According to Peter Martin, this was given to the Chinese side as a consolation prize because the government was unwilling to lift restrictions on property purchases, and has in fact tightened them. Indeed, while the government was demonising any concerns about this deal as “racist” and “xenophobic”, Joe Hockey routinely crowed about forcing foreigners (invariably stereotyped as Chinese) to sell properties they had illegally acquired in the North Shore.
No one in the government or among its supporters is willing to defend this aspect of the deal. Rather, what we get is waffle like the following from NSW Labor Right figure Chris Minns
There has been much talk about the terms of Chinese investment in Australia, which is appropriate and fair. Close scrutiny and questioning of the Investment Facilitation Arrangements contained in the memorandum of understanding between Australia and China is not inappropriate – however concerns about this aspect of the agreement are not reason enough to sink the entire deal.
What can Minns mean by this? What is the point of “close scrutiny and questioning” if you are committed to accept the deal regardless.
However much lipstick Turnbull tries to put on this MOU, it’s still a pig, and the Australian public recognises the fact. If Labor stands firm, and Turnbull fights the election on this ground, he will lose.
fn1. In a sense halfway between Australian and US usages of this term: Uttering meaningless words with the intention of dodging the issue.