Image for NATION: Everything is on the table

*Pic: Sweet Custard Bun, also known as PM Malcolm Turnbull ...

The Week ...

The Australia of the future has to be a nation that is agile, that is innovative, that is creative. We can’t be defensive, we can’t future-proof ourselves. “We have to recognise that the disruption that we see driven by technology, the volatility in change is our friend if we are agile and smart enough to take advantage of it.’

It may not be the light on the hill exactly but it is a lightbulb moment. A mini summit on Big Ideas is just what our nation needs, decrees our dear leader in his captain’s call of the week. Now. Guests are agog at Prime Minister Sweet Custard Bun’s incredible acumen; intellectual audacity and his Apple watch. The ACTU is invited along with welfare and other civil society groups. The IPA is not.

This is new. Bun even runs the show all by himself not via some IPA stooge or superannuated old biz-pal. It is to be a week of surprises; not all of them pleasant within and without the Canberra beltway.

To be fair, Custard Bun, as he is known in Chinam is only responding to ACOS, ACTU, and BCA who all wrote to him to announce their common ground on some issues since their first gab-fest in August. Bun jumps at the chance to ask them all to Canberra for Thursday’s mini-thingy.

Turnbull’s will be ‘an agile government’ yet slogans are verboten. Bun drops the phrase ‘agile economy’, a reworking of an IT concept, as he ear-bashes Fran Kelly on Thursday’s AM. Fran is not happy but lets him talk over her because that’s what blokes and PMs do. Besides Bun government is in its honeymoon period, a state of grace which appears set to extend well beyond its shelf-life. Commercial stations need not adjust their reception.

P-plate Treasurer ScoMo, Art Sinodinis and other MP reformist bean-counters bear fixed smiles, from the other side of the cabinet table. Just one proviso. No-one must expect any decisions. Nothing is to be ruled in or out, a significant ruling in itself. Everything Tony Abbott swept off or under the table is now back on.

Eight spokes-folk from industry, commerce and labour shoot the breeze with Turnbull’s MP windbags. Talk? They could talk the leg off an iron pot, now trading at roughly half its 2014 price on world markets. And they do. It is a borrow my watch and tell me the time type of confab; a Turn-bull-session. But it seems to do everyone a power of good.

Optimism bubbles.

Gone is the Abbott government by squelch button, a government which did away with consultation, a government which spent itself closing down discussion and debate. In its place is a PM who says he wants to listen. Optimism bubbles. The mood is positive. The two-week old infant Turnbull government is smiling. Or could that be wind?

Delegates swap dogma. Mantras are chanted. ‘Work, save, invest’ or ‘grow the economy’ get a good threshing. The scene recalls Swift’s Laputans who belaboured one another about the head with inflated pig-bladders. It was the only way to change a Laputan’s opinions. But no-one attacks anyone Thursday. It’s not a free for all. Everyone is upbeat, no-one beaten up, at the end. Beyond a gush of motherhood statements, however, none can point to any specific achievement. It’s just the vibe.

‘It isn’t about taking stuff off the table and narrowing the options,’ Jennifer Westacott CEO of the club of one hundred businesses, a lobby group which calls itself ‘The Business Council of Australia’ tells reporters. Somehow we are to find it reassuring that ‘everything is still on the table’ and ‘no decisions have been taken’.

For ACTU secretary Dave Oliver, key differences divide us but ‘We all have one thing in common and that is it is all about growth,’ he claims, happy to recycle a warm and fuzzy fib which politicians use to justify business as usual. Growth of itself does nothing to resolve inequality. Yet Oliver sensibly dissents from cuts or ‘austerity measures’ so keenly advocated by business busybodies in difficult times. ‘Productivity dividends’ are so last government. For now.

Cuts are ‘fiscal waterboarding’

‘Unions want to engage on the ‘high road of reform’ and not the low road of reducing wages, stripping conditions or cost shifting on to working families’, Dave warns. Cuts are ‘fiscal waterboarding’ in the view of a recent Greek Finance Minister. Dave is a fair way off this call, but a good leg up on the summit - or at least the moral high ground.  Perhaps he’s heading off the wage-cutters amongst the gathering with their mythologies of more jobs and increased productivity, both of which lack any empirical foundation.  Does he have the BCA in his sights?

Six months ago, Kate Carnell’s BCA released an ad with an Easter Message to attack penalty rates; peddling the lie that penalty rates cost jobs:

‘This Easter long weekend, we’re sorry that we will be closed. We’d like to be open to serve you. We’d like to give local people jobs. But the penalty rates are too high. Tell Canberra something has to change.’

Sweet Custard Bun will have nothing so naff. Yet he cannot stop Josh Frydenberg who leaps aboard the bandwagon with some timely old misinformation for our budding ‘touchy-feely’ new age national conversation.

‘In the resources sector it costs 50 per cent more in Australia to have an energy project than if you were to have one on the US Gulf Coast … Malcolm Turnbull is absolutely right to point to industrial relations as one area where it does cost business and ultimately it does cost jobs.’

His assertion is untrue and recycles a dodgy 2012 Business Council claim which ignores our exchange rate; the size of the US industry and its vast supply of cheap illegal Mexican labour.  True or not, Frydenberg helps to up the ante in the arse about face process of the mini-summit.

...fat cats who think they’re starving.

The mini summit of Big Ideas assumes problems to exist, rather than allow delegates to diagnose what they are and come to consensus about priorities. This is dangerous; already there is talk of issues which exist only in the minds of fat cats who think they’re starving. Yet the mini-summit is too New Age to be burdened with practicalities.

The gabfest raises national reform consciousness by picking up a former government’s toddlers’ toys and putting them back in the play pen. All that’s missing is a round of happy clapping and a verse or two of Kumbaya. Leaders spruik sometimes crackpot ideas unfettered by the ‘negative energy’ of real-world constraints. These are to filter up through government in a process of consultation and review - at least that’s Turnbull’s promise. In reality, it is a soft sell before a GST rise is ‘agreed’, tax rates are tizzied up and government spending is cut further.

After three hours of warm inner glowing, the meeting closes happily. Woes, however, still outnumber ideas for the new PM. Sugar-Daddy, Sweet Custard Bun, as he is known in China, is cursed to rule ‘in interesting times’.

Russia piques international interest by suddenly fighting Assad’s civil war for him; China goes abacus-up dragging world finances down with it; Julie Bishop bags us a seat on the UN Human Rights Council, for 2018-2020 or later, on the grounds, presumably, that Manus and Nauru boost human rights because they stop deaths from drowning.

Bishop creates a stir by inviting pal, David Panton, along to a UN session. Panton usurps an official seat, Labor protests. Worse, he appears to nod off. If it’s not a calculated insult, it is certainly not a gesture of respect from Ms Bishop. At home erupts a guerrilla campaign that would make even Kevin Rudd blush, says Phil Coorey.

There is a chill in the wind ...

Deposed PM Abbott bobs up like a Bondi cigar in the surf on 2GB and 3AW keen to reinvent his glorious past with an eye to his future - and theirs. Of course, Ray, he’s keen to help his mates out. His visit to Ray Hadley and Neil Mitchell will help pick up audiences. Ratings are off a bit lately. Turnbull sees the tabloids and shock-jocks as a waste of time. You are either preaching to the converted or being nailed to an ultra-right albatross of a populist position. Or a stunt like a shirt-front. There is a chill in the wind; Hadley and co know they are losing their pull.

Abbott, however, grandly, styles himself a man of principle. The supreme opportunist, whose need to oppose Labor at every turn, saw him adopt a whole Kamasutra of positions, he now styles himself as a conviction politician, a man who took a stand. He can’t resist the chance, while he’s at it, to white-ant Turnbull’s talkfest.

‘All the way through I’ve stood for things and back in 2009 the Coalition was in diabolical difficulty, absolutely diabolical difficulty, because we were making weak compromises with a bad government,’ he says.

‘We were ‘too gutsy in that first budget’, Ray. But it was brave, Ray. Brave. Negotiation is for sissies, Ray. Real men lay down the law. Unlike our two-timing, double- dealing-weasel-compromiser Turnbull. I’ve stood for things, Ray.’

Voters are urged to support the coalition through gritted teeth, orders the failed captain, advice which the demoted leader of the senate Erich Abetz renders in a Liberal newsletter.

The former Minister of employment reports mass resignations from party members protesting weasel Turnbull’s doing down of Abbott.  Ego naturally unscathed, Abetz, nevertheless, feels Liberal voters’ pain.

...our core constituency feels disenfranchised…

‘It is understandable that with the removal of Tony Abbott, Kevin Andrews and myself from the ministry that our core constituency feels disenfranchised’, a line which Abbott takes up on Thursday talkback. Party members are further reassured by Abetz’s pointed but risky pot-shot at Turnbull. Abetz, like his former boss, it is widely agreed, never was strong on nuance, ambiguity or statesmanship.

‘The Liberal Party has always been bigger than the person who holds the position of federal leader from time to time.’

While weasels Turnbull and Scott Morrison embrace Kate (penalty rates) Carnell and other business class sloganeers to the ‘National Reform Summit’, Anthony John Abbott books precisely the same timeslot for a full service with Neil Mitchell to crank out his own bitter antiphony over 2GBs airwaves. In his reinvention, he is a blameless victim of circumstances.

David Cameron won against poor opinion polls, he says, overlooking Cameron’s liberal views on renewable energy and social issues such as gay marriage and quite forgetting that voting is not compulsory in the UK where many working class voters are too burnt out to bother. Polling data suggested 12.2million people would vote Labour, but only 9.3million turned out on polling day, while 12.5million people who said they would vote Tory, and 11.3million actually voted.

Abbott has nothing to answer for, he contends. Nothing went wrong. Colleagues betrayed him. Lost their nerve. Panic over polls.

...a snake out to dud all of us.

The mature-age Manly surfer says he’s too young to retire, meaning young and immature enough to make trouble. Too old to be a beach bum, he has an adult-no-longer-in charge sook about his betrayal, sniping at the Antichrist Turnbull for being a snake out to dud all of us. Same python, different head. Even as he makes this claim, his new PM breaks new ground with his mini-summit, promising continual revision and change under his government.

Canberra is the city of talkfests but few are so feted as Malcom’s mini-summit. It gets top billing on most networks. Everything is said to be ‘on the table’. And David Oliver is there. It has been two years since anyone has invited the ACTU to any policy discussion; it’s all been the big end of town talking. Talk is cheap, however, pundits agree; the real question is how many lightbulbs does it take to change a prime minister.

Turnbull channels Abbott when Rosie Batty asks him to close down Manus and Nauru. A refugee who reluctantly agreed to be removed from Manus Island to rescue his wife and infant daughter from war in Syria has begged the Australian government to be included among the 12,000 Syrians it will accept for resettlement. Sweet custard bun is happy to recycle the old lies.

“The one thing we know is these policies, tough though they are, harsh though they are in many respects, actually do work, they save lives,” the PM lies. Yet the evidence contradicts this popular yet pernicious myth.

UNHCR data shows that more people boarded boats after Abbott introduced punitive ‘deterrence’ policies, not fewer. Over 54,000 people boarded boats in our region in Jan-Nov 2014, an increase of 15%  over the same period a year earlier. 540 people died trying to get here in 2014. Hundreds more died in smuggling camps in Thailand. Sweet Custard Bun needs to abandon this old canard if he is to maintain credibility and inspire any kind of trust. 

...a desire to explore options…

Shrewdly not ruling in; not ruling out leaves so much on the table it may break under its own weight. Yet for all its broad and fuzzy focus, the PM’s conference signals a desire to explore options on tax and on environment where his predecessor ruled them out. Supported as he may be by disgruntled members of the hard right, such as Abetz or Andrews, it will take more than Abbott’s dismissal of Turnbull’s significant points of difference to sabotage Sweet Custard Bun’s choosing of a broader path to reform and policy-making.

The proof of any pudding be it custard or jam, is of course in the eating. Sweet Custard Bun’s new era of the lavish banquet with everything on the table cannot be left to stand on offer too long or it will collapse under its own inertia. Our new ruler of everything in will have to rule some things out. Soon. Expect a bunfight.