George Brandis has always been a good speech-maker. Yesterday he delivered another good speech, probably one of his better ones, and arguably the one that he will be best remembered for, which is quite apt really, because he wants the same sex marriage legislation to be his political legacy. Truth be told, he doesn’t have much choice now, with his imminent retirement in the UK as the next High Commissioner to London, following his one and a half gaffe-prone and otherwise achievement-devoid terms as the Attorney-General.
Apart from some questionable exuberance about certain individuals instrumental in the fight for the SSM (Warren Entsch “deserves to be celebrated in song and story; an icon of our age”), I was struck by Brandis’ claim that the SSM “will stand as one of the signature achievements of the Turnbull government” and that, analogous to the 1967 referendum,
this decision by the Australian people, enabled by their government and enacted by their Parliament, will come to be seen as one of those occasional shining moments which stand out in our nation’s history, about which people will still speak with admiration in decades, indeed in centuries to come; one of those breakthroughs which have, as the wheel of history turns, defined us as a people.
Well, if it does, it will speak very poorly about everything else that Australia, its governments, and its people, have – or have not – done in our era. But only our descendants will find that out and judge.
But as to the claim that the SSM stands as “one of the signature achievements of the Turnbull government”, that we can discuss and judge already.
So is it? God help us if such a niche issue of zero impact on the vast majority of the population is indeed the government’s main claim to fame and to place in history books. And that’s regardless whether you think the SSM is a right policy or not.
This got me thinking deeper about the legacy this government will leave behind. Just what exactly are the achievements of the two plus years of the Turnbull government? I started making a mental list:
5. Some IR legislation about the unions
That was pretty much it; I do have an interest in politics – hence the blog – but I seriously couldn’t think of anything else.
Undeterred, I Googled “Turnbull government achievements” and luckily for me, one of the first pages that popped up is a list on the Liberal Party’s website of the achievements of all the Liberal governments from Bob Menzies onward. This is what I have found:
Some of the achievements of the Turnbull Government include:
- An innovation and science agenda to help create the jobs of the future;
- Landmark reform of Australia’s competition law – to help small to medium companies compete with big business;
- The 2016 Defence White Paper which will secure Australia in the 21st century ;
- A defence industry plan which backs local advanced manufacturing, particularly in regional Australia.
- Taking action to address domestic violence through the $100 million Women’s Safety Package.
- Overseeing the release of all children from onshore immigration detention (which compares with Labor’s record of 8,469 children in detention);
- Cracking down on multinational tax avoidance to ensure companies that make money in Australia pay tax in Australia;
- Legislating to implement the China-Australia Free Trade Agreement;
- Signing the Trans-Pacific Partnership to deliver substantial new trade and investment opportunities for Australian businesses;
- Bringing our media laws into the digital age and ensuring local media outlets remain viable;
- Establishing the $1 billion Clean Energy Innovation Fund;
- Banning excessive surcharges on credit cards to protect Australian consumers;
- Investing in important public transport projects, including the $95 million Gold Coast Light Rail, the Sydney Metro and the Melbourne Metro;
- Senate voting reform that ensures Australians, not preference whisperers, choose their Senators; and
- The abolition of Bill Shorten’s truck tribunal which was putting owner-operator truck drivers out of business.
Oh dear. On the one hand a week is a long time in politics, on the other hand two years is not necessarily all that much time to judge a government (even if many, particularly nowadays, don’t get much more time to implement their agenda, if they have any, that is). But this is pretty embarrassing. Having an “agenda”, “White Paper”, or “plan” are not achievements, they’re part of the process towards achieving outcomes – hopefully positive ones, if any. Simply spending money, too, (Women’s Safety Package, Clean Energy Innovation Fund) is not an achievement per se. Pretty much everyone can spend money, and in politics, sadly, everyone nowadays is very good at it. But how successful that spending was? What was achieved? How did it benefit Australia in tangible, measurable ways? These are the real questions, dear Horatio.
Which doesn’t really leave much on the list. Where are the government finances? The economy? Business? Jobs? The cost of living? Energy security? National security? Cultural issues? And major reform of anything? And so on.
When Brandis drew an analogy between the SSM plebiscite/legislation and the 1967 referendum, he did have this to say:
If I may draw a comparison: nobody today remembers the arguments about the state of the economy, or the policy controversies or the political intrigues, that took place during the government of Harold Holt. Like all political ephemera, they have faded into history. But people do remember the 1967 referendum, that great act of inclusion of Indigenous Australians.
This indeed says a lot about the 1967 referendum, but it says even more about the Holt government, and by saying even more it says not much at all. The Holt government was, after all, one of the shortest-lived and least consequential governments in Australia’s history, with a very meagre achievement list to show for its time in office. This is not the analogy that Brandis was trying to draw, but it is the one that stands out very clearly: like the Hold government, the Turnbull government in the future won’t be remembered for very much except for a referendum and for a drowning Prime Minister.