Flat White

Why Turnbull cannot be English

28 September 2017

7:24 AM

28 September 2017

7:24 AM

There is a school of thought that Malcolm Turnbull can still salvage his leadership of the Liberal Party here in Australia simply by emulating New Zealand’s Bill English. Prime Minister English, who is odds-on favourite to emerge from the maelstrom of New Zealand’s ridiculous MMP voting system coalition negotiations following last Saturday’s election, is all about the economy. As the long-standing Finance Minister before becoming Kiwi Prime Minister Bill English has overseen one of the most impressive post-GFC economic turnarounds in the democratic world. The top marginal income tax rate is 33 per cent; there are no capital gains taxes of any sort; paying income tax kicks in with almost the first dollar earned and so everyone has a vested interest in keeping taxes and relatedly government spending under control, and government there is simply far less profligate than here in Australia. So what is not to like? And why can’t Mr Turnbull use Bill English as a model to turn around his own fortunes as Australian Prime Minister?

Well, there are two reasons why this cannot and will not happen. The first is structural. New Zealand does not have an elected upper house; indeed it has no upper house at all. This means that even if Mr Turnbull wished to emulate virtually all of Mr English’s policies, he could not. The Senate would not let him. In my view, the Australian Senate has transmogrified from being a house of review into being a house of governing. Australia’s upper house, one of the democratic world’s two or three most powerful upper houses, has grown too big for its democratically deficient boots, now paying scant attention even to clear mandates taken to elections.

Just try to imagine it. Suppose your goal were to legislate the entire New Zealand economic set-up as it stands right now. How much of that do you think you could get through today’s Australian Senate and on to the statute book? To ask is to know the answer. It would be something approaching zero. This is why straight-up comparisons with New Zealand are structurally inept.


The second reason why Malcolm Turnbull simply cannot ever mimic or emulate Bill English’s success across the Tasman is psychological. English when in cabinet never orchestrated the defenestration of his boss. Indeed, English was the most loyal of cabinet ministers. He did not split the party in two by organising the political assassination of his then Prime Minister. It was only when former Kiwi prime minister John Key stepped down that Bill English took the reins.

Now I know that the Niki Savvas and Peter van Onselens of the world seem to think you can just wish this uncomfortable fact away and that not having yourself shown any loyalty you can nevertheless demand it of others. That, however, flies in the face of human nature. It is psychologically near to impossible to unscramble the omelette. Humans are not hard-wired that way. Accordingly, Mr Turnbull will always preside over a political party that looks nothing like the one over which Mr English presides. Only a massive electoral victory can wash away the memory of Turnbull’s treachery in the minds of the party faithful and of a good few Coalition MPs. And at the last election, Mr Turnbull came nowhere close to delivering such an outcome. So it is pie in the sky dreaming to imagine that Mr Turnbull would be able to emulate Mr English.

Of course, whether there might be some other route to salvage the thus far accomplishment-challenged prime ministership of Team Turnbull’s innovative headman is a separate question. Personally, I very much doubt it.

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