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Turnbull must get the economic numbers right

Malcolm Turnbull
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The melodrama of Australian politics was on full display on Tuesday, the day Malcolm Turnbull was sworn in as Australia’s new Prime Minister.

First, the villain. When deposed leader Tony Abbott emerged into the dazzling light of the prime minister’s courtyard, an unusually large contingent of journalists and political staffers were there to hear his poignant, parting words.

Only we couldn’t. A TV news chopper had decided to hover above and to one side of the courtyard for a telephoto shot of the outgoing Liberal leader, creating a racket to drown out much of what he said.

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He was clearly listing accomplishments – boats, FTAs, job creation and so on – just as he had done before the ballot that removed him from power.

Mr Abbott maintained a stoic countenance throughout until the last moment, in which a journalist beside me said his chin trembled on the last few words. I’ll take his word for it. It was hard to see through the bristling array of cameras.

Tony Abbott
Tony Abbott prepares to deliver his last speech as Australian PM. Photo: AAP

Filing out of the courtyard doors, the press corps were interspersed with genuinely moved, teary-eyed staffers. Their lives will be turned on their heads just as much as many MPs when Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull announces his new cabinet.

From there, it was the views of others that would begin to shape Mr Abbott’s legacy.

Attorney-General George Brandis conducted a business-as-usual briefing on what had happened at Mr Turnbull’s first joint-party meeting – a meeting that the PM had to leave early to conclude negotiations with Nationals leader Warren Truss to ensure his ongoing support for Coalition government.

Liberals in Parliament
Liberal ministers on the frontbench on Tuesday – but Tony Abbott was nowhere to be seen. Photo: Getty

Mr Brandis insisted there were no ill-words in either direction at the joint-party meeting.

What’s done is done, I suppose, and even the most bitter personal enmities can be suppressed by career politicians. Open disunity just increases the likelihood of them losing their jobs at the next election.

And from there it was onto the first Turnbull-led Question Time in the House of Reps.

Again, melodrama. The hero of the hour, Mr Turnbull, heaped lavish praise on Mr Abbott for serving his country so well, and Opposition Leader Bill Shorten followed with his own sincere, heartstring-tugging speech about the former PM.

Malcolm Turnbull
The new PM has plenty to ponder as he begins in the top job. Photo: Getty

All quite lovely, but all quite beside the point as we head into the uncharted waters of a Turnbull government.

Because when all the animosity of the challenge and all of the post-challenge bonhomie subside, Australian voters are left with a very simple question.

What did the last government really achieve, and what can Mr Turnbull do to better it?

When we want heroes and villains, there’s daytime soap operas.

When we want prosperity, it’s important to cut through the rhetoric and look at the numbers. And the numbers aren’t good.

Bill Shorten
Even Bill Shorten was effusive in his praise for Tony Abbott. Photo: Getty

I have, and will continue, to look at those numbers in the days and weeks ahead – particularly key metrics such as real incomes, underemployment, the fall in capital expenditure, and shaky business and consumer confidence. Because although all data sets include some volatility, in ‘trend terms’, the numbers don’t lie.

But for today, it’s enough to talk about another set of numbers – that is the convincing 11-vote margin between Mr Turnbull and Mr Abbott in the leadership ballot.

When the numbers came out at 55 to 44, commentators were happy to describe it as a healthy victory.

However, sources within the small business lobby describe how as late as Monday morning they were tearing their hair out over the government’s “betrayal” of SMEs in its unfair contracts law.

That law, which excluded contracts worth over $100,000, would have been virtually useless.

So on the Monday, Greens senator Peter Whish-Wilson moved an amendment to make the threshold $300,000. Every senator who was not with the government voted in favour of that amendment and the law passed the upper house.

But rather than celebrating this as a win – another reform off the books – the Abbott government promised only to review the change in the lower house. That is, their own reform could have been blocked by their own votes.

SME lobbyists were working the phones throughout this process and claim that their rage at this chicanery was enough to sway several Liberal MPs in the leadership ballot – a position the Greens also say is quite plausible.

If that’s true, the Abbott government might, in its dying hours, have given Mr Turnbull the lead he needed to claim power with confidence, rather than just scraping home.

The challenge now, for Mr Turnbull, is to turn these kinds of disputes around and to find negotiated reforms that everyone can live with – much as the Gillard government did on many issues.

And when all the overblown rhetoric and sentiment dies down, it’s the numbers that these reforms produce that count. More business investment, more jobs, more hours worked and so on.

The new Prime Minister has the numbers to rule. But it’s on the economic numbers his reign produces that the great salesman Turnbull must be judged.

Read more columns by Rob Burgess here

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