Turnbull marks two years as prime minister

Malcolm Turnbull has avoided both triumphalism and magnanimity in acknowledging his two years as prime minister.


He’s now Australia’s 19th longest-serving prime minister – past arch rival Tony Abbott but short of Labor contemporaries Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd.

Constrained by simmering tensions inside the coalition over energy policy and same-sex marriage, a business-like Mr Turnbull rattled off his re-elected government’s achievements of the past year on Friday.

The “occasionally satirised” jobs and growth mantra of his 2016 election campaign was now an outcome, he said, with 325,000 new jobs and signs of a sluggish economy – but not wage growth – on the mend.

The government had delivered tax cuts to companies with an annual turnover of up to $50 million and Australians earning more than $80,000.

Then there was historic education reform: transparent, universal, consistent needs-based federal funding for Australian schools.

“It has never, ever been done before, ” Mr Turnbull told Sky News, taking a shot at previous Labor governments for only genuflecting in that direction.

The new message for voters is a government focused on opportunity, security and fairness.

But two of his predecessors are threatening to inflame internal tensions that have plagued Mr Turnbull’s government since he toppled Mr Abbott in 2015.

John Howard – the Liberal Party’s second-longest serving prime minister – this week made a none-too-subtle intervention in the same-sex marriage debate, accusing the government of “washing its hands” of any responsibility to protect parental rights, free speech and religious freedoms.

It was an abrogation of responsibility and disingenuous for the government not to address the legitimate concerns of Australians about the legal protections needed to accompany same-sex marriage, he said.

Mr Turnbull couldn’t resist a not-so-gentle rejoinder while acknowledging “John’s wisdom is always welcome”.

But the former prime minister, despite his concerns, hadn’t bothered to make a submission to a Senate inquiry which considered what religious protections should be included in a bill legalising same-sex marriage.

Then there’s Tony Abbott, who this week was re-writing what Australia actually agreed to when it signed up to the Paris climate agreement in 2015.

As prime minister, Mr Abbott made a “definite commitment” to a 26 per cent reduction in carbon emissions by 2030, and aim for 28 per cent.

This week that target was “aspirational”.

“It was what we would do if we could,” he said, noting the agreement wasn’t binding.

Not in fact the case, Mr Turnbull said.

“It was a real commitment and as Tony said at the time, Australia is one of those nations that when it makes commitments it keeps them,” he said.

On an issue that refuses to go away – the holding of asylum seekers and refugees on Manus Island and Nauru – Mr Turnbull described himself as a compassionate man.

That compassion, however, was limited to resettling them in a third country and not allowing people smugglers to put people’s lives at risk and having families die at sea.

“We have to be absolutely resolute,” said a like-minded prime minister.