POLITICS

Malcolm Turnbull Is Not Having A Great Start To 2017

New year, new scandals.

13/01/2017 11:13 AM AEDT | Updated 13/01/2017 3:21 PM AEDT
Fairfax

The new year is a time to set goals for yourself, resolutions and plans to follow. Maybe it's to leave behind the baggage of the previous difficult year, or to stay more positive, or follow your heart on things you really believe in, or spend less time mucking around and wasting time.

On the New Year's resolution scale, Malcolm Turnbull is not off to a good start, and he hasn't even opened his mouth publicly yet.

Last year wasn't a fantastic year for the Prime Minister. He won the election, sure, but by the skin of his teeth, with a reduced wafer-thin majority and a more hostile Senate (and wilder crossbench) than he had before. He had bombs lobbed at him from both sides on basically everything he did, from refugee policy and national security to marriage equality and education -- the conservatives hissed that he was too progressive, the progressives howled he was too conservative. He had to deal with his "no wrecking, no sniping, no undermining" predecessor Tony Abbott wrecking, sniping and undermining him at every opportunity. December 31 probably couldn't come quick enough for Turnbull, and as he sat on the back deck of his waterside Point Piper mansion and watched the midnight fireworks cracking over Sydney harbour, he may have been resolving that 2017 would be better.

Jason Reed / Reuters
Happy new year, Mr Prime Minister.

Now, just a fortnight into the new year, he's already been saddled with more problems than anyone should have to deal with so early in January.

The Centrelink debt collection debacle is the biggest weight around his neck at the moment. Untold thousands upon thousands of Australians have or will receive letters from the welfare agency enquiring about their employment records, and will be lumped with a debt to pay back. Many of these people will not, in fact, owe a debt at all, but will be forced to pay it back anyway. The automated data-matching program has seen countless cases of current or former Centrelink clients receive debts of thousands of dollars, causing anger, stress and despair.

Serious questions are being raised about the entire process -- how the automated program works, why incorrect debt bills are being sent out, the targeting of poor or vulnerable citizens around Christmas time, how many of the bills are wrong and how much money will be wrongly squeezed out of needy citizens -- and the government has so far tried to keep its head down. Responsible MP, human services minister Alan Tudge, decided to stay on his holiday rather than return home early to deal with the ballooning controversy, only emerging this week to claim everything was fine and that he didn't know of any clients who claimed their debts were incorrect (if the minister is reading, he can find such claims here, here, here, here, here, here, here and here).

Then there's the expenses scandal enveloping his cabinet, which on Friday led to the resignation of health minister Sussan Ley. In the last fortnight we've had multiple revelations that Ley had submitted expense claims for many trips to the Gold Coast (including one where she bought a $795,000 apartment, allegedly on a whim), and had a penchant for chartering private jets rather than taking inexpensive and convenient commercial options. She was forced initially to step aside while an investigation into her claims commenced, but she has since resigned and is far from the only Liberal big gun to come under fire. On Friday Turnbull announced a new authority to police expenses, and MPs will now be required to submit their expenses every month among other new measures. Turnbull is yet to reveal who will take over the health portfolio.

Turnbull's deputy, foreign minister Julie Bishop, is under the microscope for claiming expenses to attend exclusive polo matches. Fellow ministers Steve Ciobo and Mathias Cormann were revealed to have billed taxpayers to attend the AFL grand final. Peter Dutton, George Brandis and Mitch Fifield claimed expenses including travel allowance, flights and accommodation to attend Turnbull's New Year's Eve party in 2015. Dutton yesterday also came under fire for splashing on a $4000 dinner while on a trip to America. Greg Hunt is also in the firing line.

Pressure is on to dramatically reform how politicians claim expenses and travel on the public purse, especially at a time when vulnerable people are being forced to pay back debts they don't owe, and eligibility for pensions is tightening.

Then, of course, there's all the other troubles from 2016 still hanging around; the rise of One Nation and general electorate discontent with status quo politics; the likes of Cory Bernardi and George Christensen angling, needling, dropping hints about ditching the government for a breakaway movement; general public sentiment that his government is not accomplishing a lot, and the ever-present asylum seeker issue.

Even on Friday, Human Rights Watch has savaged Australia's treatment of asylum seekers on Nauru and Manus Island, and there are whispers that the much-trumpeted refugee swap deal with the U.S. will be canned under President Trump.

Turnbull's only saving grace at this stage is that parliament isn't on right now, and that these dramas can't be exploited to the fullest by Labor. He's been laying low, not saying much on the scandals engulfing his administration, but is due to front the media during the visit of Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe this weekend. It will be his first chance to address the dramas himself.

The government will be hoping the controversies die down by the time everyone gathers back in Canberra in February... but with the level of public outrage over Centrelink and expenses, it seems unlikely that the issues will just quietly fade away.

Happy new year, Mr Prime Minister.

Editor's note: This story has been updated to reflect Sussan Ley's resignation.


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