Malcolm Turnbull sought to open the new Parliament on a positive note, unveiling a 25-point action plan for his Government.
The 25-point plan – which consists of 25 pieces of legislation – was promoted as an opportunity for the Government to reset the agenda and shake off the critics who were claiming that the Turnbull Government was drifting and directionless.
In reality, 23 of the 25 bills in the so-called “battle plan” were old pieces of legislation that have been held over from the previous parliament.
The critics were not placated and jumped on Mr Turnbull, suggesting 25 was way too many and perhaps even five would have sufficed, provided they were actually enacted. And Bill Shorten mocked the plan as being 23 parts Tony Abbott’s plan and two parts Malcolm Turnbull’s plan.
Just two of the measures – the Country Fire Authority bill that deals with an industrial dispute in Victoria, and an omnibus savings bill of $6.5 billion – were actually new.
The opening of the 45th Parliament on August 30 was conducted with the usual fanfare and a ceremonial 19-gun salute, but there was not a lot for Malcolm Turnbull to celebrate.
The post election polls are down, there seems to be a lot of resistance from the crossbench to his agenda, and Mr Shorten looks likely to make life difficult for him on every front.
The doyen of the Canberra Press Gallery, Michelle Grattan, who writes for The Conversation, described Mr Turnbull’s predicament as being “surrounded by the left, the right and the centre”.
“The Government is ‘approaching this term with optimism’, according to the Governor-General’s speech opening Parliament,” Grattan wrote. “This is good to hear, because a more pessimistic character than Malcolm Turnbull surveying the outlook might be in deep gloom.
“Labor, the Greens and some other crossbenchers are muscling up against the same-sex marriage plebiscite. Bill Shorten is set to make trouble on most fronts whenever opportunity knocks.
“The non-Green Senate crossbenchers, who will be crucial to many of the Government’s legislative efforts, find themselves – thanks to their potential power as well as the 24-hour news cycle – receiving continuous attention and publicity.”
Another old Canberra hand, Fairfax’s Tony Wright, described it thus: “This is a Parliament of schisms and factions and splittists, Pauline Hanson and Labor and the Greens and Cory Bernardi and all, each with their own agenda and few enough prepared to even doff their hat at the idea the Turnbull Government and its one-seat majority has a mandate for anything, whatever the Queen’s Representative might promise.”
The irony in the headwind that Mr Turnbull is facing is that his agenda is quite modest.
He wants to enact company tax cuts, which were a central plank of his election campaign; he wants to legislate industrial-relations bills that were a key part of the Abbott government; and he wants to change media laws.
The oldest bill, to bring back the Australian Building and Construction Commission, and a trigger for the double dissolution in 2016, is 1019 days old.
Similarly, the Registered Organisations Bill, another industrial-relations bill holdover from 2013 and also a double-dissolution trigger, is 802 days old.
The problem for Mr Turnbull is that his “modest” agenda faces such opposition; he may get very little of it done.
The central economic strategy appears to be to pare back the budget and provide tax cuts to businesses to encourage them to invest and create new jobs. However, the opposition to so many budget cuts remains and the quantum of proposed cuts are in actual fact modest. The Government has no stomach for wholesale budget cuts.
The crossbenchers will want to flex their muscle and promote themselves at every turn; so, while they may be slightly less difficult than they were last term, they will be problematic.
Mr Turnbull was re-elected in his own right. His margin is tight, but he has a mandate to govern nonetheless.
He will have to get some runs on the board quickly, which is why he seems to be offering compromises on the Building and Construction Commission Bill to get it through.
Beyond that Mr Turnbull has three years to govern. His natural instinct is to be bold and to think big picture, though this is tempered by vacillation in actual decision-making.
Sooner rather than later Mr Turnbull needs to put his own stamp on the prime-ministership. Unless he does this, the party room will get restless again.