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Social issues dominate Turnbull agenda

AAP logoAAP 4/08/2016 Paul Osborne, AAP Senior Political Writer

Malcolm Turnbull's second term in office won't be remembered for jobs and growth.

Social policy is more likely to become the hallmark of the coalition's next three years.

Legalising same-sex marriage, changing the constitution to recognise indigenous Australians, promoting multiculturalism and responding to the child abuse royal commission could all be among the most significant achievements of the Turnbull government.

That is, if they succeed.

Much will depend on the attitude of the prime minister's more conservative colleagues in the coalition, as well as the swollen cross bench in the new Senate.

On current counting trends, the government will need nine extra votes - up from six - to get motions and laws through the upper house.

However, careful negotiation with Labor could be a better strategy for Turnbull, delivering a bipartisan result for both the same-sex marriage plebiscite bill and the referendum question.

The closest the government comes to some form of economic policy is a business tax cut, which will almost certainly be whittled down to some modest relief for small business.

Then there is the planned workplace law reform, including the reintroduction of the building industry watchdog and tougher penalties for union corruption, as well as protections for volunteers in the wake of Victoria's CFA dispute.

The prime minister hails the Australian Building and Construction Commission as an economic reform, as putting a "tough cop on the beat" in an industry dogged by union rorts will make it easier for projects big and small to be rolled out faster and cheaper.

However, a number of analyses have put paid to claims such as a 20 per cent lift in productivity.

The prime minister will have to spend a lot of political capital getting these bills through parliament, having promised a joint sitting of both houses to get the job done.

It is possible Turnbull will get the 114 votes across both houses to deliver these bills, with the backing of the Nick Xenophon Team and One Nation, as well as Family First senator Bob Day, the Liberal Democrats' David Leyonhjelm and independents Derryn Hinch and Cathy McGowan.

But there are questions as to where the government goes to from there, in terms of the economy and repairing the budget.

Former Reserve Bank board member and Keating government advisor John Edwards doesn't believe the government has a convincing plan to substantially reduce the deficit within a reasonable timeframe.

Much of the budget deficit reduction relies on a boost in personal income tax collections.

"It's a ludicrous situation now where - as a share of GDP - our cumulative deficits since the global financial crisis are far bigger than the ones we had after the last two recessions in Australia, yet we hadn't had a recession," Edwards told ABC television this week.

This leaves the prime minister with an agenda largely focused on dealing with social issues.

Settling on a simple question for a referendum to recognise indigenous people in the constitution will be the key to passing this symbolic change.

Turnbull and Labor leader Bill Shorten met in Sydney on Thursday to discuss the issue, which is in danger of being sidetracked by debate over the mistreatment of indigenous youth in detention and the possibility of some form of treaty with First Australians.

An agreement between the two major parties will go a long way to getting the referendum passed next year.

The same-sex marriage plebiscite may have a more difficult path.

Labor and the Greens disagree with the premise of the national vote, saying it should be immediately put to the parliament and passed.

However, left with the option of no law change in the next three years or a plebiscite, Labor is likely to give ground.

The government's response to the enormous amount of work done by Justice Peter McClellan's royal commission into institutional responses to child sexual abuse - when the report is handed down on December 15, 2017 - could be the most significant action to be taken by Turnbull across his entire political career.

Extracting a sincere national apology from institutions such as the churches, as well as a generous redress scheme, will be necessary.

With Pauline Hanson's ascendance to the Senate, Turnbull will also have to spend time and political capital countering her anti-Muslim and anti-Asian rhetoric and promoting the idea of racial and religious harmony and the success of Australia's multiculturalism.

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