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How likely is it that the Turnbull government, with its tiny majority, will make seriously hard decisions? Mick Tsikas/AAP

Grattan on Friday: There’s seldom been a harder time to get things done

We now find we’ve lost the art, which we had for a century, of running a census without a mega snafu. One can only imagine the fury that Malcolm Turnbull, who has been angry publicly, is unleashing in more private settings.

But while the census disaster is spectacular, quite a few other things are going poorly for the government. Indeed, the polity generally struggles these days to get much done.

Pre-election, significant tax reform went up in smoke. Talk of reworking the federation simply disappeared.

This week saw hopes quietly die for a vote next May to write recognition of the First Australians into our Constitution. The aspirational timing had been significant because it would have been the 50th anniversary of the successful 1967 referendum. The Referendum Council has announced it is extending its consultations and plans to present its report to the prime minister and opposition leader by mid-next year. There was hardly a murmur.

The prospect of a referendum being held before the next election must now be small. There is little chance of agreement on a question; many Indigenous leaders are giving priority to a treaty; right-wing Liberals and conservative commentators are dead against recognition and will work to prevent a vote being held (and if it is, campaign to frustrate the change).

Is Turnbull going to spend much political capital on this? Unlikely.

Then there is same-sex marriage. The polls tell us a majority of the population think this is a desirable reform, and it is supported by Turnbull and Bill Shorten. It’s one of those issues that’s both a big deal and not a big deal. In other words, it’s important in terms of equal rights, and very significant for a section of the community, while in personal terms it hardly affects most other people.

So it should be easy to sort, right? Wrong. Politicking within the Liberals produced the promise of a plebiscite, opposed by Labor which wants the decision made by a parliamentary vote.

Some in the marriage equality movement are stepping up their fight against a plebiscite; Labor is torn over whether to try to block the machinery to set one up; Turnbull for political reasons can’t go down any other route.

The way ahead is unclear. If the plebiscite is stopped in the Senate, presumably nothing could be done on same-sex marriage this term. If it is run, while the “yes” side would be favoured to win, bad feeling among those who back change could make their campaign more difficult.

On a completely different front, outgoing Reserve Bank Governor Glenn Stevens gave a sharp lecture on Wednesday about how we are not facing up to the need to repair the budget.

Stevens pinged the problem. “At present, general public debate starts with commitment to the need for reform and for putting public finances on a sustainable medium-term track. But when specific ideas are proposed that will actually make a difference over the medium to long term, the conversation quickly shifts to rather narrow notions of ‘fairness’, people look to their own positions, the interest groups all come out and the specific proposals often run into the sand,” he said.

Stevens says we are “kidding ourselves” if we think we can avoid a “more hard-nosed conversation”.

Whether this conversation will come in time to head off the downgrading of Australia’s credit rating is another matter. After the Abbott government in 2014 bungled the opportunity to start serious budget repair, which led to the effort being pushed onto the backburner, how likely is it that the Turnbull government, with its tiny majority, will make seriously hard decisions? The backlash would be guaranteed and the backbench dangerously up in arms.

Finally, the publication this week by Guardian Australia of a mass of files detailing allegations and reports of abuse and self-harm on Nauru is a reminder – if one is needed – of the government’s failure to find permanent settlement arrangements for these people or those on Manus Island.

Immigration Minister Peter Dutton’s reaction has been (of course) to blame Labor for losing control of the borders and to point the finger at the refugees and asylum seekers.

“Some people have even gone to the extent of self-harming and people have self-immolated in an effort to get to Australia,” Dutton said on Thursday. We’ve reached the stage where a minister can say this of those who have set themselves alight and it passes with little notice.

The government’s message has been loud and clear: refugees from Nauru and Manus won’t be allowed into Australia. That policy carries the responsibility to find somewhere else for them to go. But this has been beyond the government and Dutton – who, however, has been more successful at a political level.

Thanks to the implications of Turnbull’s weak election result, Dutton was able to have himself elevated to cabinet’s national security committee, not because he or his portfolio justified it, but because he is a senior voice of the conservatives.

Turnbull’s loss of authority and lack of clear agenda or direction, combined with Shorten’s determination to pursue an Abbott-style continuous election campaign and the unpredictability of the Senate, make for a good deal of pessimism about the prospect of achieving major policy progress this term.

As for the more modest aim of delivering steady, competent government – well, it’s no wonder Turnbull is raging.

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