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What does Malcolm Turnbull really believe in?

This year we'll get a better understanding of what Malcolm Turnbull believes in because he'll have to release a budget. 

Budgets are great because they tell us something about the political philosophy of their designers. They force Prime Ministers to show their hand, putting their spending and taxing priorities on grand display.

Turnbull will be forced to step away from the safety of final reports from inquiries commissioned by Tony Abbott to tell us what he really thinks about the economy, and in which direction he wants to take the country.

Will he want to cut or increase science funding? Will he cut or increase funding for the ABC? What about foreign aid? He may surprise us.

Budgets also illuminate how their designers think about power. How often will Turnbull end up prioritising political necessity over his philosophical inclinations?

His power calculations will have to be various.

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Firstly, superannuation tax concessions are one of the biggest budgetary problems facing the government (and biggest rorts in favour of the already well-off) but he may prefer to leave them alone so he doesn't have to take on the powerful super industry.

That type of power calculation will be made repeatedly as he goes through each budget item with his Treasurer Scott Morrison.

Test of authority

Secondly, it will be interesting to see how he tries to use the budget to stamp his authority on the Coalition. The conservatives in his party will not want to see Tony Abbott's policies reversed.

You don't get the feeling the Liberal Party's conservatives are happier after the summer break. Three of their natural allies - Mal Brough, Jamie Briggs and Peter Dutton - have been covered by the dust of ignominy.

Turnbull won't want Abbott to accumulate more supporters to help him wreck, undermine, and snipe from the sidelines this year. In an ideal world, he would want to keep them happy and busy somehow.

Thirdly, if he releases the budget before the election he will want to use it to show voters he's the kind of prime minister they want running the place. He'll be mindful it can't anger swaths of voters like Abbott's budgets did.

The conservatives in his party will not want to see Tony Abbott's policies reversed.

But what voters want and what his party wants may be very different things. Which way will he jump?

Fourthly, he will want his budget to be senate-friendly. The key to the current parliament is understanding how powerful the senate is. Labor, the Greens and cross-benchers have kept scores of billions of dollars worth of budget savings locked away from Abbott's two budgets, leading to festering relations with the government. Turnbull will want to avoid that situation.

It's all fascinating stuff. He needs to remain in power to do what he wants as prime minister, but he will only remain leader of the Liberal Party if his party allows him to be, and his government will only remain in power if voters want it to be. 

Budget process is revealing

Illustration: Glen Le Lievre.

Illustration: Glen Le Lievre.

The whole budget process will put his beliefs on display - about economics, society, and power - and we'll see if we like them. 

His party will see if it likes them too.

It all reminds me of Waleed Aly's Quarterly Essay from 2010 on the future of conservatism in Australia.

When Aly wrote that essay, Turnbull had recently been dumped from the Liberal Party leadership and replaced by Abbott.

Aly noted at the time that the extraordinary circumstances leading to Turnbull's overthrow revealed something was more at stake inside the Party than the leadership.

"At base, the current struggle within the Liberal Party is one over ideas," he wrote.

We're still watching that struggle.

Abbott's flag frenzy, his three-word slogans, his drum beats of war, have all dropped away. Turnbull has discarded the Team Australia rhetoric and is looking to the future, towards innovation and excitement.

But his budget, and his foreign policy, will tell us far more about the state of liberalism and conservatism in Australia than his words. Which philosophy is in the ascendant?

Focus will also fall on Labor

We're watching a different kind of struggle inside the labour movement. The release of the final report from the Royal Commission into trade unions in late December saw damning findings against Australia's union leadership.

Turnbull wants to push legislation through Parliament this year that will affect how unions are registered and run. If he can't get the legislation passed, he'll make it an election issue.

Labor leader Bill Shorten will have to decide how he's going to play it.

Will he support the Coalition's legislation through Parliament and run the risk of a backlash from his allies inside the unions, or will he opt to fight it as an election issue and run the risk of being forced to defend the indefensible during an election campaign?

With trade union membership at historically low levels, Labor will increasingly have to think about its traditional political ties.

According to the Bureau of Statistics, from August 1992 to August 2014, the proportion of people who are trade union members in their main job has fallen from 40 per cent to just 15 per cent.

And union members are overwhelmingly found in the public sector. Public sector workers who are trade union members in their main job (39 per cent) are far more numerous than those in the private sector (11 per cent).

Shorten will also have to do some hard thinking.

Ross Gittins is on leave

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