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Malcolm Turnbull's hospital pass to the states in Penrith

Malcolm Turnbull and sport haven't always been a successful mix.

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Malcolm Turnbull's big tax idea

States and Territories will be offered the power to set income tax rates, allowing them to collect extra revenue, the PM has announced. Courtesy ABC News 24.

In his first stint as Liberal leader, Turnbull momentarily fumbled his footy codes by saying the Sydney Roosters were in the AFL rather than the NRL.

Then there was a typically loquacious speech at the Dally M Awards last year, which unkind observers judged to be "awkward" and "cringeworthy".

Malcolm Turnbull announces historic reform of the Federation at a rugby league club.
Malcolm Turnbull announces historic reform of the Federation at a rugby league club. Photo: Daniel Munoz

So the PM's visit to western Sydney on Wednesday to open a new Penrith Panthers league academy was not without risk.

Flanked by local member Fiona Scott and league legend Phil Gould, Turnbull kicked off cautiously, regularly checking his speaking notes for details of when the club was founded and how much the new whiz-bang facility would cost.

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But then - with the glee of a winger who spies a crack in the opposition's defence - Turnbull loosened up.

It was time to go big picture.

Malcolm Turnbull opens the Penrith Panthers Rugby League Academy on Wednesday.
Malcolm Turnbull opens the Penrith Panthers Rugby League Academy on Wednesday. Photo: Daniel Munoz

"Can I just say a bit more about rugby league?" he began.

"It has been an inspiration to generations of young Australians ...It provides a shared identity, it is a great community game, a great grassroots game."

Sensing the opportunity for gravitas (and to drop some cherished buzzwords) he kept on sprinting.

"Sport is a metaphor for life," he declared.

"It creates the values and the ethos upon which communities thrive: hard work, perserverance, teamwork, innovation, agility."

Little did we know, we'd only seen the start of Turnbull's fancy footwork. As the press conference headed into extra time, he delivered the political equivalent of an audacious chip and chase play, announcing a plan to hand the states income taxing powers.

This would be, Turnbull explained, "the most fundamental reform to the federation in generations".

The PM was now running free in open space, a man in his element with no need for notes.

He couldn't have looked more comfortable if he were at a John Olsen exhibition in Paddington delivering bon mots about his days working for Kerry Packer.

But what exactly was he throwing state leaders, who are desperate for more cash for education and health? A gimme on the tryline? Or a hospital pass that will send them crashing into heavy contact?

A bit of both, it seems. Yes, the states could tap into a juicy new revenue source. But they would be truly accountable for the services they provide, no longer able to blame Canberra for their crumbling hospitals or failing schools.

"This is a real opportunity to make the federation work," Turnbull thundered.

"It is a big idea."

But, like a coach reminding his players you can't win the premiership in round one, Turnbull acknowledged you can't fix the federation at one COAG meeting.

"This," he said, "is a beginning of a journey."

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