Leading article Australia

Surplus, not surprises

2 April 2016

9:00 AM

2 April 2016

9:00 AM

Unless the Senate does something spectacular – and God knows it likes to make a spectacle of itself – the Prime Minister should get his double dissolution trigger and we’ll be heading to the polls on July 2. The Australian Building and Construction Commission is a smart trigger; it sets up the election on the Coalition’s turf, unites the party, and hits at Mr Shorten’s weaknesses apropos of his shoddy union past.

But we’re not really talking about union corruption. We’re talking about Malcolm Turnbull and, unavoidably, Tony Abbott. And we’re going to be talking about them every week of this fifteen-week monstrosity of a campaign. Has Mr Abbott really morphed into Kevin Rudd and – much, much worse for him – is Mr Turnbull just the ghost of Julia Gillard?

The signs aren’t promising. Mr Turnbull scoffs at the notion he’s running on Mr Abbott’s record (which only constitutes, what, four fifths of this government’s time in office?), whilst Mr Abbott declares he’ll be campaigning in marginal seats on his own initiative because the party can’t find a formal role for him. And just to pile on the 2010 déjà vu, the PM has been hammered for his ‘continuity and change’ slogan – a good government has lost its way, anyone?

So here we go again, a former PM who appears to have an axe to grind and a current leader who seems to believe in nothing. Sarah Ferguson might as well sign the papers for The Killing Season’s second season.

And then there’s Bill Shorten. Yes, Labor still has no clue about spending – it may very well keep them from power – and their leader is still not very TV-friendly. But you have to admit, he has a new spring in his step. His party doesn’t have an alternative leader ready, he’s been gifted a government obsessed with cannibalising itself and because of his policy on negative gearing, he again looks like the ideas man, the man of the future.

Finally, Mr Shorten has Mr Turnbull’s measure. He knows he is paying for his fororn attempts to balance his lefty fans and the right wingers in his caucus. Gay marriage and Safe Schools are on the backburner, but Mr Turnbull’s failure to deliver on his progressive shopping list has been noted by erstwhile admirers at the ABC and Fairfax. By failing to stick up for their policies, he looks either weak or duplicitous as he turns his back on his true ideals and the progressive establishment that has always backed him.

Mr Abbott never had to disappoint such expectations because everyone knew he was a conservative warrior; it never garnered him much love but at least you knew where he stood, most of the time.

Will out-of-love Lefties or disillusioned conservatives give Mr Shorten the keys to the Lodge? It’s still difficult to imagine. Politics is a numbers game and Mr Turnbull has a healthy majority in the House of Representatives to fall back on. But the inability to please all comers, as well as his thin-skinned, prickly responses to Mr Abbott, is dragging the PM down. Mr Shorten may not have victory in sight quite yet but he has a path – something he hasn’t had since Mr Abbott was dumped.

But perhaps before Mr Turnbull wastes too much time fretting over the Prime Minister-Past or the Prime Minister-Yet-To-Come, he needs to sort out his relationship with his Treasurer. Mr Turnbull intimated on the ABC that Mr Morrison isn’t part of his ‘inner circle’. For a PM who promised to deliver ‘economic leadership’, this is troubling to say the least, and shows no sign of changing. There’s the suggestion that Mr Morrison is not particularly suited to the job anyway: the bulldog mentality which made him such a successful boat-stopper of an immigration minister doesn’t quite gel with the nuances of the top economic brief. Maybe, but we won’t really know till we see his first budget. He’s the only treasurer Mr Turnbull’s got and they need to be irredeemably on the same page.

The latest tax reform ‘big idea’, discussed at COAG, of the states raising their own income taxes sounds tantalising – much like all the other goodies that have been briefly ‘on the table’ – if only as a means of introducing genuine competition and accountability to state government finances. But, as usual, the proposal has been clumsily sold without any philosophical underpinnings other than ‘reforming the federation’, leaving it open to Labor scare-mongering. Worse, is it just more shuffling of our tax mix?

The surprise move on the Senate showed that Malcolm Turnbull is above all a brilliant political showman. But there is still the chance the Senate will in turn surprise him and pass the ABCC legislation. (Or, as David Flint points out, Labor deny him supply). Meanwhile, the PM must stop being afraid to utilise his most seasoned warrior, Mr Abbott; whose ‘Five new taxes’ slogan at least has the advantage that it will put the wind right up Labor.

Mr Turnbull needs to urgently promote his long-anticipated economic narrative in a way that allows him to cut government waste and welfare entitlement spending, cut taxes, and fix the budget. Surplus, not surprises, please.

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  • Sue Smith

    The Senate WILL pass those laws and deny Lord Waffle of Wentworth his DD election. After all, if they can earn over $200,000pa for 3 years that’s better than only for a matter of weeks. Self-interest will ALWAYS prevail.