Nearly a fortnight into this marathon election campaign, there are worrying signs for all of us wanting a return of a Coalition government. Malcolm Turnbull has not campaigned with the sureness that underpinned his pitch to replace Tony Abbott eight months ago. He has not shown the common touch supposedly underpinning his stratospheric personal popularity. At the first Sky News peoples’ forum in western Sydney last week, Mr Turnbull talked at, over and down to his undecided voter audience, while Labor leader Bill Shorten actually talked to them. It doesn’t matter that much of what Mr Shorten said was populist ‘I hear your pain’ pap: the thing is that he listened and didn’t patronise.
Thus far Mr Shorten is proving a better on-the-ground campaigner than Mr Turnbull. He is getting the better buzz, not only in the media but on the campaign trail. Being smooched by an amply-dimensioned Adelaide lady riding a mobility scooter didn’t hurt his growing popularity one bit. By contrast, ducking public appearances and media conferences when awkward issues arise, as called out by former Abbott chief-of-staff, new Sky News commentator and this week’s Diarist Peta Credlin, is not the way for ‘Mr Harbourside Mansion’ to connect with the voting public. (And, by the way, has anyone noticed how Sky seems to be setting the agenda this campaign more than the parties themselves?).
Mr Turnbull also has found himself fighting on two fronts on the budget plan to introduce a $550,000 lifetime cap on non-concessional super contributions, backdated to 2007. Naturally, Labor and the Greens have rounded on a patently unpopular measure. More alarmingly, however, the Liberals’ den of media-savvy public intellectuals, the Institute of Public Affairs, has opposed the measure on its retrospectivity and is campaigning hard against it. And former Treasurer and Future Fund chief guardian, Peter Costello, said the government’s modelling of the budget superannuation package’s revenue benefits was highly unrealistic, to say the least.
One wonders what the former Treasurer who was almost destroyed by the retrospectivity of his ‘bottom of the harbour’ tax recovery in 1982, John Howard, thinks of all this. Mr Turnbull has praised the Howard-Costello government as a gold standard of good governance: but Mr Howard and Mr Costello wouldn’t have raided retirement nest eggs with retrospective impunity. If the Coalition persists with its superannuation plans there can be no doubt more revenue-hungry Labor and Green hands will follow eagerly in years to come.The voters know this, and many are fuming over this ‘conservative’ government’s blatant betrayal of their interests. It’s no surprise, therefore, that Mr Turnbull is yet to make a break on Mr Shorten, and that Labor, backed by rising support for the Greens, is currently in an election-winning position according to some opinion polls.
Elsewhere on the campaign trail, while Mr Turnbull may be unsure about how to prosecute an election-winning campaign, his Immigration Minister Peter Dutton abruptly shifted the political conversation firmly into the Coalition’s court.
Interviewed by Sky’s excellent Paul Murray (Sky breaking news again!), Mr Dutton firmly rejected the Greens’ call for the refugee intake to be increased to 50,000. ‘They won’t be numerate or literate in their own language, let alone English,’ Mr Dutton said. ‘These people would be taking Australian jobs… For many of them that would be unemployed, they would languish in unemployment queues and on Medicare and the rest of it so there would be huge cost and there’s no sense in sugar-coating that’.
The now-ubiquitous Ms Credlin later made the obvious point in slapping down former Julia Gillard adviser Nicholas Reece, as she slapped down Mr Abbott’s ministers. ‘Let’s be fair dinkum… it’s not a simple hand on heart humanitarian response, it’s got to be hard-headed and it’s got to be paid for’, she said.
Between them, Mr Dutton and Ms Credlin summed up a powerful Coalition case on not only refugees, but the whole immigration programme. We need people who can reasonably pay their way, won’t be a net drag on scarce public resources including welfare, healthcare and public housing, and have or acquire the basic literacy, numeracy and language skills to function in the workplace and the community. It’s not just about refugees: it’s also about many of the tens of thousands admitted every year as family migrants. As Sydney, Melbourne and other cities bulge at the seams, we simply can’t afford to accept and absorb all comers without question.
These are tough truths, and perhaps Mr Dutton could have expressed himself a little better in stating the problem. But there’s another truth: Labor, the Greens and the Left-leaning media want to shut this debate down because they, and the electorate, know that the minister is actually right. This is a debate that Mr Turnbull and the Coalition shouldn’t walk away from.
It can win them the election.
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