Shorten tops Turn­bull on vi­sion.

The Saturday Paper - - Contents - Paul Bon­giorno

At his ma­jor scene-set­ting speech at the Na­tional Press Club this week, the Op­po­si­tion leader warned that Aus­tralia is in dan­ger of be­com­ing “a left-be­hind so­ci­ety”. While that is to be avoided, he is cer­tainly work­ing on ap­ply­ing it to Mal­colm Turn­bull and his gov­ern­ment in the year-long run-up to the elec­tion. On the eve of fed­eral par­lia­ment re­turn­ing, the signs are omi­nous for the Turn­bull Coali­tion. Al­ready, three opin­ion polls this year have the rel­a­tive stand­ings of the gov­ern­ment and La­bor un­changed from last year. The most heart­en­ing for Turn­bull was a Sky ReachTEL poll that put the two-party gap at four points. Two Es­sen­tial polls have it as wide as eight points. On Mon­day, the 26th Newspoll since the 2016 elec­tion will re­port its lat­est tak­ing of the na­tional pulse.

Turn­bull has in­vested heav­ily dur­ing the hol­i­day pe­riod, us­ing all the levers of in­cum­bency to re­verse vot­ers’ per­cep­tions of him and his gov­ern­ment. These polls are not pred­ica­tive of the elec­tion out­come, of course, which is likely to be held within the next nine months or so. But they are in­dica­tive of how the par­ties are trav­el­ling. They are mar­ket re­search that also in­flu­ences the broader nar­ra­tive.

Of the polls pub­lished so far this year, an­a­lyst An­drew Cat­saras says “noth­ing has re­ally changed”. There is a long tra­jec­tory of the Coali­tion’s polling woes, go­ing back to the run-up in late 2013 to the Ab­bott gov­ern­ment’s po­lit­i­cally dis­as­trous 2014 bud­get. It be­gan as Christo­pher Pyne be­gan walk­ing away from the Gon­ski ed­u­ca­tion re­forms, or rather defin­ing what he and Tony Ab­bott re­ally meant by be­ing in “lock step” with La­bor on the fund­ing pack­age. They were there, but not for much of the whole jour­ney. The 2014 bud­get, which broke ev­ery prom­ise Ab­bott had made on the eve of his elec­tion win, pre­cip­i­tated a down­ward polling spi­ral that gave im­pe­tus to the suc­cess­ful Turn­bull “putsch” in 2015.

Turn­bull him­self gave the bench­mark for Ab­bott’s fail­ure as 30 neg­a­tive Newspolls in a row. By one es­ti­mate, that num­ber could well be reached for Mal­colm at the end of April, in the fi­nal stages of the trea­surer’s May bud­get prepa­ra­tion. That bud­get is be­ing billed as a path­way to tax cuts for mid­dle Aus­tralia.

Turn­bull’s real dilemma is what he can do to change the elec­torate’s view of him as such a great dis­ap­point­ment and dis­suade them from giv­ing the rel­a­tively un­pop­u­lar Bill Shorten a go. The an­swer is not much, if the vot­ers are so unim­pressed they have stopped lis­ten­ing.

Shorten proved he is not al­low­ing neg­a­tive per­cep­tions of him to get in the way this week, pre­sent­ing a vi­able al­ter­na­tive gov­ern­ment with poli­cies that are more at­trac­tive to vot­ers. As Op­po­si­tion leader he has the lux­ury of be­ing able to iden­tify prob­lems and prom­ise to fix them if he’s given the chance. Turn­bull, as prime min­is­ter, has been given his chance and is ex­pected to be al­ready de­liv­er­ing.

He be­lieves he is. At his Toowoomba year opener speech, in the Coali­tion’s heart­land on Queens­land’s Dar­ling Downs, there were no “big an­nounce­ables”, just a pas­sion­ate, some­what shrill in­sis­tence on “the stark con­trast be­tween the gov­ern­ment and our op­po­nents in the La­bor Party”. He said he is get­ting on with the job of cre­at­ing more op­por­tu­ni­ties for Aus­tralians to in­vest and em­ploy. He said, “We’re see­ing that in the jobs growth: 403,000 last year. High­est jobs growth since records be­gan. That is show­ing that we’re de­liv­er­ing.”

Turn­bull is re­ly­ing on his En­ter­prise Tax Plan – the one he took to the last elec­tion, with its promised

$65 bil­lion in cor­po­rate tax cuts, half of which are al­ready de­liv­ered – to some­how be more im­pres­sive this time around. There was a repack­ag­ing early in the week, via his gov­ern­ment’s mas­sive de­fence spend­ing over the next decade, into a “de­fence ex­port strat­egy” – $20-plus mil­lion a year to help our mainly for­eign-owned de­fence in­dus­try to even­tu­ally be­come the world’s 10th-big­gest arms sup­plier.

Shorten, by con­trast, is bur­row­ing down into why these mega an­nounce­ments and real im­prove­ments in the “macro econ­omy” are leav­ing work­ers and their fam­i­lies cold. And this puts the po­lit­i­cal de­bate squarely on his pre­ferred turf of in­dus­trial re­la­tions, health and ed­u­ca­tion. He says the wages sys­tem, de­spite its roots in the Keat­ing and Gil­lard gov­ern­ments, is not de­liv­er­ing. “En­ter­prise bar­gain­ing is on life sup­port,” he says, propos­ing to change the rules and set­ting the scene for an anti-WorkChoices-style cam­paign. He’s on the side of the em­ploy­ees, he says, who are in­creas­ingly be­ing ca­su­alised and who are see­ing wages and con­di­tions erode. All at a time when em­ploy­ers are pock­et­ing sub­stan­tial pro­duc­tiv­ity gains for record profit growth. They are even re­fus­ing to rene­go­ti­ate agree­ments, forc­ing their work­ers back onto lower-paid awards.

A Guardian Es­sen­tial poll this week found a com­mand­ing 73 per cent of those polled think the cost of liv­ing has de­te­ri­o­rated dur­ing the past year, with 75 per cent think­ing elec­tric­ity prices are a ma­jor con­trib­u­tor. And, tellingly, 64 per cent of work­ers on av­er­age weekly earn­ings or lower be­lieve their in­comes have fallen be­hind. They’re in jobs, but far from happy, fret­ting about their house­hold cir­cum­stances. That’s what Turn­bull is up against.

When ac­cused of “class war­fare” Shorten throws the charge back, telling Chan­nel Nine’s Karl Ste­fanovic: “I ac­tu­ally think class war is when a gov­ern­ment is giv­ing multi­na­tion­als and mil­lion­aires tax cuts yet they are mak­ing mil­lions of or­di­nary Aus­tralians pay more taxes.” Shorten and his trea­sury spokesman, Chris Bowen, con­tinue to ham­mer the gov­ern­ment’s pro­posal to raise the Medi­care in­come tax levy – a tax rise for seven mil­lion low- and mid­dle-in­come earn­ers – in con­trast to the tax cut given to high-in­come earn­ers when the deficit re­duc­tion levy was not con­tin­ued last year. “La­bor,” Shorten says, “has a tax cut on the ta­ble.” The gov­ern­ment is cyn­i­cal, want­ing to “hike your taxes now so they can claim credit for cut­ting them later”.

La­bor’s case against the cost of pri­vate health in­sur­ance has strong ap­peal, based on con­sumer re­sent­ment. Shorten calls it “a con” but doesn’t spell out how he proposes to fix it. He de­nies he would scrap the $6 bil­lion re­bate sub­sidy. What he plans to do about it will be an­nounced be­fore the elec­tion. In fact, the speech was a pointer to 10 ma­jor pol­icy an­nounce­ments the La­bor leader plans to make through­out the year, in an at­tempt to build mo­men­tum. If the early re­ac­tion from the gov­ern­ment and sec­tions of the con­ser­va­tive me­dia is any guide, he will cer­tainly be no­ticed. He won’t mind a bit. This is, af­ter all, his last best shot at the top job.

The Shorten speech was widely seen as the Op­po­si­tion leader get­ting the pol­icy jump on Turn­bull.

His pro­posal for a na­tional in­tegrity com­mis­sion, a fed­eral ver­sion of the New South Wales In­de­pen­dent Com­mis­sion Against Cor­rup­tion (ICAC), was a case in point. This was his big “an­nounce­able”. He swept aside years of La­bor wari­ness on the idea to seize the higher ground, “be­cause the most cor­ro­sive sen­ti­ment in democ­ra­cies around the world is the idea that politi­cians are only in it for them­selves”.

Turn­bull’s re­sponse was de­cid­edly luke­warm. He said he’s look­ing at the is­sue and he hasn’t ruled it out. Na­tion­als leader Barn­aby Joyce thinks it’s a bad idea and un­nec­es­sary. Maybe he’s wor­ried such a com­mis­sion would take a dim view of bla­tant pork-bar­relling. Joyce, like many in the Lib­eral and Na­tional par­ties, thinks there’s more than enough scru­tiny of politi­cians al­ready.

Some se­nior back­benchers are urg­ing the prime min­is­ter to be brave and re­sist the idea. On Ra­dio Na­tional, At­tor­ney-Gen­eral Chris­tian Porter seemed un­will­ing to repli­cate ICAC. Politi­cians nob­bling such a body would be a very bad look, al­most as bad as re­fus­ing to set one up now that it is squarely on the ta­ble. And that’s the chal­lenge Shorten has given Turn­bull. Par­al­lels with Turn­bull’s long re­luc­tance to set up a bank­ing royal com­mis­sion are cer­tainly not mis­placed.

For a while this week, the di­vi­sions within the gov­ern­ment were be­ing blamed for the leak­ing of con­fi­den­tial cab­i­net doc­u­ments. At first, thanks to the tim­ing the ABC used to drib­ble out doc­u­ments from a seem­ingly bot­tom­less source, it looked as if some­one in the gov­ern­ment was try­ing to dam­age Tony Ab­bott and Scott Mor­ri­son. La­bor’s An­thony Al­banese blamed the leaks on the an­tag­o­nism at the top of the gov­ern­ment. The ABC did noth­ing to dis­abuse him of this mis­taken view.

It took three days for the real source to be re­vealed: the ABC had re­ceived two fil­ing cab­i­nets full of clas­si­fied doc­u­ments dat­ing back to the Howard gov­ern­ment and end­ing with the Ab­bott ten­ure. “The big­gest breaches of cab­i­net se­cu­rity in Aus­tralian his­tory,” ac­cord­ing to the ABC, and it all be­gan in the Ex- Gov­ern­ment Fur­ni­ture store in Fysh­wick with a buyer who could not be­lieve their eyes when they fi­nally prised open the draw­ers.

Po­lit­i­cal pun­dits ap­ply­ing the cui bono rule (who ben­e­fits?) to guess who the leaker might be were left look­ing silly, much to the relief of the prime min­is­ter, who has asked his depart­ment to in­ves­ti­gate.

That piece of good luck – in­so­far as for once the prob­lem had noth­ing to do with in­ternecine bas­tardry –

• may not last. In fact, the odds are against it.

TURN­BULL’S REAL DILEMMA IS WHAT HE CAN DO TO CHANGE THE ELEC­TORATE’S VIEW OF HIM AS SUCH A GREAT DIS­AP­POINT­MENT AND DIS­SUADE THEM FROM GIV­ING THE REL­A­TIVELY UN­POP­U­LAR BILL SHORTEN A GO.

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