State Of Health: Turnbull Tax Plan A Stinking, Festering Turd

WE WILL say it plainly: Malcolm Turnbull’s “big idea” — to cede a slice of income tax revenue to the states, plus income-taxing powers, in return for ending Commonwealth health grants — is a rancid, festering, stinking turd metaphorically belonging only in a sewer. The package is a nonsense, and reeks of a hastily-concocted mishmash by a government desperate for something, anything to sell after months of political and policy ineptitude.

I write this morning not, oddly enough, to criticise Malcolm Turnbull, but from the sheer horror that my sense he could in fact lose the Coalition government this year is looking less and less like alarmist over-reaction with every passing day; this time — not content to have spent months examining better reform ideas in a thoroughly half-arsed fashion before unequivocally ruling them out, boxing the government in and moving the reform debate onto Labor’s vapid, vacuous turf — Turnbull has apparently presided over the creation of an actual policy initiative that is almost tailor-made for a vicious and hard-hitting ALP scare campaign.

More on that a bit later.

But Turnbull’s grand plan to “withdraw from a certain amount of income tax that would be available to the states” — and to give them the power to raise their own income tax component on Australians living within their respective jurisdictions — is one of the silliest, most politically dangerous and almost certainly unworkable “reform” policies produced by either side of politics for a very, very long time, and makes the “Medicare Gold” embarrassment cooked up by Mark Latham and Julia Gillard in 2004 look like a masterstroke by comparison.

The plan, which is unbelievably bereft of detail (and which readers can peruse more about here and here, with some comment from The Australian here) is, to be most kind, as oxymoronic as the pledge delivered by Tony Abbott in 2013 to bring the haemorrhaging federal budget back into surplus without major spending cuts if he won that year’s election; Abbott, at least, had a catch-all as a get-out-of-jail card: a disclaimer that if the books were in a worse state than the Coalition feared once it attained office, then all bets were off, even if that statement was subsequently ignored and the Abbott government proved incapable of using it to sell the 2014 budget. But Turnbull doesn’t even have anything like that to fall back on.

It’s hard to know where to start, so numerous are the holes in this policy, but the obvious place to start is with the states and territories, in whose hands income-taxing powers would be an anachronism, an assault on the truly national system of economic management that has emerged over decades, and a cynical abrogation of any meaningful attempt at genuine reform.

The states — all six of them — have not held responsibility for collecting income taxes for more than 70 years; the idea they could now do so, with no current expertise in this field, is laughable, and the notion the Commonwealth could collect it on their behalf and remit it to state coffers would seem to defeat the purpose completely.

As for the territories, which would presumably also receive this new power to vary and increase income taxes, it’s a case of something they never had that should not be given now.

It takes a heroic assumption of the behaviour of state governments — irrespective of political stripe — to believe that the power Turnbull is contemplating conferring on them would not be abused, and readers need look no further than their antics after the introduction of the GST in 2000 to know that it would only take a few years after this change for all of the states to be broke again, their people taxed to the hilt, and their governments once again crying poormouth on the Commonwealth’s doorstep.

As intended, the GST provided a short, sharp surge in receipts for state governments; Liberal administrations in Victoria, South Australia, Western Australia, Tasmania and the Coalition in Queensland were quickly bundled out of office at the first available opportunity in each case following the Howard government’s declaration that it would seek to legislate the measure if it won the 1998 election.

The resulting wall-to-wall Labor state governments went on a spending binge that left no lasting benefit or improvement in service standards in key areas such as health, education and roads; thousands of extra bureaucrats bloated and swelled stacked pro-Labor public services, of course, but these people do not directly tend or nurse sick patients, or teach kids, or build freeways.

Of course, those teachers and nurses and emergency services workers lucky enough to have jobs got hefty pay rises, as the rivers of GST gold flowed into their paymasters’ pockets, but their overall numbers did not rise to the extent proportionate with the huge amount of extra money the states had been gifted.

In short, and for the most part, the GST fillip was wasted.

To give the states income-taxing powers now — tied specifically to health — is to open a veritable Pandora’s box.

We already know, from their past behaviour, that the states would hire thousands of additional consultants, analysts, senior fat cats and other pen pushers, but very little in the way of extra teachers and nurses, or the beds and classroom infrastructure their professions require respectively.

Once the agreed share of income tax (whatever it is) has been exhausted — and the states’ income tax levers fully extended to extort more cash out of their people — what will they do? Go directly back to Canberra with their collective hand outstretched.

Of course, Turnbull has given no indication of how the plan will work, which raises the prospect of eight different income tax regimes across the country: this isn’t “competitive federalism,” as some in the Liberal Party like to imagine; it’s anarchy.

And what it also is — exactly as some commentators have already realised — is the thin edge of the wedge of an exercise in double taxation, where both the Commonwealth and the states get to pick over every dollar earned by hard-working mums and dads. The cost of living in this country is already a disgrace, and too many people earning seemingly comfortable incomes are involuntarily doing it tough as it is.

Contrary to Turnbull’s solemn assurance that there would be no overall increase in the tax burden faced by ordinary Australians, this dumb scheme will lead to precisely such an outcome, and as we all know too well, once governments are addicted to increased levels of recurrent spending it is very, very difficult to bring them back down.

Turnbull’s plan contains no details of any accountability measures — if there are any — to put constraints on the states to ensure they do not recklessly abuse the powers he proposes to give them, and if there are no such details to provide, then Turnbull shouldn’t have announced the policy. It’s that simple.

This terrible idea is not, as Turnbull pompously proclaimed, the “most fundamental reform to Federation in generations,” nor “the only way” to address the vertical fiscal imbalance that he claimed constitutes the “failure at the heart of the Federation:” any number of better options for securing government revenues — most notably, GST reform — offer other possibilities for dealing with the problem, even if they have been summarily discarded by the Coalition at the first sign of ALP mischief-making.

But simply shuffling responsibility for who levies which portion of the overall tax take around the place fundamentally solves nothing at all, even if (as expected) the states were to use that right to hike the taxes they took.

Curiously, the state Premiers have been barely lukewarm in their responses to the idea, and there is probably a warning message there: the sense that Turnbull might in fact be wiping his hands of federal responsibility for Health funding probably outweighs, in the mind of a pragmatic Premier, the attraction of what Paul Keating once characterised as “a pot of free money.” Certainly, something smells, and the states appear surprisingly astute in their hesitation.

But once Turnbull gave them partial income taxing powers for Health, what would follow? More state income tax for schools? More state income tax for roads? Before you know it, the Commonwealth would need to drastically increase other taxes (such as job-destroying company taxes) to be able to continue to deliver on Defence, Foreign Affairs, its own share of responsibilities for Roads and Higher Education, and — not least — the $175bn annual welfare bill, which in itself is a national disgrace.

By its nature, the Turnbull plan on Health does not and cannot enforce efficiencies on the states: they would be utterly free to squander every cent of the increased revenues on Labor-allied bureaucrats and other hangers-on if they chose to do so and again, protestations that “that would never happen” are shot down with a glance back in the direction of the post-2000 introduction of the GST.

And having seemingly surrendered funding of Health to the states altogether, the Commonwealth would be in no position at all to oversee any kind of effort to eliminate waste, or to exert any control over health service delivery at all, and with the odd exception of the odd state government for short periods not always determined by which political party holds power, the last thing anyone would argue is that Australian state governments have been star performers when it comes to running hospitals.

After months of picking up tax “reform” ideas, one by one, only to find arcane and at times ridiculous pretexts on which to unilaterally rule them out, the policy announced yesterday by the Prime Minister smacks of desperation, and reeks of the near-panic of a government that is in dire need of something — literally, anything — to cling to and to sell with an election bearing down on it like a road train.

But it won’t fix the funding problem the states have created in their hospitals, by pissing money away on non-frontline personnel when they had it; it won’t guarantee a permanent source of growth revenues to fund health services, and it won’t — irrespective of any melodramatic twaddle from Turnbull — reform the Federation in any way, shape or form: all it will do is create an anarchic mess, to say nothing of the very real scope for the Coalition’s opponents to run the mother of all scare campaigns to ensure it never even materialises.

With luck, this policy will go the same way GST changes, and capital gains changes, and negative gearing changes have gone: dumped. It is an execrable and unbelievably stupid “initiative” from a government that can and should know better. Then again, the quality of policy objectives from governments of both persuasions over the past decade has left a great deal to be desired.

A better discussion would be to finally confront the debate over whether Australia truly embraces universal socialised healthcare, and moves Medicare to a NHS-style system as applies in the UK, or whether it really does look to move to a model of two discrete systems of a public service funded by a Medicare levy with a parallel private system that people can opt out of the public system to join and fund through insurance.

As it stands, families with two middle income earners and a private health policy are paying up to $10,000 per year on health per household, often with poor outcomes in terms of waiting times, cost gaps* over and above those direct payments, and in some cases no availability of services at all.

But whether that happens or not, an even better discussion to have centres on why there should be eight state and territory health bureaucracies — plus a federal department of Health — when the Commonwealth can and should be the sole provider and funder of a single public system that can be streamlined, real savings realised through rationalisation, and the proceeds ploughed back into frontline services in the form of more nurses, beds, and more facilities and equipment.

In short, healthcare in this country is broken, and Labor is every bit as much to blame for that as the Coalition, irrespective of whatever it says to the contrary.

And this brings me back to the scare campaign Labor is already cranking up on the back of Malcolm Turnbull’s stupid, half-baked plans for the states to tax income to pay for hospitals.

Opposition “leader” Bill Shorten’s column today in Sydney’s Daily Telegraph is typical of the vacuous, dishonest, shrill rubbish that forms the ALP’s contribution to public debate these days, and whilst I’m not going to dignify it with the line-by-line demolition it probably merits, it is sufficient to simply describe it as absolute bullshit.

The problem is that whilst Shorten has undeniable form for talking bullshit, there are plenty of people around who like the sound of it, and who don’t give it a second thought: and by releasing such a politically naive policy that can’t and couldn’t achieve what it ostensibly aims to achieve anyway, Turnbull has exposed the government to yet another onslaught of Shorten’s verbal diarrhoea.

This year’s election is no slam dunk for Turnbull. Already, some who are well-placed in Coalition ranks who disagreed privately just a month ago with my assessment that defeat was starting to loom as a possibility are this week telling me they’re reconsidering their opinions on that assessment. And if a festering, stinking turd is the best Turnbull can offer after months of backdowns and policy dithering, then heaven help the country when he really gets cracking with the rest of his election agenda.

 

*As a personal aside and to illustrate the point, readers will recall I shared my experience of having “a stroke” on an aeroplane last August that wasn’t a stroke at all, but a completely harmless (albeit extremely rare) ear abnormality: despite the Medicare system and despite having top private health cover, it cost me $2,300 in out-of-pocket costs to ultimately ascertain that I needed a grommet. Others will have similar stories. If healthcare in this country is to be fixed, Labor’s model of bureaucrats and big pay rises for existing frontline staff (and little else) — and Turnbull’s game of smoke and mirrors with tax collection arrangements — are nothing more than empty bluster.

Queensland: A 14 May State Election Is Worth Betting On

WHILST NOTHING is certain in an infinitely changeable political world, a smart bet (for those wont to wager) is that Queensland will go to a state election on 14 May; facing an LNP led by a moribund failure and which ought to be a mile ahead in the polls, Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk could inflict a potentially lethal blow to the Coalition at any double dissolution election announced by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull — as seems certain — for 2 July.

I do apologise to readers for my sudden silence this week; once again I have found myself otherwise preoccupied, and for once I also downed tools completely for a day or two. I am cognisant that we have things to talk about, and I will come back to some of the week’s issues over the next few days.

But I’m starting to think that the swirling clouds gathered over Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk’s head could shortly be turned to immediate (and possibly deadly) advantage by the ALP; racked by the instability of a fractious hung Parliament to the point she could engineer a blow-up substantial enough to justify an election at just an hour or so’s notice, Palaszczuk is “blessed” by perhaps the most fortuitous circumstances she is likely to confront for the balance of the three-year term her government is nominally serving, and will reap little benefit from any delay in the hope of better weather.

And ironically, the (deserved) belting the ALP suffered in council elections in Brisbane a week ago arguably strengthens the case for Palaszczuk to go to the polls as soon as possible.

With its announcement early in the week that not only will the Senate be recalled early on 18 April to debate stalled legislation the Coalition nonetheless (probably) wants rejected to give it the trigger for an anti-union election campaign, but that the federal budget will also be brought forward by a week to 3 May — enabling both opposition “leader” Bill Shorten to formally reply and the passage of a temporary supply bill to cover an election period before the budget itself is passed — the Turnbull government has all but locked itself into a double dissolution election to be held on 2 July; these things are not absolutes, of course, and the path to the “September or October” election publicly spruiked for so long by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull remains technically feasible.

But I think the only possible variant on a 2 July double dissolution is to hold it a week or a fortnight later, and even then, the formal campaign for it would run to nine or ten weeks; as I have opined in this column many times, I also believe that the longer Turnbull leaves his re-election attempt, the harder it will grow to secure victory: and in the past few days, the bickering and apparent estrangement between the PM and Treasurer Scott Morrison merely add an additional layer of validation to my judgement.

So, barring some unforeseen event from well beyond the horizon, 2 July it is for a double dissolution: and that means an election to be called, for legislative and Constitutional reasons, on 11 May.

I think the Queensland ALP would win an early election, and win it with at least 50 seats in the 89-member unicameral Queensland Parliament; it is for this reason I think a 14 May state election would be such a prudent enterprise for Palaszczuk to consider, as any Labor victory — even by less than the margin I’ve indicated — would puncture Turnbull’s momentum right from the outset and, depending on the degree of (guaranteed) recriminations that subsequently erupt within the Queensland LNP, perhaps derail his campaign altogether.

Last Saturday, Labor went very close to suffering a wipeout in a city that for decades had been its citadel; for 24 years prior to the election of Sallyanne Atkinson in 1985, the ALP ruled City Hall with an iron fist, a phenomenon reprised with the election of Jim Soorley as Lord Mayor in 1991 until his successor was dislodged by Campbell Newman 13 years later.

The disconnect between civic and state results in Brisbane has occurred regularly; in 1976 — two years after state Labor was annihilated, and less than a year after the election of the Fraser government all but destroyed Labor in Queensland — the ALP reduced the Liberal Party to a single ward on Council; in 2015, it reclaimed state government (and 24 Brisbane electorates) on a massive double-digit swing despite going down to the LNP in elections for the Brisbane City Council in 2012 and last week that were both major humiliations.

And it should be remembered that Atkinson’s thumping Council win in 1988 (17 wards to Labor’s 9, and 66% of the two-party vote for the mayoralty) was bookended by paltry returns for the Liberals at state elections in Brisbane of nine and five seats respectively in 1986 and 1989.

So let’s hear no more of the theory that Quirk’s latest landslide automatically spells trouble for Palaszczuk in Brisbane: it might, as I said last week, but unless the LNP does something to avert it, it probably won’t.

In fact, to the extent the council election matters at all in the context of a state election, there is a strong case for the Palaszczuk government to call an election quickly; for the first time, the Communist Party Greens have secured a ward on Council — the previously ultra-safe Labor Woolloongabba ward — and a quick state election would deny the Greens the time to organise, strategise, and harbour their resources strategically for an assault on Labor’s surrounding seats at the state level.

But looking across the aisle at her opponents, Palaszczuk finds nothing but extra reasons to make a dash for a fresh three-year term.

Every party that loses government can find the adjustment to opposition difficult, to say the least, and especially so when it’s the LNP, having squandered the biggest election win in Australian political history after a single term in office.

Yet even this basic law of politics fails to account for the malaise that has passed as “opposition” from the LNP, which has given every appearance over the past 14 months of being more interested in being diverted along tangents and squabbling internally than in any serious endeavour to tear the shaky Palaszczuk regime apart.

The very, very heavily qualified endorsement of the LNP I published on the day of last year’s state election explicitly stated that it would be void if the party restored Lawrence Springborg to its leadership after the expected defeat of Newman in his seat of Ashgrove: and the reasons for that refusal to back Springborg have been visible for all to see ever since, and readers can access some of my past writings on that subject through this article and the links embedded in it.

Just as Palaszczuk’s government is open to the charge it has done nothing except waste money and try to erase Newman’s from the political landscape, the Springborg LNP has squandered repeated opportunities to inflict real blows on Labor.

It wasted time dithering over whether to try to force a by-election in a traditional Labor seat the LNP narrowly lost last year. It failed to try to engineer a winnable by-election by moving a parliamentary expulsion motion against an MP expelled from the ALP. And the LNP has, beyond a few slogans and a bit of occasional mock outrage, shown Queenslanders that it really doesn’t stand for much if the opportunity to reclaim the Treasury benches should confront it any time soon.

Moreover, the same old charge I have repeatedly levelled at Springborg rings true now: over three state election defeats, he has proven to have exactly zero appeal to voters in Brisbane; they may have elected the LNP to council in consecutive landslides, but they spectacularly failed to embrace him in 2004, 2006 and 2009, and there is nothing to suggest they would do so now.

And the state Parliament — now stacked 42-all to the ALP and LNP, with two Katter MPs, two former Labor MPs and an “Independent” who arguably hates conservative political parties — offers Springborg little chance of a mid-term change of government unless a by-election happens in a Labor seat that the LNP wins.

If the expelled (Billy Gordon) and disgruntled (Rob Pyne) former Labor members tried to support a Springborg government in retaliation for an attempt by Palaszczuk to call an election, the Premier could plausibly argue that the behaviour of both in Parliament (especially Gordon) in almost invariably voting with the ALP shows stability could not be guaranteed by such an arrangement, and I would think she would be granted any dissolution of Parliament she sought.

I was discussing these matters with a mate of mine from Queensland during the week and suggested (rather inelegantly) that unless the LNP got its shit together and replaced Springborg with someone from Brisbane, and quickly, it risked getting its collective dick stuck in a pencil sharpener: and if Palaszczuk were so inclined to provoke Pyne and Gordon into the folly of publicly withdrawing support for her government on confidence and supply, then that is exactly what will happen, so to speak.

Pyne and Gordon, for their trouble, are unlikely to survive a state election; meanwhile, with Springborg in charge, Brisbane — where the LNP must win seats if it is to reclaim office in Queensland — is unlikely to swing against Labor at all, and could yield an additional three seats to the ALP (enough to win the election) on a swing to Labor in the capital of less than 2%. As things stand, that swing is likely to be closer to 5%, costing the LNP half its remaining Brisbane seats and leaving it with just the five (out of 38) secured on Springborg’s watch in 2009.

Just those results alone would sorely tempt Palaszczuk to chance her arm.

Last January, the LNP lost 24 seats in Brisbane and 12 elsewhere in the state. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see where that election was lost, or where the party’s current electoral weakness lies. By persisting with Springborg, the LNP risks being wiped out in Brisbane perhaps just weeks after securing arguably its greatest triumph on the city’s Council.

And this brings me back to Malcolm Turnbull, and why a state election in Queensland on 14 May must be a tantalising bet.

Such an election would need to be called by mid-April; that’s only a window for the LNP to get rid of Springborg of a few short weeks, and replacing Springborg with someone from the south-east is perhaps the only way to stop an early election from costing it a stack of seats in and around the capital.

With a double dissolution to be formally called on 11 May, the timing of polling day in Queensland for 14 May would lob a grenade squarely at the federal Coalition’s election campaign: and if Labor were to win in Queensland, the knock-on effects might be considerable.

Calling the election in Queensland would bet on Turnbull following suit on 11 May, but as I explained at the outset, I think Palaszczuk could count on that: and it would lock Turnbull into gambling on the possibility of having to contend with a Labor election win that I think would be a certainty given the LNP’s current leadership.

For one thing, it would erase the Brisbane City Council result as a brake on federal Labor’s prospects in Queensland, where fully one-quarter of the Turnbull government’s lower house electorates are held.

For another, it would gift momentum to Shorten, who might be lacking where policies and ethics are concerned, but has proven uncannily adroit in milking the conservatives’ woes for populist gain. Just ask Tony Abbott.

And there is a precedent for federal Labor to gain from the good fortune of its state counterparts immediately prior to a federal election: in 1983, with the overall winner of an early double dissolution already as good as certain the day it was called thanks to Bob Hawke’s ascension to the ALP leadership that morning, a state election in Western Australia, two weeks before polling day, secured the ALP a win and a change of government; there is plenty of anecdotal evidence that Brian Burke’s win in WA added momentum to Hawke’s campaign that ultimately magnified the scale of his win over Malcolm Fraser. Whilst the comparisons aren’t necessarily straightforward, something similar in this case would fill Shorten’s sails with wind as he tackled Turnbull.

And unlike Springborg, Shorten certainly knows how to capitalise on his opportunities, no matter what (or how little) you might think of him.

In short, Turnbull might be walking straight into a trap: virtually obliged to call a double dissolution election amid falling poll numbers, policy confusion, misfiring communications strategies and after a string of ministerial scandals that have exposed his dubious political judgement — and faced by a resolute, if unscrupulously unprincipled, opponent — a Labor win in one of the big eastern states in the early days of a federal election campaign might be one blow the Coalition simply can’t counter, spin, or explain away.

If you like to have a wager, the field trip to the TAB to bet on the date of the next state election in Queensland could be a richly profitable walk.

 

This article originally suggested a Queensland state election on 13 May, until it was pointed out to me I’d inadvertently proposed a polling date that fell on a Friday. See, I am human, too.  🙂

 

Newspoll: Turnbull Losing Friends And Alienating People

HIS TWO-PARTY number may be healthier — with a bounce within the margin of error — but approval of Malcolm Turnbull among Newspoll respondents has continued its gradual but uninterrupted descent, and now sees the Prime Minister with a negative rating. The Coalition is paying for scandals, inertia and a vapid opposition trying to win favour just as opinion of Turnbull nears the more familiar depths of his first stint as Liberal Party leader.

I will endeavour to keep my remarks brief this morning, as there is another issue I will revisit (time permitting) later in the day, and after people have had the opportunity to digest the latest Newspoll — published in The Australian — but despite an Ipsos poll last week that showed the federal Coalition regaining a 53-47 advantage over the ALP, a more believable result from Newspoll has well and truly destroyed any sense of faux triumph that particular survey might have tempted government figures to indulge themselves with.

If you stand with the Coalition, you might be cheered by the fact Newspoll has found support for the government has risen slightly, boosting a two-party preferred voting intention figure from the 50-50 results of the past month to a 51-49 lead over the ALP; such an increase is, of course, wholly within the usual 3% margin of error associated with Newspoll, and thus might not even exist, and it probably doesn’t make any appreciable difference at all to the average level of Coalition support across all of the reputable polls, which is probably now slightly more than 51% thanks to the Ipsos finding I have a hunch might have been a rogue.

But if your political inclination is toward the Coalition, you will probably be aghast to learn that Malcolm Turnbull’s fall from favour has continued, with Newspoll finding more voters (44%) disapprove than approve (39%) of his performance as Prime Minister; with an election in the offing and many warnings in this column and by others about elevating Turnbull to the Prime Ministership — ever — a trip down memory lane illustrates quite starkly just how deleterious this trend, apparently without end, might prove in terms of the government’s re-election prospects.

A chronically unpopular leader will eventually drag support for his or her party down — sooner or later — as even Tony Abbott, who won an election with terrible approval numbers, ultimately proved in 2014 and 2015; dismissed as this polling index might often be, it’s the kicker that always gets you in the end.

And I see no reason for the latest incarnation of Turnbull to fare any differently.

I want to talk about the Newspoll published on 30 November 2009 today — the day, incidentally, before Turnbull lost the Liberal leadership to Tony Abbott — because I think there are important parallels between the historic numbers shown in the attached file and the trend Newspoll has lately identified where the Prime Minister’s performance is concerned; it may be a long-seeming bow to draw at first blush, but I would ask readers to bear with me.

First, have a look at Turnbull #1’s personal approval and disapproval numbers in the 2009 polls; with the number of respondents satisfied riveted in the low to mid-30s and those dissatisfied ranging between 48% and 54%, the 39-44 split on these questions that Turnbull achieves in today’s polls are a mere hop, skip and a jump away from mirroring those dreadful numbers perfectly.

Yes, Tony Abbott’s numbers were sometimes worse, but conversely some of those Turnbull numbers from 2009 (particularly the 32-54 finding from October 2009 for a negative approval rating of -22%) were every bit as bad as some of the figures recorded by Abbott when there was nothing particularly noteworthy happening to influence them. These are the kinds of numbers that get political leaders assassinated in the dead of the night, and Turnbull is again nearing the very worst levels of voter support that he plumbed during his disastrous initial stint as Liberal leader.

What should scare the hell out of the boffins trying to mastermind a Coalition re-election strategy is that with the exception of the scandals that engulfed ministers Mal Brough, Jamie Briggs and Stuart Robert (nothing to be explained away, but nothing that should destroy a leader’s standing, either, if correctly handled) is that there has been no detonation of nuclear proportions to hack away at Turnbull’s support this time, as there was in 2009 during the “Utegate” scandal and his foolish use of an unvalidated, and fabricated, email from public servant Godwin Grech to pursue then-Prime Minister Kevin Rudd.

Secondly, check out the “preferred PM” findings from the 2009 polls; they are remarkably consistent, with Rudd averaging about 64-18 over Turnbull across the two-month period.

It is safe to say in hindsight that at least some of this colossal lead was simply the product of incumbency; it is historically rare (but not unheard of, of course) for an opposition leader to best a Prime Minister on this measure, and it is almost a default reality that a first-term government will feature a leader who commands a solid lead over the opposition pretender unless something has gone drastically wrong (as it did with Abbott versus Shorten after the 2014 budget, although even then, Shorten was unable to maintain a consistent lead over Abbott, nor a lead of any more than a few points at a time).

In today’s Newspoll, Turnbull’s lead over Shorten on this measure is 52% (-3%) to 21% (unch): 15 percentage points lower than the aggregate 64-18 advantage enjoyed by Rudd over Turnbull, with the trend over the past few Newspolls being for the gap to narrow, and whilst the current lead appears solid enough at first glance, it is harvested off a marginal voting intention advantage and by a Prime Minister whose personal disapproval has just dipped into negative territory for the first time.

Rudd, as we know, was already showing the early signs of implosion at the end of 2009: more reason still as to why big leads on the “preferred PM” measure really don’t matter a can of beans. Seven months after the last of the 2009 results I’ve shared today was published, Rudd was gone; and when he was overthrown in a midnight coup in June 2010, he still commanded a healthy lead over Abbott on this question.

But finally, have a look at the question — relating to Kevin Rudd’s ill-fated Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme — at the bottom of the 2009 link.

We all know what Malcolm Turnbull stands for — a republic, carbon taxes (or “market-based mechanisms” as he used to call them), legalising gay marriage, and other socially left-leaning postures — and much of his agenda is anathema to a large proportion of the Liberal Party’s voter base, and to conservative Liberals (who comprise a majority of that base) in particular.

When Malcolm made a stand to support the CPRS, it was the last of a thousand self-inflicted sabre cuts that cost him the Liberal leadership: then, as I suspect now, the politics of carbon are so politically toxic that should they become the focus of another election campaign, whoever champions such things the loudest (currently Bill Shorten, but you never know) might pay dearly for it at the ballot box.

But this is no longer assured, for in the present environment Turnbull’s ratings are in freefall at a time he is not only refraining from a gung-ho prosecution of his perennial pet issues, but advocating very little else either: the mess the government has made over its tax “reform” debate is an object illustration of this.

In short, it seems Malcolm is damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t.

And this enigmatic truth that seems to be slowly engulfing the Coalition will, I think, become stronger if Turnbull and Treasurer Scott Morrison find, as reported this morning, $9bn to cut company taxes at a time the federal budget is awash with red ink, with no personal tax cuts for wage and salary earners, and the charge quite open to his opponents to make that he has wimped it on substantial taxation reform.

Assuming, that is, the business tax cut doesn’t go the way of every other option Turnbull and Morrison have canvassed and jettisoned to date.

The point is that what Turnbull has been doing — or not doing, as the case may be — is slowly beginning to work the Coalition back toward the position that necessitated a leadership change in the first place last year, and whilst it mightn’t get as bad as the wipeout Turnbull threatened to preside over had he lasted to an election in 2010, the Coalition doesn’t have to fall much further in reputable polling for an election loss to become a distinct possibility.

If it isn’t already.

No, Turnbull isn’t faced with a popular leader (as Rudd still was in late 2009) and no, the ALP doesn’t have anything of real value to offer the electorate, but that didn’t stop Queenslanders restoring Labor to the government benches in state Parliament a year ago after a single term.

I just wanted to look at today’s Newspoll from a different perspective than usual, and I’d be interested in what thoughts readers might have about both the state of political health of the government and the parallels I’ve drawn between Turnbull #1 and Turnbull #2.

But ultimately, the message is crystal clear: having wasted the chance to score a smackdown victory at a December double dissolution election, the longer Turnbull now waits to go to the polls, the likelier it will become that the government will be defeated.

As the 2009 numbers show, Turnbull has form for losing friends and alienating people. Based on today’s Newspoll, it is a dubious skill whose handiwork is once again on display for all to see. The big question is how far it can go on before it drags the government down with it.

 

Brisbane: Big LNP Win Carries Messages For Springborg, Palaszczuk

A THUMPING WIN has seen Lord Mayor Graham Quirk easily re-elected in Australia’s largest municipal authority; whilst a swing of around 10% was expected after Quirk polled 68.5% four years ago, the LNP’s grip on council may yet tighten. The result carries messages for Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk and LNP leader Lawrence Springborg, and almost certainly finishes ALP mayoral hope Rod Harding as a political force at his first tilt at elected office.

I have followed local government elections in Brisbane (and elsewhere in Queensland) reasonably closely, although today I am going to restrict my remarks mostly to Brisbane in the interests of concision.

Despite a rogue poll during the week claiming Lord Mayor Graham Quirk (or “Floored Mayor,” as the Courier Mail‘s histrionic rubbish characterised him) was on the ropes and facing defeat, I don’t think the result in Brisbane was ever in any doubt: and from the time we looked at Labor wannabe Rod Harding’s ridiculous scheme to tear up the contract for a road project in January that had already commenced — even as the debacle of the East-West Link fiasco in Victoria should have forced him to think again — the damage to the ALP’s prospects was probably already terminal, if not perhaps completely obvious.

First things first: I would like to minute hearty congratulations to Graham Quirk and his team on what is a well deserved and thoroughly appropriate victory, but especially to Graham himself; of all the senior Liberal Party people in Queensland I have had dealings with over the years he is one of the best: an unbelievably decent individual whose integrity is matched only by his capacity for workload, Quirk has been one of the finest foot soldiers for Queensland’s conservatives over many years, and I am delighted that he has been given a further four years to serve the people of Brisbane and work to continue to improve what is — on any measure — a booming, thriving place to live and work (even if the weather is mostly unbearable).

Readers know that I have been spending a little more time than usual back in my former northern seat; my current weekly FIFO day trips have allowed me to watch the city’s continued evolution from regional centre into a serious city on the march more closely, and whilst it isn’t perfect (nothing is), Quirk’s administration must rightly be credited with a share of the kudos for what is happening in modern Brisbane today.

What started under Campbell Newman as the “Can Do” approach — a slogan consigned to the dustbin in the wake of Newman’s ultimately disastrous foray into state politics — has nonetheless proven surprisingly durable in its subsequent incarnation as “Team Quirk,” with the central themes of sustainable development, infrastructure construction and civic growth of the 12-year-old Liberal/LNP administration clearly given a resounding thumbs-up by voters yesterday for a fourth consecutive time.

Whilst final results are far from being declared — the Electoral Commission of Queensland has had local government elections across the state, the big event in Brisbane (with both a mayoral election and separate contests in 26 wards), and a referendum on fixed four-year terms for state elections (that looks, surprisingly, like passing narrowly) all on the one weekend — it appears Quirk has recorded 53% of the primary vote in Brisbane, stretching at close of counting to 58.7% after preferences; this equates to a swing of just less than 10% to Labor, and as I said in my introduction, a correction of roughly that magnitude was completely foreseeable after the record 68.5% Quirk reeled in back in 2012.

Interestingly, the longer the count progressed before the Commission called it quits for the night, the higher Quirk’s share of both the primary and two-party votes drifted, and the lower the swing against him became; with almost 40% of the mayoral vote still to be processed, it is not inconceivable that the swing could fall as low as 8% as outstanding ordinary votes and early pre-poll votes (which the LNP traditionally does very well with) are added to the tally: and a swing in the order of 8%, against a 12-year-old administration and off such a massive win four years ago, would be an electoral achievement of remarkable quality indeed.

It is also perhaps a tantalising indication of what the Newman government might have scored across Brisbane had its strategic and tactical apparatus not misfired so spectacularly.

Across the 26 wards, the stunning Quirk win appears to be even better.

At the close of counting, the LNP leads the ALP in 20 on primary votes and in 20 after preferences; remarkably, it appears highly plausible Team Quirk will retain all 18 wards it was notionally defending after a boundary redivision, and could well pick up the vacant ward of Northgate — a traditional ALP stronghold — where it currently leads by some 600 votes after preferences with roughly 60% of the vote tallied.

Independent councillor Nicole Johnston is certain to retain her ward of Tennyson, aided in no small part by a sexting scandal that forced the disendorsement of LNP contender Ashley Higgins during the week.

But the election has been a comprehensive humiliation for the ALP; not only has its mayoral candidate finished with less than a third of the primary vote for the third election in a row, but Labor appears set to lose one of its seven existing seats to the LNP in Northgate, and another — The Gabba — to the Communist Party Greens on preferences.

Should that occur, Labor’s miserable return of just five of 26 wards probably places it two terms away from reclaiming City Hall at the very minimum after one of its worst performances in Brisbane (if not the worst since Council was established in 1925) and finishes (or at least should finish) the political prospects of Harding at his first electoral outing for good.

Readers can access ECQ results here for the mayoral count and here for the wards. I expect these will update during today and again early in the new week.

Much as Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk might feel emboldened by leadership unrest at the state LNP, the reasonably solid polling numbers for her do-nothing minority government, and the apparent success of her referendum on fixed four-year terms, yesterday’s council results in Brisbane should bring any plot to call a snap state election to a screeching halt.

For one thing, the LNP vote in Brisbane yesterday outperformed state election numbers for comparable electorates last January by more than 10% — a clue that just as insecurely seated as some of the LNP’s remaining Brisbane state MPs might be, there is both scope and voter inclination to support conservative candidates, which means a clutch of extra seats in the capital might just propel the party back into power on George Street if Palaszczuk tempts electoral fate too quickly.

For another, yesterday’s results should temper some of the more fatuous ideas ALP hardheads might have about making gains in and around Brisbane at the imminent federal election, too; with just six out of 30 federal Queensland electorates, some believe the only way for Labor to go this year is up. But it is defending two marginal seats (Lilley and Moreton) on margins of 1.3% and 1.6% respectively, and had yesterday’s votes been applied to the corresponding boundaries of those two federal seats, the ALP would have lost both.

And the hard, cold fact that will occupy Labor strategists is that had these results materialised at the state election held 14 months ago, then Campbell Newman would still be Premier today or, at the very minimum, the LNP would remain in office under a new leader thanks to perhaps an extra half a dozen state seats it would have held onto if the voting patterns yesterday applied at state election time.

But just as there is food for thought for Labor in all of this, so too there is for the LNP and in particular, what its state MPs do about the liability leading them toward a likely fourth election loss as leader.

I don’t need to spell it out again, or post links to previous articles; the archly rural Lawrence Springborg is a good and decent fellow with exactly zero electoral appeal in Brisbane — rightly or wrongly — and the abjectly pathetic results in Brisbane, recorded at all three of the state elections he has previously contested as leader, prove it.

There are some in and around the LNP who continue to work to a strategy of seizing government by way of a change on the floor of state Parliament; such a transition may or may not occur — such is the fluid state of febrile numbers in that hung chamber — and were Springborg to become Premier in such a manner, he might or might not be able to translate incumbency into an election win 12 or 18 months down the track.

But I wouldn’t count on it, and in any case, if this is the best plan for reclaiming government in Queensland the LNP can come up with (or for simply achieving Lawrence a tenure in the Premier’s office, which some of them seriously believe he “deserves”) then it’s patently obvious that LNP state election strategy is a complete oxymoron.

Just as it has been, with few exceptions, for 30 years.

Yesterday’s council results in Brisbane — in addition to the usually dominant Coalition position federally in Queensland since 1996 — underscores the willingness of voters in the Sunshine State to embrace conservative governments; just a year after ejecting the LNP from George Street, they yesterday handed it a stunning win in Brisbane that will take Labor years to recover from.

But the variables and permutations — the LNP leadership, the precarious state of Palaszczuk’s regime, state election timing, the prospect of the next election being for a four-year term, and the proliferation of vulnerable electorates on both sides of the pendulum — means there are no guarantees around what outcome a state election might produce, and certainly no guarantee of an LNP victory even after a day to savour yesterday in Brisbane, most of the south-east corner, and elsewhere across the state.

As I said, it’s food for thought. But my feeling is that if the LNP sorts its baggage out quickly and moves Springborg on, its position at a state election — likelier sooner rather than later — could quickly be made unassailable.

 

AND ANOTHER THING: For the benefit of those who might be wondering, I will be making no comment whatsoever in this column in relation to the Liberal Party preselection for the federal seat of Goldstein, in Melbourne’s southern suburbs (and in which I live), that took place yesterday afternoon.

 

A Truculent Senate And Malcolm Moving Forward

SEEMINGLY SNOOKERED over the option of a double dissolution his government has virtually backed itself into attempting to call and thwarted in his ability to obtain the final crucial trigger for such a contest — with the odds on securing supply prior to a July election growing long — there is one way forward for Malcolm Turnbull, and one only: but the risk, if the Senate now thwarts him completely, is that the spectre of defeat is starting to loom.

We shouldn’t be having this conversation — we simply shouldn’t be having it — and had Malcolm Turnbull, armed with seismic approval ratings and an election-winning lead after his ascension to the Prime Ministership, called a snap double dissolution last December we wouldn’t be having it: Turnbull would be ensconced for a further three years, probably with the bulk of the Coalition’s existing large majority intact.

It doesn’t matter whether you support Malcolm Turnbull — and some of the more questionable appointments he has made to his ministry — or whether you belong to the small but noisy rump that insists you want “your elected Prime Minister back” despite a majority of the electorate not only disagreeing with you, but standing ready to reward such a return with an excursion to the opposition benches: today I want to talk about the last defiant stand being played out in the Senate, its implications for the Coalition’s election and policy agendas (such as they are, in the latter case), and the likely course of electoral behaviour as things currently stand.

And that means that I’m not interested in any diversions about the return of Tony Abbott today.

Last night, Mark Kenny published an analysis piece in the Fairfax press that is well worth a read; I’m using it today because of the various options on offer, it probably best sums up both the antics of the recalcitrant Senate — as irresponsible crossbench Senators apparently glory in what might yet prove their last stand — and the bind in which Turnbull finds himself, but in a twist, the roots of the government’s narrowing options to get to the polls quickly are embedded much earlier in the political timeline, and the blame for them rests squarely with Abbott and the defective, dysfunctional approach he and his “brains” trust deployed toward executing their program.

Over the past couple of months, rhetoric (from Turnbull and others) about an election in September or October has imperceptibly softened; at the same time, a double dissolution election has evolved into a “live option” which has increasingly been brandished whenever the question of election speculation has arisen.

An election in July, as some in the government have been wont to assert, would not be “early” some nine weeks before the three-year anniversary of the 2013 poll, and whilst they’re technically correct in that bulk of a three-year term will have expired by that time, nobody is under any illusions as to what the game has been.

Very simply, the government has as good as committed itself to a double dissolution election, with 2 July the likeliest (and in my mind, only) feasible date: but the Senate — even Turnbull’s new chums at the Communist Party Greens, who have guaranteed the passage through the Senate of necessary reforms that will (not coincidentally) probably benefit them more than anyone else at a double dissolution — is proving stubbornly welded to the objective of inflicting as much pain on the government as it can.

For procedural reasons, it has been necessary for the government to press ahead this week with either the bills for the Senate reforms or for the restoration of the Australian Building and Construction Commission; the latter, having already been thrown out by the Senate once, must be defeated a second time to provide a crucial trigger for Turnbull’s nominated campaign theme: union corruption in Australian workplaces and on building sites.

Predictably, the electoral changes have come first, guaranteed to pass as they are with the support of the Greens.

But to secure both the Senate reforms and the double dissolution trigger, the Senate must sit again one week earlier, on 3 May, than currently scheduled; the budget is due to be delivered on 10 May, and the final date to call a 2 July election (or any double dissolution election during this term of Parliament) is 11 May: which means the ABCC legislation would have to be voted down on 10 May, a temporary supply bill passed to guarantee the government funds during the election period with the full budget waiting until after the election, and with the Senate changes occupying this sitting period of the Senate, a 3 May reconvention is required to reintroduce the ABCC bills.

(An excellent longer form article on the Constitutional and practical considerations of a double dissolution, and the procedural landscape to be navigated in order to get to one, was published yesterday by the ABC’s election analyst Antony Green. Readers can access that piece here).

Labor, the Greens and the minor parties have all refused to support the recall of the Senate for May 3, and the Senate — not the government — has the final say on whether or not such a sitting week goes ahead; if it doesn’t, there is no election trigger to restore the ABCC, although the government does have a related trigger in the form of Registered Organisations legislation designed to force the unions to the same standards of accountability and disclosure as the business sector that has already been voted down twice.

So here we are: the government has obliged itself to call a double dissolution it might be impossible to proceed with, whilst some of the legislation it wants to pass at a Joint Sitting of Parliament after such an election might not be available at all.

It’s instructive to note Labor is refusing to take steps that would enable a July election, but in trying to shut that option off is also pushing toward a later election at which it will be harder to increase its own Senate numbers; if Bill Shorten was really as confident as his reckless, opportunistic rhetoric proclaims, he would do anything to engineer the earliest polling date humanly possible.

That the ALP — which could combine with the government to recall Parliament — is refusing to play ball is telling, for it suggests Shorten and his cronies know it’s too soon for them to have any real hope of winning. Yes, the ABCC is anathema to Labor (and more particularly, to its masters at Trades Hall). But if Labor were confident of even a chance of winning in July, it would allow the ABCC bills to be introduced, help knock them back down, and head off towards polling day happily knowing that Shorten was under no obligation to proceed with them (or to call a Joint Sitting at all) if he won.

So let’s be clear about something: right now, despite the shaky standing of the government on trend in the polls, Labor has no confidence of winning an election right now. It’s a useful point, especially if you’re Turnbull with seven or eight weeks until budget day up your sleeve.

And we should be clear about something else, too: for all the talk six months ago about a decisive, “thoroughly liberal” government that would respect voters’ intelligence and advocate for meaningful and necessary economic reform, budget repair, and the pursuit of economic growth, Malcolm Turnbull’s government to date has proven little better than the opaque, dysfunctional outfit it replaced.

But even if the option of a double dissolution is thwarted, as seems increasingly likely, there is still a way forward for the government, but the time to break a few eggs if it is serious about making an omelette — rather than a sticky mess — is now.

Still, the minor party Senators have been having a whale of a time; Australian Motoring Enthusiast Party Senator Ricky Muir (with his 0.51% of the Victorian vote) moved to debate the ABCC legislation, knowing the electoral reform bills had to be tabled this week if they are to be passed with the three months’ grace period the Electoral Commission says it needs to implement the changes ahead of an election; the government had to vote down the opportunity to pass the other legislation it also specifically needs to have in hand for the election it wants.

The same tactic was wheeled out by Liberal Democrat David Leyonhjelm, trying to force the Greens to shift course and debate a bill to legalise gay marriage; despite their “every Green, every vote, every time” mantra on the issue, the Greens found themselves voting that down too.

But just to muddy the water, the Greens have seemingly thrown in their lot with everyone else not sitting on the Coalition benches to deny the government the extra sitting week it needs for the ABCC legislation, and one would have to expect that even without the ABCC bills to vote on, the same amalgam of cross-party self-interest will also refuse to pass a temporary supply bill on 10 May: just to spite the government because it can.

I think Turnbull’s best course of action is to proceed with plans for a double dissolution election; after all, everyone knows it’s coming, and the humiliation of failing to secure the supply bill (which would enable Turnbull to advise the election) won’t leave any more egg on government faces than they will wear if they don’t attempt to do so.

Whichever way you sift it, Turnbull is already going to look very silly if there is no election on 2 July. He might as well do whatever he can to avail himself of someone to point the finger at. And if he manages to get to the polls he at least has the Registered Organisations bill to pass at a Joint Sitting, which is better than nothing at all.

But with that said, the weeks before Scott Morrison delivers the budget offer one final opportunity for the Coalition to get its act together, and to start looking like both a functional government and an effective political machine ready to pounce on its opponents in an election setting.

For a start — with entrenched average annual budget deficits of about $40bn showing no authentic signs of going away — Morrison and Finance minister Matthias Cormann could do worse than to dust off the Commission of Audit report former Treasurer Joe Hockey unwisely sat on for months, before producing it a week out from the 2014 budget; the structural abyss in government finances remains a gaping one, and deep spending cuts remain as integral to any attempt to fix it now as it did back then.

Hockey, of course, failed spectacularly to make that case to the public — or to effectively sell anything else, for that matter — and a good place to start would be for the government to begin to provide a backdrop for its economic discourse based on the true state of the books, in unvarnished detail and made simply and forcefully, and keep on hammering its key points all the way to election day: whenever that turns out to be, of course.

The time for brain farts, thought bubbles, kite-flying of potential reforms only to unilaterally rule them out — and restrict the scope to do anything much at all — has to stop, right now, this very day; as it is, GST reform, negative gearing changes, and a swathe of other potential areas for reform are now off-limits. Eerily, it is reminiscent of the foolish “no changes to this, no changes to that” speech inadvisedly made by Abbott in the dying days of the 2013 election campaign, and Turnbull is as hamstrung by ruling things out as his predecessor was.

Despite the political risks, and the certain scare campaign it will elicit from Labor, part of any “reset” of the economic dialogue must include the announcement of a decision by the government to re-examine every aspect of the government’s expenditure and revenue commitments to develop a comprehensive suite of reforms.

It might be — in committing such a drastic, but necessary, about-face — that Turnbull has to perform a Peter Beattie-style mea culpa: I’m sorry, I ruled everything out, it’s my fault, I’ll fix it…and we’re going to start over, and get it right.” On one level, the political risks associated with such an announcement are blunted by the fact that aside from a huge slate of tax hikes, the ALP doesn’t have any policies at all: and an election conducted in an environment of massive tax slugs from the ALP versus working to cut spending and cut taxes from the Coalition would see Turnbull’s MPs sally forth in their electorates with a theme they could sell.

Then there are two other tasks: one, Morrison’s budget, and two, the vexing matter of exactly what program the government might take to the people whenever the election occurs.

I think a no-frills budget, without election bribes or giveaways and little else to rock the boat, is the right approach: after all, an election is at most months away, and there would be more credibility in setting out a program for voters to approve prior to legislating it afterwards. Next year’s budget, clearly, will be a spicier affair. But there is no money — partly because there can be no meaningful savings passed through the current Senate — and the “fistful of dollars” approach doesn’t win elections any more. If it did, John Howard and Peter Costello would have been re-elected with their $30bn tax cut pledge in 2007.

Even so, tax cuts have been one of those things run up the flagpole, allowed to flutter around a little, then hastily torn back down: there simply isn’t the cash to pay for them, and abandoning the idea is the responsible thing to do.

But just like every other reform proposal that has been considered and jettisoned by the government to date, this one may cost a votes too, as disgruntled voters lose patience with what Turnbull promised at the outset would be brilliant, but has proven merely mediocre as it has progressed.

What Turnbull, Morrison, Cormann and their colleagues can do — under the cover of seven weeks until the budget, and with a narrative around budget repair starting to seep out — is to shut up for part of the time and get their policy proposals sorted out.

If there are many more kites flown, with nothing to show for the spectacle, there is a growing risk that voters will simply switch off and stop listening. Once this occurs — and it’s a truism of political life — you’re finished, and we have seen this as Gillard, Howard, and Keating all endured final years in office in which nobody paid much attention at all to anything they had to say.

If the entrenched pattern of indecision continues much longer, Turnbull risks experiencing the same phenomenon. On average and on the critical two-party measure, Labor has already drawn close to or level with the government again in the polls. Not all of this movement is due to positive reactions to ALP policy, and it certainly isn’t the result of the appeal of Labor’s “leader” (he hasn’t got any). It is entirely reasonable to infer that through doing very little indeed, the government is feeding the electoral prospects of its rivals. It leaves little room to manoeuvre, and it is why I have repeatedly warned that the longer it takes for Turnbull to get to the polls, the greater the risk that Labor might in fact beat him.

It scarcely bears thinking about.

But in the meantime, firm policies need to be locked away and, progressively, released; people were expecting a tax policy by now. Where is it? Industrial Relations reform…where’s that proposal? It is true the government is working on many of these packages, as it should be. But if it still harbours ideas of an election in July, it is going to have to get its skates on.

And either way, with time running out, some of these measures may have to take the form of “headline” or “direction” statements, setting out broad frameworks onto which solid detail can be grafted after an election; again, it is a risky approach, but the clock is conspiring against Turnbull now as much as any other factor. He had twelve months on his term when he became Prime Minister; half of that is now gone — his polling lead with it — and there’s nothing to show for six months of indecision.

Nothing I am suggesting today is rocket science, and whilst I remain to be convinced the government can actually sell anything it comes up with — and my door is open to help on that score — there is ample evidence that voters are prepared to accept tough reforms if they can be persuaded they are necessary.

The Abbott government failed to persuade anyone that the (mostly) wrong “reforms” were necessary at all; in Turnbull’s case, no reforms have been produced for anyone to evaluate.

Except, of course, the reforms to the Senate, and the only people complaining about those are the ones whose gravy train of self-interest will rightly be permanently derailed once the laws are enacted.

And that brings up my final point on Turnbull’s double dissolution prospects, or even his ability to call such an election at all.

I was arguing from the moment Tony Abbott was elected that if the Senate started voting down his government’s program, he should move to rack up as many double dissolution triggers as possible: the very prospect of a double dissolution would itself act as a deterrent to the crossbench to a degree, as would the gradual accumulation of triggers to make good on the threat.

Instead, some legislation was abandoned; some was withdrawn, with items like the ABCC bills only seeing the light of day again now; and in some cases, “deals” were done with the likes of Clive Palmer — the removal of the mining tax is a good example — in which the government’s basic objectives were achieved, but with conditions and expenditure attached that meant any intended savings were partly or wholly eliminated, or even added to the sea of red ink on the budget balance sheet rather than reducing it.

Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but if people wonder why I was so adamant that parliamentary strategy under Abbott was an abject failure, its consequences are being laid bare now for all to see.

Had the Senate been handled more astutely, the government would now have potentially dozens of double dissolution triggers, and whilst it might still fail to obtain a temporary supply bill — and provided the electoral changes had been attended to sooner than they have been — then the ability to dissolve both houses might never have been an issue, and it might have already happened.

But to close, I think the Turnbull government is at its crossroads: with sure steps and definitive action, combined with astute strategic and tactical plays and a little luck, and it can still win an election later this year.

But to continue as it has been — and especially if the double dissolution option disappears, giving Labor and its allies yet more time to chip away at the government and try to knock it over — the longer Turnbull leaves calling an election, the tougher (and rougher) the going will become.

Turnbull is not invincible. The government is not guaranteed a second term. Defeat, unthinkable three months ago, is again a distinct possibility.

There is one final opportunity for the Turnbull government to reset its compass. The time for that is now.

 

“Full” Employment: Shorten’s Jobs Pledge Recycled Hot Air

ANOTHER DAY, another empty ALP “policy” statement; the announcement by opposition “leader” Bill Shorten that a Labor government would aim to achieve full employment is not a policy, is completely devoid of substance, and merely regurgitates an identical slogan uttered by every state and federal ALP leader over the past 25 years. No government has presided over full employment since the 1960s. One “led” by Shorten would be no different.

For an idiot savant like Bill Shorten — who has spent two and a half years ranting about “honesty” and the need to keep election promises — to start talking about full employment as a Labor election platform is such an oxymoron it is difficult to know where to begin; Shorten’s political specialty is connecting misleading statements about his opponents with attractive-sounding but vacuous populist propositions to make himself look better than he is, but for this particular Labor “leader” to start belting the jobs can in the hope it will win him votes is (to quote one of his predecessors) a bridge too far.

Yet having spent more than a decade presiding over an organisation at the AWU that purports to look after workers’ rights — and there are and were an awful, awful lot of part-time and causal workers who are AWU members — Shorten now aims to do precisely that: suddenly, he has discovered “the under-employment of more than a million people,” just in time for a federal election, and wheeled out a vague and tired “policy” objective of achieving full employment in Australia if Labor wins office later this year.

I have been following elections in this country since I was a teenager in the 1980s, and I can’t think of a single state or federal election over a 30-year period at which the Labor figurehead (whoever it was) did not campaign on some nondescript but awe-inspiring number of jobs he or she would seek to create — including, more often than not, some formulation to suggest the achievement of full employment — but naturally, it’s one agenda item the ALP has never delivered on.

Funny that.

Whilst small business — a constituency detested by the ALP, irrespective of whatever it says to the contrary — is overwhelmingly the driver of employment growth in Australia, the sector can only do so much; the only ways any government can “create employment” is by stacking out the public service (generally with politically pliant personnel) or by the politically fraught measure of instituting a program of compulsory National Service.

Of course, Labor is no slouch when it comes to the former: public services across Australia, state and federal, are swollen by ambit appointments that are often unnecessary and, largely, excessively remunerated, but that’s the point: the ALP has used its periods in office all over the country to ensure that at any given time, reliable and well-remunerated sets of eyes and ears remain stockpiled and embedded within the mechanisms of government even if Labor does not at any given time hold government itself.

These people, of course, perform valuable service in many cases, but it’s scarcely the point. Were there no political purpose for hiring them, their jobs wouldn’t even exist: and whilst “everyone does it” might be a justified retort, the fact is that the ALP does it more, and better, than anyone.

Where National Service is concerned, I don’t actually mind the idea of a conversation around it; a gap year — or even two — after young people finish school during which they are well paid, receive some practical training and experience, and actually return something to the country could (if properly calibrated) be a mutually beneficial arrangement that helps add to their employability in the longer term. Yes, it’s controversial, and no, I don’t want to divert right down that tangential track now. But the point is that aside from public service recruitment, it is the only other guaranteed way of creating jobs, and I’m certain Shorten and his cohorts won’t have a bar of the idea.

They hate the armed services, too.

For someone whose own union made an art form of stripping pay, overtime and other conditions away from low-paid workers — often causal or part-time — it’s a bit rich, to say nothing of offensive, to listen to Shorten rail against “under-employment” now.

And the announcement today comes with no details, or solid, tangible plan, or a series of markers against which to measure progress, or any itinerary to be followed after the ALP takes office: a cynic would point to the fact there are no promises of actual jobs, and that Shorten has merely said he “aims” to achieve full employment.

Yet so has every other Labor leader since the debacle of the Whitlam government — every one of them more substantial individuals than Shorten could ever dream of being — and none of them were able to achieve it. Yes, some of them never won elections, for those who want to split hairs. But with the exception of the paedophile Keith Wright in Queensland and the crooks prosecuted in the WA Inc debacle in Western Australia, all of Labor’s defeated leaders were more formidable figures than Shorten too.

It is well and good to aim for things; when you are aspiring to be the Prime Minister of Australia and starting without a scrap of credibility, aiming at things is probably all you’ve got going for you.

But Shorten’s announcement that he suddenly gives a rat’s rectum about armies of under-employed people — when there is ample evidence that the existence of these people never troubled him in the past — ought to fool no-one.

It is not a policy; it is entirely devoid of any meaningful substance; there probably isn’t a single job in it, the truth be told; and it ranks alongside attacking anything the ALP opposes for partisan purposes as “unfair,” or GST scare campaigns based on wet lettuce leaves and excruciating slogans like “lettuce be free of GST.”

In any case, “under-employed” people are the only group that gets the casual penalty rates so beloved of Labor these days, and which provide such a useful political sledgehammer with which to attempt to bludgeon opponents with WorkChoices scares. Moving those folk onto full-time salaries removes a powerful political weapon. Shorten can’t have it both ways and, to be sure, I don’t think he wants to do so at all.

In the end, those who thought Kevin Rudd and his slogans were bad find themselves faced with a more insidious encounter again to contend with when it comes to Shorten: and for all the stereotypes about politicians saying anything they think will yield votes, Bill Shorten actually does it.

Just think about it: he is opposed to anything that might fix the federal budget his own party booby-trapped with recurrent spending; he is opposed to anything that might rein in the culture of welfare dependency that is becoming a national disgrace, but on which millions of Labor votes depend; he is opposed to anything that might modernise Australia’s outdated and archaic industrial framework, whilst hundreds of thousands of jobs are being lost in industries “protected” by unions and their high-wage, anti-business agenda; and he is opposed to reforms in areas like Health, Education, and other sacred Labor cows, which might cut overall expenditure but reap better outcomes for less money, for the specious reason that someone might lose a job that isn’t actually required.

No government in 50 years — Labor or Liberal — has presided over a full employment situation, and neither would one ever formed (God forbid) by Bill Shorten.

And anyone who seriously believes the election of a Labor government will automatically lead to a full-time job for everyone who wants one is kidding themselves.

 

 

Stephen Smith And The Puzzling Plot To Destroy WA Labor

PERHAPS IT’S SOMETHING in the desalinated Perth water, but the WA branch of the ALP must have a death wish; not content with the departure of a Senator and all of its lower house MPs ahead of this year’s federal election, some at WA Labor have orchestrated an attempt by former Defence minister Stephen Smith to lead the state party from outside Parliament ahead of an election next year. Even if it succeeds, it will all end in tears.

As senior ALP figures go, Stephen Smith is about as likeable — and as uncontroversial — as they get; in fact, during five years of publishing discussion pieces in this column, I have only ever found cause to focus on him directly just once: and perhaps in something of an omen, given what he has been up to in the past few days, that particular article noted a truly bizarre “opinion” piece that appeared in the Sunshine Coast Daily in late 2011, and which inexplicably implied he had spent time in a relationship with a dominatrix.

Nobody seemed to know what to make of it then, and I suspect anyone who recalls the piece is none the wiser now.

But as bizarre machinations go, what Smith has been up to in Western Australia — agitating to seize the leadership of the state ALP, from outside Parliament, to lead it into next year’s state election and become Premier (requiring a 10% two-party swing and an extra 10 seats in WA’s 59-seat lower house) — is simply astonishing.

For background, readers can access two pieces from The Australian here and here, and an analysis piece from the local Fairfax portal here.

That the apparent putsch by Smith to make a Campbell Newman-style foray into state politics without a seat in Parliament has been thwarted — for now — speaks volumes for the solidarity of his state counterparts, and their determination not to be shaken out of the kind of mediocre complacency that is so reflective of a federal party “led” by Bill Shorten: present state leader Mark McGowan performed impressively on a personal basis in 2013, just as his party received a comprehensive belting from voters, but the conduct of WA Labor ever since has been increasingly indicative of an approach based simply on waiting for Colin Barnett’s Liberals to fall over and die.

But it also seems clear that despite the shadow Cabinet unanimously closing ranks around McGowan — and Smith said to be able to garner just a handful of votes from the 32-strong state Caucus — the move to replace the former with the latter has been merely deferred, not abandoned.

To be sure, Western Australia is a basket case for the Labor Party, and that particular picnic seems unlikely to be unpacked any time soon.

Boasting just three of the 15 federal lower house seats in WA — a tally that does not increase on provisionally redistributed boundaries that will see the state command an extra seat from this year’s election onward — Labor has already been forced to endure the political embarrassment of all three of its MPs announcing their retirements from politics, deserting the ship in a rank humiliation of their “leader” that has delivered a clear indication of Labor’s likely election prospects in the process.

This evacuation of Labor’s federal ranks in the West was compounded by the resignation of one of its three Senators in Joe Bullock; whilst many in the ALP will not be sorry to see Bullock depart, of course, it still means that of the six elected representatives Labor could muster in its weakest state after the last election, two-thirds of them have jumped ship.

It’s not a good look.

But even with the limitations of McGowan’s leadership that have grown so evident over the past few years, the Barnett government looked like it would provide WA Labor with a silver lining; hit hard by the end of the resources boom, mired in ballooning debt as its export-dependent economy withers, and led by an ageing Premier with no obvious successor with Christian Porter now a federal MP, expectations on the ALP side (and among many Coalition hardheads) was that Barnett’s government would lose, however narrowly, the state election that is now just a year away.

In this context, the nonsense of the Smith leadership push is ridiculous.

One, it seems clear that for Smith to become leader in this unorthodox fashion, a huge amount of bad blood is going to have to be shed: not a helpful internal component in any serious bid to win a state election from opposition at the best of times, let alone when a 10% swing is required.

Two, the “template” most recently pioneered by Campbell Newman in Queensland — switching from City Hall in Brisbane to George Street — should be a warning to those who would emulate it, not a masterstroke to be adapted and redeployed: whilst far from a neophyte, Newman’s experience of state politics on becoming Premier was exactly zero (as is Smith’s) and the same political problems that befell Newman (who never really stopped being Lord Mayor of Brisbane in terms of style) could be expected to afflict Smith (who spent decades in federal politics and was twice a federal minister, which is in no way a comparable vocation to state politics).

Three, the Queensland LNP went into the 2012 state election needing a swing of just over 4% to get the 12 seats it needed to win; WA Labor approaches next year’s election needing more than double the swing to get 10 seats, which is a difficult ask at the best of times.

Four, Newman was co-opted into state Parliament to seal what shaped as a likely election win that some believed (mistakenly, in my view) was in jeopardy of being squandered under the leader he replaced; circumstances in WA are very different, and even with consistently favourable polls for the past 18 months or so, a Labor victory early next year is arguably far less certain than the one the LNP was always lined up to record in Queensland in 2012.

And finally, the prospect of a protracted leadership struggle — with Smith and his backers wearing down resistance through attrition — is likely to compound federal Labor’s chances in what has been its worst state for years; reputable polling over the past few months has seen the Coalition vote recover to the point the Liberals are likely to hold all (or almost all) of the 12 lower house seats they are defending, and perhaps win the new seat of Burt, too; in fact, when the resignations of its three lower house MPs are taken into consideration, there is a very real risk that Labor’s federal lower house presence could be cut to a single seat in Western Australia, and if that occurs it will be almost impossible to make up much ground overall at all, let alone install Bill Shorten in The Lodge.

In any case, Smith — already 60 years old, and set to turn 61 before next year’s election — hardly constitutes a long-term prospect for the state ALP, which means that if he succeeds in tearing McGowan down, then sooner rather than later Labor will be faced with the same dilemma that confronts the Liberal Party, with an ageing Premier leading a party with no obvious replacement.

After all, with just 21 lower house seats, McGowan presides over a shallow pond in which the talent quotient does not run deep; for Smith to succeed, McGowan’s viability as a leadership prospect down the track will be seriously (if not fatally) compromised just as John-Paul Langbroek’s was in Queensland, and Labor’s leadership stocks in WA are arguably much thinner than the LNP’s are now, its present leadership contortions notwithstanding.

You really have to wonder whether some at WA Labor simply have a political death wish.

Historically, WA has been far less unfriendly to the ALP than recent state and federal returns suggest; in fact, Labor has formed government in the state for roughly half the time since the party’s inception, and held half or more of the federal seats in the state as recently as 1998.

There is clear scope for the ALP, in favourable circumstances, to make hefty gains in Western Australia at both the state and federal level over the next year, even if it falls short of overthrowing Barnett at an election.

In this sense, and far from a masterstroke designed to seal victory for Labor, Smith’s machinations seem more like a puzzling plot designed to sabotage and then destroy his own party.

Even if he succeeds in dispatching McGowan, Smith’s victory will be a hollow one indeed: very likely to end in tears, bitter recriminations, and crushing defeat.