WITH FOUR WEEKS until polling day in the most pointless double dissolution election since 1983 — if not ever — the Coalition is sailing into a storm that is intensifying; time is still plentiful, and opportunity to turn it remains, but whilst the good ship Turnbull may yet emerge intact from the tempest, a lot of damage is now certain: the prospect of defeat is growing likelier, and the government seems unwilling and/or unable to avert a catastrophe.
Such is politics, and political campaigns, that barely a week after commenting that the Coalition had finally had a reasonable week on the hustings — and that the odious realities of a Labor government were beginning to leach out from the opposition, opening the door of opportunity for Malcolm Turnbull — the government has spent most of the ensuing time being sucked into a no-win abyss on its controversial superannuation changes, which were seemingly designed to out-Labor Labor, but which instead could end up landing a knockout punch on the Coalition itself.
To be sure, there are several self-inflicted “knockout” punches being incubated within the Coalition’s campaign efforts but overall, despite some commentators claiming this election mirrors the one in 1998, it is a different contest altogether that arguably allows a better parallel to be drawn.
Back in 1993 (itself the second of three so-called “unloseable” elections, badly lost in the end to Paul Keating) I remember attending a small campaign gathering at 5am one morning at the home of a veteran Liberal campaigner in Brisbane’s leafy western suburbs; based on his own situation — a self-employed professional who, I always sensed, was worth millions despite his unassuming nature and modest mien — he confided that whilst he would continue to vote for the Liberal Party, if he were honest, he’d be far better off personally if Keating was re-elected.
Why? Ironically enough, Keating’s taxation policies were more advantageous to business, in his view, than the radical overhaul promised in John Hewson’s Fightback! manifesto.
In retrospect, it is no surprise the Coalition lost the 1993 election.
Yet even at the time, I knew Hewson was a dud, and that broadly speaking he hadn’t sold Fightback! to anyone, and my assessment was shown to be deadly accurate in a debacle that saw the ALP re-elected with a doubled majority and a primary vote nudging 45% for perhaps the final time in its history.
But Hewson had something Malcolm Turnbull doesn’t: a comprehensive, root-and-branch reform manifesto to overhaul governance in Australia and finish the economic reform process creditably commenced by Keating as Treasurer, but stalled by the 1991-92 recession; that the problem was the salesperson and not the policy was later proven by the Howard government, which not only implemented the Fightback! program in its entirety, but which won four elections under a politically astute leader where the lamentable Hewson couldn’t manage to win one.
The contrast is an object lesson in the merits of strong leadership, sound judgement, and genuine insight where political strategy and tactics are concerned.
But just as Hewson had the policy Turnbull doesn’t have today, Keating had something neither of them had, or have: guile, rat cunning, and the ability to simultaneously appeal to the twin instincts that are the only two things that ever motivate the votes of Australians at elections — fear and the famed “hip pocket nerve.”
Shorten has these attributes, however.
Ominously for Turnbull, Keating showed that being perceived as an arsehole (and a nasty piece of work at that) was no bar to winning an election; compared to Bill Shorten of course, Keating was a veritable gentleman, but the base instincts that drive voters will supersede any dislike of Shorten now as they did of Tony Abbott three years ago, and it is a mistake of the highest magnitude to think Shorten is any kind of electoral silver bullet to the Coalition.
And whether those of us on the conservative arm of political debate in Australia like it or not, the Coalition’s election campaign to date has been so inept as to allow Shorten to claim, with dubious justification, that he offers the voting public what Turnbull most certainly does not: something for everyone, even if the eventual reality behind the wall of rhetorical diarrhoea turns out to be a massive breach of faith; Shorten’s concern today is to win the election that is four weeks away.
Dealing with any subsequent anger over the reality failing to match the hype is a problem for another time.
Former industrial relations consultant Grace Collier sets out the backdrop to the Shorten Labor campaign in The Weekend Australian; Shorten — the former union organiser who made a career out of cajoling and bullying workforces into enabling filthy union culture to infect and infest their workplaces — is using the exact tactics on the voting public as he did during his time at the helm of the AWU.
In this enterprise, he has been aided by two basic truths: one, that people like to hear what they want to hear, and don’t generally welcome bad news (even if it is an accurate account of current circumstances) and two — having almost bankrupted the country between 2007 and 2013 and then used the Senate to stop the Abbott government fixing the damage — Labor is averse to any discussion of Australia’s half-trillion dollar debt and $50bn budget deficits at all: but to the extent these discussions occur, a forgetful public largely and blithely swallows Shorten’s line that the Liberals are somehow responsible for the mess.
The Shorten fairy story that there is no problem, no crisis and no need to panic fits the ALP campaign strategy of promising to shovel out tens of billions of dollars in bribes to people who really want to believe nobody will ever have to pay for them.
But whether you’re “rich” (as my old associate in Brisbane almost certainly was) or dirt-poor, Shorten Labor has something for you.
Even if it’s just words.
The Coalition has spent much of the past week in contortions over superannuation policy, for which it only has itself to blame; operating on Labor’s preferred turf — which Turnbull has unwisely elected to do for most of the time since becoming Prime Minister — the Coalition has promised changes to superannuation that go far beyond the ALP’s in taxing “the rich” harder, and whilst Turnbull is correct in pointing out that only 4% of the population would be affected by the most draconian aspects of his policy, that 4% is comprised almost exclusively of Coalition voters — whose personal interests would be best served by voting Labor.
Meanwhile, the have-nots get to be impressed by the grotesque Shorten pitch of kicking rich people in the head. Turnbull loses at both ends of the spectrum.
On negative gearing, Shorten appears to have convinced gullible have-nots that ending concessions for losses on investment properties will also administer a short sharp cranial jab to “the rich” when 78% of taxpayers who negatively gear property earn less than $80,000 per year, and 90% of them own just one or two investment properties.
Never mind that — for the appearance in belting hell out of “rich” people is the optic Shorten is looking for — and never mind the very real prospect that Shorten’s policy, if implemented, will cost thousands of property industry jobs (skewed disproportionately to young people and women) and perhaps induce a recession: Labor’s insidious social media troll network leaps abusively on anything or anyone who tries to point out the dangers of its policy, and any mention of what happened in 1986, when the Hawke government stampeded to reinstate negative gearing because of the damage withdrawing it was causing the economy, is strictly verboten.
Meanwhile, as we revealed in this column the other day, Shorten’s policy actually contains a clause that insulates “the rich” from any adverse consequences whatsoever: new property investments (even after the policy is legislated) can still carry forward losses to be written off against the capital gain on the asset when it is eventually sold: meaning anyone with the money to carry losses on housing investments can still access the same deductions, albeit later, whereas those on average incomes using negative gearing simply to try to get ahead a bit — the ordinary mum-and-dad investors who would be hardest hit — will be locked out of the investment market.
Once again, Shorten gets to present himself as a safe option for “the rich” whilst impressing the have-nots with meaningless drivel that will disproportionately hurt them: and with house prices set to fall by between 2% and 10% (and 20% deposits by just 2% of the purchase price at the upper end of that range), first home buyers will be no closer to accessing the market in round terms than they are now: most will still find the buy-in cost of well over $100k on an average $500k dwelling, once stamp duties and other unavoidable expenses are factored in, just too steep a hurdle to jump.
Still, the first home buyer lobby seems cock-a-hoop too: so chalk that up as another group Shorten can feel entitled to believe he has salved, bribed or otherwise hoodwinked.
And just as Turnbull and his government — now dominated by moderate Liberals who wouldn’t recognise the principles of sound governance if they fell over them — seem determined to try to out-Labor Labor, the audacious Shorten seems bent on trying to out-Liberal the Liberals too, with the latest pot-shot in his vacuously populist assault on the government being a family-targeted policy on childcare that simply delivers relief sooner than the Coalition plan would, and hands out modestly more money than the Coalition plans to.
Even here, the Coalition has missed the point: rocketing childcare fees, like so much that is wrong about Australia today, are the direct consequence of six years of Labor in office under Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard; on this issue, the mandating of 1:5 ratios in childcare rooms — and the prescription of educational requirements for staff that in most cases had not been met before the Labor regime took effect — meant that day rates have continued to soar as centres hire more staff, having to pay more for better educated staff, which in turn have seen the costs passed on to parents trying to bring two incomes into their households balloon.
This pattern is being repeated on just about every issue the ALP is peddling at this election; there is something for everyone, and even those who ostensibly stand to be hit hard find succour in the fine print, or overreactions by the Liberal Party that allow Labor to claim it is the “fairer” option, or the bone-headed sympathy Labor is generating by appealing to those who have nothing — including the inclination to get off their arses and do something to try to remedy that situation.
You really have to wonder what point there was in calling a double dissolution; not only did Turnbull leave it until virtually all of the goodwill (and the bounce in Coalition support after the Liberal leadership change) had evaporated completely, but he and the government aren’t even campaigning on the issue of criminal behaviour at trade unions and the insidious spectre of Trades Hall domination of the industrial landscape that they used to justify it, and that will almost certainly follow the election of any Labor government on 2 July.
In fact, it is difficult to ascertain why — having been so determined to become Prime Minister to apparently slake ego and ambition — Turnbull would go to an early election at all; the Coalition’s position is sliding further into losing territory with the continued emergence of reputable polling showing Labor consolidating its early leads. If being Prime Minister was so important, there were a few extra months that could have been milked out of it rather than going now if this is the best the Turnbull campaign can achieve.
The double dissolution (whilst, admittedly, only the second since Malcolm Fraser called one in 1983 on the pretext of stalled bills to increase sales tax) is the most pointless since then, if not the most pointless double dissolution ever; having failed to accrue a significant number of triggers over three years with which to push its agenda through at a Joint Sitting, there is no discernible case being put to set up a Joint Sitting at all.
The fact any win by the Coalition now seems likely to be by a couple of seats at best — offset by a large deficit of seats in the Senate — makes the very notion of a Joint Sitting after this election completely redundant.
If Turnbull survives the election at all — which remains a possibility, however much the prospect is starting to fade — it will be after the Liberal Party sustains enormous damage, the loss of at least a dozen seats, and setting the government up for three years of disunity and turmoil as jilted conservatives turn viciously on the smugly triumphant moderates and seek to undo the takeover of the party they have attempted to use Turnbull’s leadership as cover to try to implement at preselection tables across Australia.
And in a final irony, the means with which to render Labor almost permanently unelectable has always been within the Coalition’s grasp during this year: in the report from its Commission of Audit, ordered following the 2013 election win, which then-Treasurer Joe Hockey more or less tossed aside instead of using it as a political battering ram. In the final report of the Heydon inquiry into the unions, which (despite the pretext for calling a double dissolution) has gone almost unmentioned in this campaign. In the mountain of contradictory, opportunistic and vapid bullshit Shorten is spouting as the model for an ALP government.
The problem seems to be that nobody in Coalition ranks seems able and/or inclined to mount the case that conservative voters expect of a conservative government: a comprehensive and unvarnished explanation of exactly how bad the state of things really is in Australia, who is responsible for it and why, backed by solid evidence of the kind the reports I mention offer, and a cogent, persuasive argument for remedial action that might not be popular but which — within a couple of years of belt-tightening — would restore the Commonwealth to a position from which to sustainably deliver the services and other spending required to underpin living standards and allow the economy to continue to grow.
Instead, we seem to be sleepwalking perilously closer to a socialist nightmare — and one in which no amount of smart answers from Shorten will mask the disaster his policies would unleash if implemented.
At the halfway mark of this campaign, there is good reason for Coalition strategists to start to panic, if they’re not panicking already: and good reason for ordinary voters who actually give a damn about the shape in which Australia continues into the 21st century to despair that the party that usually champions sound governance appears to have abandoned the concept to the fast-advancing ALP bear.
Some of “the rich” may well find themselves better off under a Shorten government; some of the have-nots will almost certainly find their pockets fuller under such a regime, as the addiction to welfare of those who aren’t genuinely needy but are simply bone lazy is a key tenet of Labor strategy that will become considerably more entrenched if the obsequious Shorten manages to pull off a win in a few weeks’ time.
For the millions of ordinary Australians in the mainstream middle, there is nothing; nothing from either side: not from the Labor Party, which is obsessed with saying whatever is necessary to secure power and the patronage it allows to be dispensed, and not from the Coalition, which is so busy trying not to offend anyone by making a genuinely tough decision that it has allowed Labor to steal a march on it.
In 1993, Keating successfully appealed to both voters’ fears — over the imposts of a GST he blatantly lied about, having advocated such a policy himself a few years earlier, and which he knew to be far more benign than he claimed — and the “hip pocket nerve,” which he also lied about, subsequently unveiling a budget full of unheralded sales tax hikes to pay for the grand largesse he solemnly promised to dole out (like Shorten does now) if he won.
If Labor wins office next month, the eventual outcome will be a catastrophe, and the damage to the Liberal Party will be small bier compared to what Shorten, in cahoots with the
Communists Greens and the unions, unleashes upon Australia over the coming three years.
The only thing standing between that dreadful scenario and a better future is a misfiring, misdirected and inept Coalition campaign that seems genuinely clueless about what it stands for: and if those around Turnbull don’t come to their senses quickly, then Shorten — just like Keating in 1993 — may emerge as the not-so-surprising beneficiary of what shapes, now as it did then, of a foreseeable and avoidable fiasco.