Yes, Scott Morrison, Cut Taxes – But Slash Spending, Too

THE call by Scott Morrison for Australia to cut company taxes — or risk being uncompetitive globally — has merit, but does not go far enough: proper tax reform would include lifting and broadening the GST, raising the income tax threshold, and cutting income tax rates; an agile government would rein in spending, too. Still, Morrison’s position is at least a start. Perhaps there is an ounce of intestinal fortitude within the government after all.

During 2017, readers are going to hear an awful lot from me about a strategy the Abbott and Turnbull governments should have used before last year’s election, but didn’t — racking up double dissolution triggers one after the other, on every area in which they attempt to legislate reforms but are stymied by the Senate — for the near-death experience of the Coalition at the polls, whilst attributable to a range of factors extending well beyond the nature of any legislation passed on its watch, owed as much to political timidity and a totally erroneous approach to parliamentary management as it did to anything else.

But the case made by Treasurer Scott Morrison in The Australian yesterday — that Australia risks being crippled as an internationally uncompetitive outpost of high taxation — has great merit, and perhaps (I emphasise, perhaps) signals that despite the woeful flaws spanning many aspects of the Turnbull government, some elements within it retain at least a scrap of intestinal fortitude, even if what Morrison is actually arguing fails to reach anywhere near far enough.

Morrison’s argument rests on the recent precedent of the United Kingdom, where the government of former PM David Cameron cut the British corporate tax rate to 20% whilst in a worse budgetary position than that currently facing Australia; Cameron’s government also implemented reductions to personal income taxes and increased VAT — Britain’s equivalent of the GST — from 17.5% to 20%, whilst winding back spending across the board, but with a particular emphasis on the UK’s ballooning welfare budget.

The effects of these changes are undeniable; Britain today is the fastest growing economy in Europe and, for a time, was the fastest growing economy in the Western world, outstripping growth in Australia; the fundamental premise that cutting taxes stimulates economic activity, creating jobs and bringing investment that in turn contributes higher revenues to government coffers than the “foregone” tax revenues cost, is a proven model that has worked many times over the past 40 years — and worked in Britain once before, too, during the early years of the Thatcher government, underpinning rapid economic growth in the late 1980s and sparking an unprecedented boom in the early 1990s that continued until the global financial crisis snuffed it out in 2008.

And Britain isn’t the only place this approach has worked, either; during the period of the ascendancy of the mainstream Right across much of the Western world during the 1980s and early 1990s, this emphasis on creating conditions conducive to economic activity and growth underpinned one of the largest expansions in history; it is the rise of the Left in the early 1990s — in the USA, in Canada, in Britain, with the arrival of the Blair government, and across continental Europe — that saw the rise in taxation by stealth and rampant social spending cut the foundations from beneath prudent fiscal management in the West, and for which the developed world arguably is paying the price today.

The Eurotrash economies of Spain, Italy, Greece et al — strangled by socialism and crippled by debts exceeding, in many cases, 100% of GDP — are the end destination of a ruinous dalliance with “modern” left wing dogma. The United States has just ended an eight year experiment with the same failed policies. Here in Australia, the Rudd and Gillard governments set what for years had been regarded internationally as the “miracle economy” on the same destructive path.

Without a drastic change in direction, the basket cases of Europe embody the fate Australia will, in time, suffer itself.

As The Australian notes, Australia boasted the ninth-lowest corporate tax rate among OECD nations 15 years ago, a position that has deteriorated to 22nd today; it also now ranks among the top five highest taxing nations within the same cohort — an unforgivable indictment on both the Rudd-Gillard regime, which saw business and high income earners as its personal piggy bank, and (I hate to say) the Abbott-Turnbull government, which hiked taxes on middle income earners and which has exhibited neither the inclination nor the mettle to engage in root-and-branch tax reform in any serious or meaningful way.

In this vein, the Morrison agenda of a two-tiered corporate taxation regime, with cuts at the lower end and little else, leaves everything to be desired.

The graphic carried in the article from The Oz is telling.

 

GREED ISN’T GOOD…Australia’s high-tax status will rebound on it in coming years, placing living standards, economic growth — and, ironically, tax revenues — in jeopardy. (Source: The Australian)

In other words, Morrison’s pompously labelled “Enterprise Tax Plan” is a fiddle, no more; yet like all of the fiddles undertaken by this government, it runs the real risk of achieving very little of value whilst cruelling the case for wider reform through its impotence.

Back in 2008 — shortly after Morrison’s arrival in Canberra as the member for Cook — a contemporary asked me for my take on the energetic new Coalition MP’s likely trajectory. “I think he’ll be Prime Minister one day,” I replied. My associate was incredulous. “You rate him that highly?” he asked, disbelievingly.

Readers of this column know that between his role in elevating Malcolm Turnbull to the Prime Ministership and his role as a patsy in the so-called tax reform “debate” presided over by Turnbull a year ago, my opinion of Morrison’s value to the Liberal Party has…slipped, to put it most kindly.

He flourished as Immigration minister in the Abbott government — in a portfolio that would have been a slam-dunk for any modestly competent Liberal MP at that time — but floundered in Social Services, in a stiffer test based on winding back the ridiculous Commonwealth outlay on welfare.

As Treasurer, his record has been unimpressive; his “Enterprise Tax Plan” will achieve little (if ever delivered) at a huge cost of political capital: just like Morrison’s fiddle to superannuation, which has outraged huge slabs of the Coalition’s base (this time the self-funded retirees who took little or nothing by way of government assistance). Morrison and his sidekick, the decidedly unimpressive Kelly O’Dwyer, have also fallen into the trap of implementing Bill Shorten’s “multinational tax” which O’Dwyer herself admits will recoup just $100 million per annum — but at the very real risk, as I have opined previously, of provoking multinational companies to take their operations (and the jobs they create) somewhere else.

This government operates in an environment in which a bare majority in the lower house, a very hostile Senate and the risk some of its number are set to leave to set up a rival “conservative party” are compounded by policy torpor and an utter lack of tactical and strategic smarts.

The tax reform “debate” last year proved, beyond any doubt, that the Turnbull government either has no clue whatsoever about meaningful top-to-bottom tax reform, or a complete lack of any political acumen with which to sell it, or both.

Morrison, as Treasurer, is the standard bearer of the government’s efforts in this arena. His career in the longer term hangs in the balance. He can either take a leadership role on proper taxation reform — breaking as many eggs as is required to make the omelette, and making a few enemies along the way by confronting self-interested vested interests — or he can sink like a stone with his piecemeal patchwork fiddles and the rest of the bullshit Turnbull passes off as a “jobs and growth” agenda.

A program that doubles and broadens the GST, cuts the company tax — for all businesses — to 20%, cuts the top rate of income tax to 35% and reduces the tax scales overall, lifts the tax-free threshold to $25,000 for wage and salary earners and provides a modest boost to pensions, should be accompanied by the abolition of as many other taxes and charges as the increased GST revenues enable (with the states enlisted in that endeavour), whilst identifying as widespread a program for spending cuts as possible: including as much Gillard-era social spending as can practicably be slated for abolition.

Labor will push back — as it always does these days, for populist political reasons — but its predictable rhetoric about tax cuts for millionaires, and fatuous statements that cutting taxes on business will fatten corporate profits but produce no additional employment growth, betray a fundamental lack of comprehension of basic economics, and this fact should be rammed home to the Australian public (provided, of course, the government can fix another of its complete failures during its tenure in office: its communications unit).

The enabling legislation should be presented to the Senate a second time in its original form if rejected, and the government should stand firm in the face of amendments contrived by the ALP, Greens and left-leaning Senate crossbenchers that aim to neuter the package (or even render it counter-productive, as Clive Palmer did with the abolition of the mining tax, turning it into a $3.2bn cost to an Abbott government more desperate for a deal than with delivering rigorous policy outcomes).

In other words, Morrison can use tax reform as the Coalition’s first base for building a proper reform agenda: and if the Senate knocks it back, the enabling bills should be converted into double dissolution triggers. More would follow if the same approach is replicated across government. This is the way Turnbull’s government can simultaneously answer the charge it has no agenda with which to govern, whilst stockpiling a solid base of worthwhile policy with which to fight another election if its efforts are thwarted.

An agile, streamlined, efficient system of low and broad taxes, that rewards and encourages enterprise and personal effort and discourages and penalises indolence, is a reform any conservative government could be proud of: and if Morrison is fair dinkum about tax reform, he should forget his half-baked “Enterprise Tax Plan” and have a serious crack at the whole thing.

The Australian notes Morrison is in London to talk to business leaders; he should take the opportunity to sound out Cameron, his Chancellor George Osborne, Minister for Work and Pensions Iain Duncan-Smith, and others who were central to the Cameron-era program that picked Britain up off her knees and set her back on her feet.

In the final analysis, however, Morrison’s remarks offer the flicker of hope that someone in the Coalition’s senior ranks has belatedly got the message that unless the government does what it was elected to do in 2013 — and embarks on sweeping reform in Australia — it is doomed to lose whenever it next faces the public at the ballot box.

Perhaps there is an ounce of intestinal fortitude within the Turnbull government after all; but if Morrison wants to ever be Prime Minister — or even be regarded as a successful Treasurer, and not just another hack occupying that office — this piece in The Australian must merely represent the start of a renewed effort and change of focus, and not just another of the directionless thought bubbles that have already cruelled the Coalition’s political stocks for far too long.

 

MYEFO: Labor Must Pull Its Head In – And Get Out Of The Way

TREASURER Scott Morrison’s Mid-Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook shows falling revenues and rising debt, but Australia will keep its AAA credit rating despite recession risks; the Coalition may be too tactically inept to hold the ALP to account for damage it caused in office and now perpetuates through Senate obstruction, but unless its aim is to win power in Australia by first wrecking it, Labor must pull its head in, and let the government govern.

The Mid-Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook (MYEFO) released by Treasurer Scott Morrison today (and you can read some of the coverage of it here and here)  paints a slightly rosier picture than many observers (myself included) might have expected; despite falling revenues and increases in both deficits over the next four years and overall government debt, Morrison’s projections nonetheless show the budget remaining on track for a return to surplus in four years’ time.

They have also elicited firm indications from all three of the international economic ratings agencies that Australia remains in a sound enough position to retain its prized AAA credit rating, and to be completely blunt, this news will devastate Labor types, who have spent three years talking Australia down and virtually daring ratings agencies to downgrade its investment rating, in a perverse approach to chasing cheap political gain through national misfortune.

In this sense, today’s announcement is a wake up call to the Labor Party under the charlatan Bill Shorten, which flatly refuses to permit the Coalition to fix the damage the Rudd/Gillard government inflicted on the national finances in office through its obstructive marshalling of anti-government forces in the Senate. More on that later.

But whilst the proof will be in the pudding with MYEFO — as is usually the way with these things — Morrison’s announcement, despite the histrionics and hysterics of shadow Treasurer Chris Bowen, is little more than a minor tweak on the figures presented at budget time. Barring anything unforeseen, or a second consecutive quarter of negative growth in February confirming a recession, there is very little that is exceptional in today’s announcement.

Government spending falls slightly, from 25.8% of GDP to 25.2%, as do both employment growth and GDP growth; Morrison is forecasting that no recession will hit Australia which — given the 0.5% contraction for the September quarter was at the upper end of expectations — might yet prove rather heroic.

Nett debt is forecast to peak in 2020-21 at $364bn, which in raw terms equates to gross debt of more than half a trillion dollars; in historic terms, this is a national embarrassment, for in my view it doesn’t matter how well able to service debt the country might be, borrowing to fund recurrent government spending is the wrong kind of debt altogether, and produces no lasting economic benefit whatsoever.

In short, the country should be living within its means. It still isn’t.

And the $1bn+ that will continue to be shelled out every month, in perpetuity, to service that debt would pay for an awful lot of schools, and roads, and hospitals, and dams, and railways if it wasn’t going to line the pockets of international financiers: a fact seemingly lost on Labor, which seems hellbent on stopping the Coalition from balancing the budget through Senate shenanigans for as long as it is physically able to do so.

But the real story here, yet again, is that three years after the Coalition took office with an explicit mandate to fix the federal budget, Labor — in cahoots with its favourite whore, the Communist Party Greens, and other undesirables in the Senate — apparently remains on a mission to prevent precisely that, using various fatuous semantic formulations (such as “fairness” and “cruelty”) to justify its brazen actions in allowing the budget to still be haemorrhaging red ink.

Make no mistake: the Global Financial Crisis is over, and whilst nobody blames Labor for the GFC (even if its response to it was overcooked), the only reason the Coalition has been unable to deliver a surplus budget by now, or to start paying back government debt, is that the insidious Shorten simply refuses to permit it to occur.

To be clear, the Coalition has deeply entrenched shortcomings that don’t help; the woeful inability to sell anything or to frame a convincing narrative for mass public consumption is one of them. The utter inability to pin Labor’s economic vandalism squarely on Shorten, and force him to carry the can for his actions, is another.

But Labor seems content to try to destroy the economy from opposition in is mad lust for power at any price, and whilst that might sound harsh, it’s the only logical conclusion to draw from its behaviour in the Senate. The ALP is prepared to wreck Australia for the criminally petty reason a majority of its people had the temerity to vote it out of office.

The exceedingly low level of regard in which most Australians hold politicians of all partisan hues is increasingly well deserved, and is starkly illustrated by the fact that at the election held on 2 July, almost a quarter of voters cast a ballot for candidates other than the major parties in the lower house. In the Senate, the figure was 35%.

Quite aside from ALP recalcitrance in the Senate — the masquerade of “principle” that is really a fulsome expression of contempt for Australia’s national interest and the betterment of the people who live in it — there are all sorts of other things Labor has done, now and in the past, that feed into the numbers Morrison has released today.

The “booby-trapping” of the federal budget, for instance: a reprehensible scheme cooked up on Julia Gillard’s watch as Prime Minister to load the federal budget up with so much new recurrent spending as to render the budget unmanageable, and that wouldn’t appear on the books until Labor was safely out of office and able to cast indignantly righteous stones at the Liberal Party.

Or the final year of the so-called Gonski education money, which was set to exponentially inflate the Commonwealth’s obligations to the states and which was (rightly) abandoned by the Coalition under Tony Abbott.

Or — with an eye on economic growth figures that are now decidedly treacle-sluggish — the Fair Work regime instituted by Gillard, in payback to the unions for bankrolling the anti-WorkChoices campaign that swept Labor to power in 2007, which has introduced rigidity and inflexibility into the labour market that is now flowing through to tepid employment growth and diminished returns from the small business sector.

And all of this is before we even get to the blatant Labor lies about Medicare being privatised, which would be the most disgusting campaign tactic ever pursued in Australia were it not for other Labor schemes (such as sending fake firefighters to polling booths, and calls from “nurses” to scare hell out of people) to rival it.

It’s little wonder people have nothing particularly nice to say about politicians when this kind of thing is symbolic of their best performance: and whilst the blame in this case lies at Labor’s door, the average voter simply dismisses both sides with a “pox on both your houses” mentality — and is increasingly turning away from the major parties as a consequence.

If Labor truly believes it is a force for responsible government, it has a very big opportunity now to prove it.

If the Liberal Party and its prescriptions are wrong, they will be seen to be wrong, and aggrieved voters will have another opportunity to vote them out of office at an election that could be no more than 18 months to two years away, courtesy of the double dissolution that was held in July. It isn’t as if Labor has to wait for decades for another shot at the title.

But if there is to be a clean fight, and the Liberal Party made to account for what the ALP blathers is “unfair” or “cruel” or whatever other diarrhoea Shorten cares to verbalise, Labor has to get out of the way — and allow the Coalition’s budget repair measures to pass the Senate.

Average voters, in contrast to the way Labor treats them, aren’t stupid: they are capable of making their own judgements and their own decisions, and they should be able to make decisions based on how a particular program works once implemented rather than on the basis of distorted and hysterical screeching about what might happen if the ALP wasn’t there to stop it.

And if Labor isn’t prepared to do that — to let the government pass its budget measures in full — then perhaps we are having the wrong conversation altogether; maybe we ought to be talking about how to reform the Senate in a way governments are able to actually govern once and for all.

Or if that simply proves impossible, about abolishing the Senate altogether.

 

 

“Black Hole” Or Not, Labor Simply Can’t Manage Money

THE INTERNECINE brawl over whether the ALP has a “black hole” in its policy costings — and if so, how big it is — represents a cynical, over-used (and abused) feature of elections in this country; even so, for all but three of the past 30 years, Labor has never delivered a balanced federal budget: and its record of debt accrual at both state and federal levels is unrivalled. Even the deficit and debt increase under the Coalition is directly Labor’s fault.

I am off to Brisbane again for the day today, and whilst I have to spend a day there next month this is the last one until late July: so with some luck, that particular impact on our discussions here will lessen considerably in the next little bit.

But you know it’s election time in Australia when the Liberals and Labor are throwing around barbs about black holes and blowouts; this time-dishonoured practice is in full swing, with a tick over five weeks until polling day, and the danger of this insidious practice is that by the time voters march wearily into the polling booth they will have been so bombarded with bullshit as to disregard the matter altogether.

They shouldn’t.

It is one of those ironies that three years ago, Kevin Rudd and Wayne Swan accused the Coalition of having a $70bn “black hole” in its policy costings: it didn’t. Not unless you count the apparently predetermined Labor position of blocking every Coalition spending cut in sight to try to wreck the federal budget if it lost the election as expected, that is.

This week, of course, Treasurer Scott Morrison and Finance minister Mathias Cormann have levelled the same charge at Labor, and in eerily similar terms — $67bn — and whilst there will inevitably be some dispute over the quantum, the balance of probabilities based on Labor’s form over decades is that they are onto something.

Readers will recall the unprecedented program of tax rises totalling $102bn set out by Bill Shorten last month, which was almost immediately discredited as falling between $20bn and $30bn short; wild estimations of the money to be had from slugging smokers yet again in excise imposts were the main culprit, and the episode was reminiscent of another fatuous justification for hitting smokers by another fatuous ALP leader.

At the time of the last election, the idiotic Kevin Rudd ran around proclaiming that smokers cost the health system $31.9bn per year to treat smoking-related illness as a justification for slapping on an extra $5 per packet in tax; in something of a breath of fresh air, it was one of Rudd’s own health bureaucrats who publicly contradicted the then-PM, stating that not only had Rudd exaggerated the figure tenfold (the actual cost was $3.19bn) but that the regime of excise collection, as it stood at the time to reap $6bn per year, more than paid the cost of smokers’ healthcare.

Demonising smokers might be fun, but at least do it honestly.

The record of the Rudd-Gillard-Swan government — whilst withdrawing some Howard-era measures — was to lift expenditure on social experiments and welfare addiction measures targeted at the most vulnerable under the cover of the Global Financial Crisis; contrary to the ranting of Rudd and Swan in particular, revenue never fell during or after the GFC, and increased on average during the six years of Labor governance by 7% per annum.

But this didn’t worry Labor then — as it borrowed heavily overseas to fund its mad obsession with locking selected constituencies onto the Labor teat — and it won’t worry Labor now; its Treasury spokesman is the same Labor Treasurer who was a party to Rudd’s mad pronouncements on the state of the budget in 2013, and there is no reason to believe he has changed his spots.

And to some extent, serial embarrassment David Feeney — already a source of negative headlines for Labor over his failure to remember he has negatively geared property, contradicting Labor’s plans to abolish negative gearing — has let the cat out of the bag with his “inability” to say whether the ALP will continue the $1.6bn annual Schoolkids’ Bonus introduced by Julia Gillard and Wayne Swan, abolished by Tony Abbott, and set to expire after this year.

Feeney, of course, ought — by the usual debased standards of an election campaign — to be disendorsed; many better people than him have been booted off the cart by both sides over the years for a lot less.

But he is a union and factional thug with clout, which means Labor is obliged to carry his festering carcass all the way into the next Parliament: if he doesn’t lose his seat to the Greens, that is.

My point this morning is that where there is smoke, there is usually fire, and this commodity is not in short supply where Labor’s election effort to date has been concerned.

Already, Shorten is promising tens of billions of extra dollars in health and education spending with at best a dubious story as to how it will be paid for: never mind, of course, that more and more money won’t fix a health system carrying too many bureaucrats, consultants, advisers and other hangers-on, nor an education system currently consuming record levels of money in real terms, and in which deficient teacher training and not education funding is the true culprit in generating unsatisfactory outcomes.

According to Shorten, GP consultations will fall by up to $24 under a Labor government, which is the biggest pile of manure seen outside a proctologist’s office in some time: for bulk billed patients, how much less than “free” can you get? And for those who are not bulk billed,  the volume of money required to deliver this unbelievably crass pledge is horrific.

But let’s not forget that this is the same party which insisted government borrowings were low “by international standards” — as it merrily racked up $300bn in debt in less than six years — and which has shown such cavalier disregard for the national good as to have spent three years playing fast and loose with Australia’s future, blocking every Coalition bill aimed at reining in the tens of billions of dollars in annual recurrent expenditure it legislated before leaving office in what we now know was an attempt to blame the whole lot on the Coalition.

Labor has governed this country for 16 of the last 30 years; of those it has delivered surplus budgets just three times, and even then more than quarter of a century ago when Paul Keating was Treasurer.

By contrast, 11 of the 15 Coalition budgets in that time have delivered surpluses.

The past three (and especially the unmoving trend in the bottom line) arguably have far more to do with Labor’s misuse of the Senate as an instrument to prevent the delivery of election promises by its conservative opponents than with any real charge of mismanagement on the Coalition’s part.

(Political stupidity a la the 2014 budget and fiscal incompetence are not the same thing).

In other words — with debt now at the half trillion dollar mark — Labor has effectively spent somewhere in the order of $200bn on the public purse from opposition, in the form of borrowings that might not have been required, and that is the price Australia has paid for a Shorten government before such a contemptible entity has even come into existence.

God willing, it never will.

And when it is remembered that every Labor state government that has been kicked out over the past 30 years left a huge pile of debt behind that wasn’t there to begin with — and in at least two of those bequests, in Victoria in 1992 and South Australia in 1993, those states were left all but insolvent — the charge I regularly make about Labor being rotten to the core becomes difficult to convincingly refute.

Is there a “black hole” in Labor’s election costings? Who in hell knows, if we’re being honest. But based on past form and on balance of probabilities, betting your house on the suggestion Labor’s sums don’t add up is probably a guaranteed way to hit paydirt.

Even if, by some miracle, Shorten and Bowen have added mathematical prowess to the thin list of problems the ALP has resolved since being flicked by voters three years ago, their party doesn’t deserve the benefit of the doubt.

My great fear is that voters have grown so accustomed to a federal government haemorrhaging red ink and mortgaging future generations’ living standards for the dubious benefit of Labor’s election prospects that such considerations register with fewer and fewer people who take such matters seriously.

Certainly, most of the many people I talk to every week have no comprehension of how the debt disgrace afflicting this country can be Labor’s fault after three years of government by someone else.

But once I explain it — and clarify anything that might unduly bias the point — there’s no problem understanding it at all: and in this sense, Bill Shorten can probably feel grateful that when it comes to the TV soundbites from which most swinging voters get their political insights from, their usual attention span is less than that of a gnat.

Is there a black hole in Labor’s numbers? It would be a miracle if there wasn’t, but the greatest shame of all is that you only have the word of a politician for that: and as the politician in question is on the record as a self-confessed liar, his word isn’t worth all that much at all.

Is it, Mr Billy Bullshit?

Newspoll: Without A Change Of Strategy, Turnbull May Be Gone

SOME think another 51-49 ALP lead is meaningless, but I disagree; today’s Newspoll for The Australian sees overall Coalition polling stuck near 49% — hardly winning — and ominously, Bill Shorten as popular as Malcolm Turnbull and closing in as preferred PM. Ineptitude under Tony Abbott has given way to scandal, mediocrity and bickering on Labor turf today. The Coalition has a story. Unless it tells it, Turnbull’s days are probably already numbered.

I think we’re now well beyond the point at which it became platitudinous to suggest that had Malcolm Turnbull taken the government to a December election, he — and it — would have been so resoundingly re-elected as to take seats off Labor and perhaps emerge with a majority in both Houses of Parliament; certainly, that argument is one I propounded at the time, and the irony is that with an election for both Houses of Parliament now in progress, the only certainty is that no such outcome will eventuate.

But if Turnbull leads the Coalition to defeat on 2 July, it is a proposition I will return to; and if Turnbull does in fact lose, he will be absolutely (and rightly) crucified from the top of the Liberal Party right down to its foundations, for the unexpected opportunity of a certain second term that looked like nothing more than fantasy less than nine months ago will have been carefully, and wilfully, squandered.

And right now, an election loss is looking more and more as if it is on the cards.

Enter Newspoll — in The Australian — which today finds the government’s standing on the two-party measure after preferences unchanged at 51-49 Labor’s way for the fourth consecutive fortnight; there are those (including many whose judgements I respect) who believe such a finding is a yawn, a statistically insignificant bit of nothingness, and a non-event.

But I beg to differ, for such an assessment ignores other factors at play.

For one thing, today’s result means that a basket of Coalition polling numbers across the suite of reputable surveys suggests an aggregate value of its standing is more like 49.5% to 50.5%, and whilst the latest Newspoll doesn’t alter that in any way, the point is that a) it puts the Coalition behind Labor, and b) that sub-50% aggregate is now looking — through the eyes of this Liberal Party member at least — disturbingly settled, if not already set in concrete.

For another, and as outrageously obscene as it is to note this, Labor’s so-called “leader” — Bill Shorten — is now as good as on par with the Prime Minister where his personal approval numbers are concerned: 38% (unch) of Newspoll respondents indicated they are satisfied with Turnbull’s performance; 37% (+4%) said the same of Shorten. 50% (+1%) were dissatisfied with Turnbull; 49% (-3%) were similarly unimpressed with Shorten. On the “net satisfaction” calculation, the two men are dead level on -12%, with Turnbull’s standing on this measure deteriorating a point and Shorten’s improving by seven. And on the “preferred PM” question, Turnbull (46%, -3%) continues to head Shorten (31%, +4%), but by a margin that is now better characterised as “clear” rather than “solid,” as opposed to the “overwhelming” 64-15 score he recorded in November last year.

The overall voting numbers might be unchanged, but the swirling undercurrents and subterranean whirlpools below the surface have all moved definitively (and beyond any margin of sampling error) in the cretinous Shorten’s favour.

And whilst bookies might still favour the Coalition to win, Newspoll’s punters now split 44-33 toward the government on the question of which side will emerge triumphant on 2 July: even this is a large reversal, from the 55-25 finding by Newspoll in March, which means a sizeable percentage of those it identifies as planning to vote against the Coalition also now believe Labor might win — whereas eight weeks ago, they didn’t.

Readers can check out the Newspoll tables here.

Regular readers know that until 15 September last year, I spent years campaigning vigorously to prevent Malcolm Turnbull from ever returning to the Liberal Party leadership.

That campaign — colourful as it may have been from time to time — was never personal and never intended to be construed as such irrespective of whatever conclusions some (including, perhaps, Malcolm himself) insisted on drawing from it. Certainly, having had a bit to do with him many years ago and having found him enormously likeable, it was impossible for it to be personal.

Rather, it was based on a hard assessment of the faults that saw him despatched as leader in barely over a year the first time around and a judgement — substantially validated in the past few months — that little, if anything, had changed.

Turnbull’s support (vocal or involuntarily mute) for a slew of issues with which I have no truck — a republic, gay marriage, emissions trading schemes et al — were simply the own goals that sealed it.

But the thunderous win recorded under Tony Abbott in 2013 should have set the Coalition up for at least two, if not three, terms in office; in some respects the seeds of Abbott’s demise were sown during the 2013 campaign, when he inadvisedly ruled out spending cuts to a raft of bloated, inefficient recurrent expenditure centres that severely limited his government’s capacity to do anything about pruning waste from them without seriously pissing the electorate off.

There had been a catch-all, as I noted before and after the election — that if the books proved to be in worse shape upon inspection than the condition Labor declared them in when it lost the election (and they were) — then the Coalition might have to do some things “it didn’t want to do.” But this proved too delicate a distinction to draw, and in the full heat of a predictably vicious (but entirely unscrupulous and unprincipled) ALP onslaught, the government simply withered with nary a yelp.

In fact, the utter inability of the Abbott government to sell anything — literally, anything — or to inspire confidence that it would even be capable of articulating the intention to purchase sex at a brothel quickly became the most immediate hallmark of that government, and it is a matter of record that the dysfunctional apparatus set up by Chief of Staff Peta Credlin to execute parliamentary management, political strategy and tactics, mass communication and any kind of salesmanship at all is the target at which this column’s aim was firmly and unswervingly directed from shortly after the politically calamitous 2014 budget until Abbott was dumped late last year.

The more things change, of course, the more they stay the same.

Abbott might be gone, but the allegedly messianic arrival of Turnbull was meant to send a wave of competence and acumen crashing through the ranks of the government: the termination of Credlin’s services and a cleanout at the Liberal federal secretariat showed early promise, but any objective assessment would conclude that this faint ray of light was in fact a false dawn.

Turnbull the master communicator was going to restore the government’s “narrative” and repair the fractured relationship with the electorate: instead, he has waffled, and talked gibberish, and put ideas on the table as “policy” directions only to whisk them away again in record time: not once, not twice, but repeatedly.

The voting public is entitled to be unsure as to what Turnbull stands for.

Perhaps constrained by Prime Ministerial directives (like the one killing off GST reform just as it was unbelievably starting to gain traction and support) or perhaps because he isn’t up to the high billing many (including me) have given him, Treasurer Scott Morrison delivered a budget three weeks ago that was like an Aero bar — you know, when bubbles of nothing make it really something — and with the state the national budget is in and the paucity of any kind of money other than the borrowed variety available to throw around, that really shouldn’t have been much of a surprise.

But the effort to sell even that came to an abrupt halt the following morning, as Turnbull engaged in an on-air argument with ABC Radio’s Jon Faine in Melbourne, and with that crashing end to any momentum the budget might have generated, so too did the government’s best (and perhaps last) chance to seize control of the agenda and swing the electorate back into its favour.

The scandals that have plagued Turnbull as Prime Minister have largely been entirely foreseeable and avoidable fiascos that emanated from two botched reshuffles, which — whilst containing a handful of excellent appointments in each case — also saw the appointment of likely unmitigated liabilities (all of which have detonated in Turnbull’s face) as well as some crony-style payback positions for leadership votes that are impossible to justify on merit.

And as ever, the more things change, the more they stay the same: I had hoped that gutting the Prime Minister’s Office and starting again — despite my distinct unease about the political viability of its new occupant — might at least have had the spillover consequence of getting some people into the media/communications/strategy roles who could cut through the bullshit and oxygenate a message that would resonate with voters: it didn’t have to be popular, and if it was genuinely honest and fashioned in good faith, it wouldn’t have been.

But it might have been respected.

Anyone who listens to a syllable of the ALP’s blather about there being no debt problem in this country — or that there isn’t a problem with spending, or that the current government is a high-taxing, high spending government that should be crucified for its excesses — really should think again.

Of course this government is high-taxing and high-spending: Labor carefully and methodically legislated both rising taxes and rising expenditure before its eviction from office in an unapologetic attempt to sabotage the budget to make it unmanageable by the Liberal Party. Labor’s obstruction in the Senate — aided and abetted by Communists Greens and other filth from the Palmer United Party — were the second component of this orchestrated campaign to ensure a Coalition government imploded within a single term.

It has almost worked — and whether aware or not of the trap it has fallen into, or even conscious of the monumental political failure that has compounded the damage Labor’s pre-2013 handiwork has inflicted on it — the Coalition, now less than six weeks from polling day, is blundering around trying to out-Labor Labor, and faced with polls already clearly suggesting likely (albeit, for now at least, narrow) defeat.

Labor promises tens of billions of dollars in extra spending on Health and Education; we’ll deliver more, too, says Turnbull, but it won’t be as much. The argument is lost at that point: there isn’t money to fund Labor’s bribes without borrowing it, and Shorten knows it. But by competing with Labor instead of making its core case, the government has ceded those issues to the opposition.

Labor says it will hit high-income superannuants; so will we, says Turnbull — and we’ll do it more savagely than Labor can. Argument lost: the merits of the Coalition “plan” notwithstanding, it has validated the broad thrust of the Labor “case.”

On and on it has gone. Tax for multinationals. Shorten says he’ll cut the cost of GP visits by between $14 and $25 — impossible, short of shovelling tens of billions out in direct cash payments, which he isn’t promising — and the Coalition still can’t tear this vacuous bribe to pieces.

Labor promises an LGBTIQ commissioner — a provocative and socially inflammatory abuse of power to pander to minorities if ever there was — yet the Coalition response is mute. Whatever benefits it might have derived from changing leaders, any form of improved communications capability was not among them.

And now, as Francis Urquhart might say — plan until you’re blue in the face and events just happen — events are indeed intervening to make the government’s job that much harder.

Like the raid on ALP offices last week over leaks from the NBN Co, which should have reflected squarely on the ALP but instead, through tactical superiority and the missteps of the Coalition, made Turnbull the only target to sustain any damage.

Like the “news” this morning that slain mobster Joseph Acquaro “unwittingly” lunched with Turnbull almost a decade ago: for this story to filter out now, someone has been sitting on it until its release could inflict maximum political damage. There is no suggestion Turnbull did anything improper, or that he was even aware of the dubious company into which he had stumbled. But as anyone who knows the ALP playbook knows all too well, by the time Labor is finished with this issue, you might as well just cuff Turnbull and cart him away. The machine the government is up against is that bad and that insidious. But the Coalition, in likelihood, will fail to lay a glove on it.

Unlike the business community that wanted the Howard government’s WorkChoices laws and then deserted it in 2007 — refusing to put up money for a campaign to tackle the union onslaught against what were fairly moderate and sensible laws, once the rough edges had been smoothed out — the property industry appears to have come to Turnbull’s aid on one front, running a campaign against Shorten’s proposal to end negative gearing on all but newly built residential properties and to halve the capital gains discount. This dangerous Labor initiative is based on a report that admitted it ignored many of the policy’s possible consequences, understated average incomes to produce more “rich” people in the investment community to take aim at, and could well induce a recession if ever implemented. And the Coalition’s running on what could be a pivotal issue?

Nothing.

It may be too late, but the key to this government’s success — and any aspiration (or delusion) it once harboured to emulate the stellar performance of the Howard years — was actually shelved by Joe Hockey in early 2014: the report from its own Commission of Audit into the government’s finances, undertaken after the change of government in 2013.

Nobody should be under any illusion that unless the federal budget is repaired (and quickly: that is, within the next five to seven years), Australia’s envied standing as a “rich” country will give way to an economic management reputation more akin to the likes of Italy, or Spain, or eventually Greece.

Those “low” debt levels Wayne Swan used to gloat about as debt passed zero, then 5% to GDP, then 10%, then 15% are now at 35% and not looking so trivial any more; debt sits at half a trillion dollars where it was zero less than a decade ago, and Labor’s legislated increases to recurrent expenditure — which it has stubbornly refused to permit the ongoing government to reduce in any way, shape, or form through its Senate antics — will merely continue to fuel the problem until it explodes.

I don’t want to be melodramatic about it, and I haven’t even mentioned the Abbott loyalists deserting the Coalition. But if there had been an election this Saturday gone, I think Shorten would have won it: and it isn’t just Newspoll that makes me think that.

It might already be too late: a sudden flurry of talk about debt and deficits might now appear to voters as panic, and not least because in their hamfisted and conflicting treatment of this issue (there is an emergency, there isn’t an emergency, we have to tighten belts, but here’s a small business tax write-off bonanza) Abbott and Hockey trashed the credibility of the actual pretext for the Coalition’s 2013 election win in the first place.

But unless those charged with such things in government circles find a way to construct a dialogue about just how parlous Australia’s financial position really is — and it is parlous, irrespective of what any politician from any party tries to tell you to the contrary — then the election in July is probably already lost.

After all, am insipid chorus of me too-ism is no substitute for the raw appeal to unthinking and/or gleefully self-interested types of Shorten’s tsunami of money, painless spending increases, and his all-things-to-all-people approach to seizing power at literally any cost: even his $102bn in tax hikes, which have already been discredited as worth about $30bn less than that, inspire only apathy from those to whom they don’t (or won’t) apply.

This election actually matters: it is an election about what shape Australia is in as it heads deeper into the 21st century, in uncertain economic times and amid an increasingly insecure (and in some cases, hostile) international climate. In one sense, neither side is an ideal fit to deal with the real issues that are at stake.

But some experiment in illiberal social policy and a further massive, debt-fuelled lurch to the Keynesian Left is the very last thing Australia either needs, or can afford: and the onus rests squarely upon the Liberal “brains” trust to construct the messages that actually matter — and to see that just for once in the life of this inept, accident-prone incarnation of Liberal governance, those messages not only cut through, but make Newspoll numbers like today’s a thing of the past.

As ever, my door is open and the standing offer of help remains, but even when making such basic errors, those in the bunker always know better than everyone else — especially those who can see what they are doing is wrong, and have the temerity to call them out on their mistake.

 

Budget 2016: Cautious, Constrained, Responsible Without Sass

SHORT OF BORROWING billions to bankroll reprehensible recurrent spending — as Labor spent six years doing in office — the 2016 budget is probably the nimblest item that could have been fashioned from almost non-existent means; hemmed in by high deficits and an opposition that has flatly blocked all attempts by the Coalition to fix them, Treasurer Scott Morrison has offered the government a bauble when there is literally nothing better to sell.

If you expected very little from Scott Morrison’s first budget as Treasurer, then this morning you are probably not disappointed; that’s not to say the budget was bad, but that it represented the product of the best fist that could be made of the task in difficult economic circumstances and walled in by oceans of budgetary red ink.

The Labor Party is crowing today about mythical unfunded tax cuts and other programs — and we will come back to them — but on face value, Morrison has done all that could be asked of him in delivering a budget that charted a middle course between the increasingly urgent need to put a scythe through unfunded and wasteful Labor spending programs on the one hand, and to provide the government with a benign (and even modestly generous) document that would allow it to fight an imminent election as a responsible manager on the other.

And in fact, with an eye to deteriorating opinion polls and the very real danger of election defeat, the budget appears as oriented toward neutralising ALP advantage as with any concern for the implementation of any orthodox program of Coalition initiatives.

The truth is that there is very little for most people to get either excited or angry about here, although there are exceptions; smokers (and I’m one) are just about ready to tell governments of all stripes to insert their taxes where the sun doesn’t shine: nobody denies smoking is bad for you, but the fatties who are eating their way into an obesity-initiated diabetes epidemic that will soon dwarf the impost of smoking-related illness on the health system, or boozing types who cause so much social damage in addition to the costs of treating alcohol-related illnesses, have been left alone once again, and any righteous prat who thinks rising tobacco taxes are clever in that context ought to recognise that this is no health measure in any way, shape, or form.*

Similarly, families — waiting on the government’s much-hyped childcare revamp in the face of ballooning costs — have been made to wait another year; some decry this assistance as “middle class welfare” and perhaps it is, but the hard truth is that no childcare usually equals no second income in most lower and middle class families: the costs were compounded under Julia Gillard by Labor’s carer ratios, as accredited centres are required to have one qualified professional for every five kids in attendance, and it’s parents who pay for this in rocketing day fees.

And some high income earners will surrender several billion dollars in cuts to superannuation concessions that I would suggest most will barely notice, or miss.

But for the most part, the initiatives in the budget — whilst mostly welcome — are unexceptional, and are largely a shuffle of relatively small amounts of money.

Abolishing the high income surcharge for those earning more than $180,000 per annum is welcome, and should be applauded; this impost — not supported by this column in any way when announced in 2014 — was “sold” as a temporary measure and as such, the government deserves acknowledgement for keeping its promise in the face of calls from Labor and the Communist Party Greens for it to be retained permanently.

The modest tax cut for average wage earners, lifting the threshold for the 37c tax bracket from $80,000 to $87,000 has merit, removing a bar to incentive for this cohort to work harder without incurring higher levels of taxation; it should be emphasised that both the value of the tax cut and its cost to the budget are modest, whatever Labor “leader” Bill Shorten and his shadow Treasurer, Chris Bowen, have to say about it.

And just on that point, Bowen’s lament that there is nothing in the budget for the lowest income earners should be ignored: if you earn less than $20,000 you pay no tax as it stands, and with the various offsets, subsidies and other income support measures provided for low income earners, those on $35-$40k pay no net tax. If you don’t pay tax it’s an oxymoron to suggest you deserve a tax cut. What Labor really wants to give to low income earners is a handout to purchase their allegiance, and with the budget still in the state Labor left it in, there’s no money for that even if Morrison wanted to oblige (which I doubt).

I do think — as we’ve discussed over the past month or so — that the government has taken a calculated risk in straying onto Labor’s preferred turf with this budget: tobacco tax hikes, superannuation changes and a “crackdown” on multinational tax avoidance are all issues the ALP has rabbited on about since it lost office in 2013, having failed to solve in six years the very problems it immediately began to insist were so urgent.

And the small amounts of extra money earmarked for Health and Education will buy the Coalition little favour among the lobbies who fret over raw dollar amounts as symbols of adequacy in these portfolios, however well targeted they are, and will fuel Labor’s attempts to trump the government in these areas.

But the tax relief for small businesses — cutting the applicable rate from 28.5% to 27.5%, and on a scaled basis eventually to 25% for all businesses within a decade, is to be lauded: business taxes in this country are among the highest in the developed world, and any relief that can be delivered is an investment in future jobs and opportunities for growth.

Similarly, tightly targeted measures for low income workers — including mothers returning to the workforce after childbirth — offers the government tools with which to appeal to the “battler” constituency often identified with the Howard government, and which the Turnbull regime desperately needs to keep onside if it is to have any hope of retaining office.

And the “jobs plan” announced by Morrison to target youth unemployment — PaTH — appears, whilst cumbersome at first glance, to represent a new (or new-ish) strategy to package more meaningful vocational training with incentives to employers to trail young people before deciding whether to hire them permanently, with additional incentives wherever they do.

There are some heroic assumptions in the budget: the price of iron ore, for one thing, remaining at or near $55/ton; if that collapses further (as it did last year) then Morrison’s revenue predictions are going to have a huge hole punched into them.

And predictions of GDP growth of 2.5% in the coming year, rising to 3% for the remainder of the forward estimates period, seem hopeful against the backdrop of a softening economy and the threat of a second global financial crisis just as world markets have barely recovered from the first.

In this context, the prediction of a $39 billion deficit this year, falling to $6 billion in four years’ time, may prove heroic indeed.

Do I think this is a good budget? It’s OK, but as I said at the outset, Morrison has fashioned this document from virtually non-existent means: it isn’t quite a case of making a silk purse from a sow’s ear, but it is cautious, responsible without being flashy or sassy, innocent of the multi-billion dollar pork barrels that too often get wheeled out this close to an election, and gives the government an inoffensive blueprint to take to the people when yesterday it had nothing substantial to offer.

Do I think the electorate will buy it? It should, if Morrison and Malcolm Turnbull are the astute salespeople we were promised they were back in September last year, when Turnbull rolled Tony Abbott out of the Prime Ministership, but the precedent of their efforts on tax “reform” earlier this year hardly inspires confidence.

For if they aren’t — and this is a certain bet — when the full fury of Labor’s outrage and fear campaign cranks up to top gear today and tomorrow, the government will sustain enormous damage; already trailing in the polls, Turnbull and Morrison are going to need to be on their game if this budget really is the spearhead of the Coalition’s electoral positioning for a win on 2 July.

As for the ALP, it has no right to talk of unfunded policies — it was the greatest practitioner of this contemptible political art under Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard — and it has no right to try to blame the Coalition for continued high deficits, given the problem was created on its own watch, and it has gone out of its way ever since through marshalling opposition in the Senate to ensure any attempt to fix those deficits has proven impossible.

At the end of the day, voters’ judgement of this budget may come down to a contest between the sales skills of the Prime Minister and his Treasurer, and the capacity for Labor to make its latest barrage of bullshit convincing to enough swinging voters to get it across the line.

For now at least, the government has something to sell that has some merit. What kind of shape it’s in after a day, a week, or two months of the coming ALP onslaught will determine the Coalition’s fate — and the political future of Scott Morrison with it.

 

*Comments about the positive aspects of more tobacco tax will be deleted. Not today, thanks.

Election 2016: As The Curtain Rises, Turnbull Gamble May Backfire

THE SENATE — in defeating legislation to restore the Australian Building and Construction Commission for a second time — has handed Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull the pretext he sought on which to call elections for both Houses of Parliament; obliged by explicit public threats to take the matter to the people if the Senate voted it down, Turnbull is locked into a 2 July double dissolution. The campaign begins now. The election is Labor’s to lose.

And so it begins: on the first day of a three-week “special sitting” of Parliament to canvass, among other things, bills to re-establish the Australian Building and Construction Commission — an Abbott government promise that received an electoral mandate in 2013 — the Senate has obliged Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull in record order, voting the ABCC legislation down last night and handing Turnbull the double dissolution trigger he sought in so doing.

Today’s article is really only intended to give form to some reflections on the contest that now begins; an election campaign that is effectively more than 10 weeks in length — and an actual campaign period that will still exceed seven weeks once formalised on 10 or 11 May — is an Australian record, and most voters will be heartily fed up with politics by the time the polls close on 2 July.

Leaving aside who did what, to whom it was done, or judgements about the validity or otherwise of the sequence of events that brings us to this point, the brutal truth is that the Liberal Party has spent its first term in office behaving in precisely the fashion Labor did between 2007 and 2013, which it has repeatedly protested it would never do.

A leader led the Coalition back into office at an election after multiple terms in opposition; for a short period, the government fared well and was popular, before an event caused its poll ratings to collapse: and his colleagues, panicked that the party would lose an election (or that more particularly, that some of them would lose their seats) effected a surgical and vicious snap coup to replace their Prime Minister with a man opinion polls suggested was far more likely to resonate with voters: and to win a second term.

Sound familiar? It should. Replace the word “Coalition” with “Labor” and extend the happy phase of government from three to 18 months, and you have the same storyline followed by the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd government.

Like Julia Gillard in 2010, Malcolm Turnbull enters his first (and perhaps only) election campaign as leader with blood on his hands.

Turnbull came to the Prime Ministership far more popular than Gillard could ever have dreamed of being, but this esteem quickly proved illusory and transient: both Prime Ministers are and were deeply defective, albeit in different ways. Gillard’s political limitations quickly hobbled her government. Turnbull’s were on full display during a disastrous 14 months as Liberal leader in 2008-09. Both quickly squandered the initial goodwill voters were inclined to bestow upon them despite the grimy manner in which each ascended the greasy pole.

Gillard erred in rushing to an election a month after knifing Kevin Rudd; Turnbull has erred by waiting more than six months to go to the polls.

And whilst the Gillard campaign was a disaster — and seemed set to end stonily in defeat, with many crediting her notorious promise not to introduce a carbon tax (in response to an Abbott scare campaign) as the difference between salvaging enough seats to cobble together government from a technical loss or losing outright — it is here the parallels diverge, for now at least: the Turnbull campaign sits at the foot of the runway, and faces a three-week wait in the form of the remainder of the special sitting before it is really clear for take-off; nobody knows whether Abbott will play the subterranean wrecking role Rudd did in 2010, for example, or whether some Cassandra of the Liberal Party will seek to publicly humiliate Turnbull in the way Mark Latham did to Gillard three years ago.

This election is Labor’s to lose — unbelievably, after the tumultuous and unruly spectacle it indulged itself in before voters in office, and despite the reprehensible damage it inflicted on the structural integrity of Australia’s previously sound financial situation — for no better reason than the fact that in spite of the vapid, vacuous and often ridiculous drivel it has served up from opposition as “policy,” the message of “leader” Bill Shorten has been consistent.

Nobody can say that of Turnbull.

The Coalition starts this campaign with 90 of the 150 seats in the House of Representatives; Labor has 55, the Communist Party Greens one, and there are four “Others:” of the four, one (Clive Palmer’s seat of Fairfax, on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast) is a certain gain for the government, but beyond that, it is difficult at the outset to see Turnbull winning any new seats in any state or territory. Less than six months ago, there was a sound case to suggest it could take up to an extra dozen seats from Labor, all but wiping the ALP out in WA and Queensland in the process.

A uniform swing of exactly 4% would deliver the 21 seats Labor needs to secure a bare outright majority — and government — in the House of Representatives.

I don’t propose to spend much time discussing the Senate this morning; there will be ample time for that as the campaign progresses, and in any case my remarks today are meant only as a curtain-raiser to what will be a gruelling (and possibly quite nasty) campaign.

But with the reduced Senate quotas that apply at a double dissolution and considering the same foolish delay in calling an election that will cost Turnbull lower house seats, I can see the government winning five Senate spots in every state, plus one in each of the territories, and a sixth spot in WA and possibly — possibly — NSW and Queensland. This makes the best-possible return for the Coalition 35 of the 76 Senate spots: two more than it currently holds. Had this double dissolution been held in December like it should have been, six Senators in WA, NSW, Queensland, Tasmania and Victoria were all realistic propositions, and we would be talking about the possibility of 37 Coalition Senators and a far stronger position in the upper house than the advance by one to two spots that seems the government’s best hope now.

I am told Coalition strategists outside Canberra are increasingly pessimistic about the government’s prospects, and so they should be: for on its merits, the Coalition does not deserve to be re-elected, and the only thing it has going for it in terms of electoral appeal is that none of its MPs are Bill Shorten.

The government which — under two very different leaders — has proven singularly unable to deliver politically palatable policies, sell anything to a sceptical electorate, deal with a hostile Senate in any meaningful sense until the horse of public opinion had bolted (and changes to the way the Senate is elected, whilst crucial, appear in the eyes of the public as panicked self-interest) or to execute strategic and tactical manoeuvres in a manner that establishes and maintains ascendancy over its opponent is a government that staggers to its first re-election hurdle when it should be ready to jump.

This government has enjoyed not one, but two opportunities to capitalise on a deep reservoir of voter goodwill, and has managed to squander both; the orthodox wisdom is that the Coalition will be re-elected, for no other reason than “everyone gets two chances,” although that myth was exploded in stunning fashion last year by the LNP state government in Queensland.

None of this, of course, is to say that Labor represents the better proposition at this election — it doesn’t — or even that it deserves to win at all, which it certainly doesn’t.

As promised, over the next few days I will be publishing a piece discussing what I believe has been Labor’s “grand strategy” during this parliamentary term, and why simply sticking to the script has placed the ALP in a position to potentially win an election at which it should have no right to even contemplate victory.

The ALP has spent its term in opposition advocating “policies” that are little more than a sop to the Greens and the hard Left, with promises of multiple carbon taxes and 50% renewable energy targets that would decimate Australia economically and push the cost of living for ordinary folk through the roof.

Its only promises worthy of belief are those that threaten $102bn in new taxes on Australians over the next ten years: $400 per year for every man, woman and child living in this country today, every year for ten years.

It has obstinately refused to acknowledge its mistakes in government, or to apologise for the debt abyss into which the country’s affairs threaten to disappear, or even to show more than scant regard for the millions of ordinary voters who can’t be bribed with promises of endless welfare beyond vapid slogans based on assertions the Coalition would destroy healthcare, education and the welfare system generally if it’s re-elected.

At times, the shrill pronouncements of Shorten on labour market policy have bordered on the suggestion Australian workers will return to slave conditions under a re-elected Coalition government: the message from the opposition has been that crass.

And Shorten — a lying and conspiratorial union thug with the morals of an alley cat on heat and a cavalier disregard for anything and anyone other than himself, the exercise of power and his union buddies in that order — is hardly a suitable candidate for the Prime Ministership on any criteria grounded in principle, decency, or on a reasonable assessment of his likely performance if elevated to the office.

But Shorten has weathered multiple personal scandals that could (and probably should) have destroyed his “leadership;” he was perhaps fortunate to be untouched by the Royal Commission into the trade union movement, although he sustained considerable short-term collateral damage when its damning findings were released; and whilst he is just as reviled personally by the electorate as he saw to it Tony Abbott became, if the polls are any guide, the fact is that Shorten remains vertical: in the contest, hungry, and determined to win by any and all means possible.

By contrast, the misguided loyalties and misdirected energies of the Abbott era have given way to the dithering, tentative indecision of Turnbull; the Prime Minister’s stellar opinion poll bounce has evaporated, as this column repeatedly and correctly predicted, and despite a change in the guard in the government’s back of house, the government has remained poorly advised, appeared flat-footed, and Turnbull himself enters the campaign his own handiwork obliges him to embark on as the unpopular leader of a government that is sinking, and gives every appearance of a sense of entitlement to be re-elected, if not simply of a lame duck.

The point is that in a contest between two sides that have both exhibited division, unrest and disunity, I believe such circumstances favour the challenger: it isn’t through any sense of wild enthusiasm (or any enthusiasm for him at all) that Shorten finds himself in such a position. But the sentiment in voterland that “the other lot” can’t be any worse is exactly the millstone Turnbull has allowed to be slung around his, and his government’s, collective necks.

Without a hint of irony and in deadly seriousness, I believe the consequences of a Labor government — and especially one “led” by the insidious Shorten — would be so dire that I would give thought to emigrating were this nightmare scenario to materialise: I don’t think I could stand to watch Australia ravaged by yet another Labor outfit vying with its predecessors for the mantle of the worst government in its history, and a defiant refusal to have such a government adversely impact me personally would make the one-fingered salute relocation to the UK would constitute a worthy message to send to Canberra.

And those staunchly pro-Abbott members of the Liberal Party who think a Labor government — and a Shorten government, no less — is preferable to one headed by Turnbull had better wake up to themselves, and quickly.

Malcolm won’t be around forever; if he loses he will leave Parliament immediately; and if he wins narrowly, the chances of a mid-term replacement are high. There will be no landslide Coalition win this year. And even if there was, Malcolm will be 62 in October: in 2007, voters showed all too decisively what they thought of re-electing a 68-year-old, and Turnbull isn’t one-tenth the leader John Howard was. His time is going to be relatively short, however things play out. The relatively small but viciously fanatical rump demanding “(their) elected Prime Minister back” could pointlessly inflict great harm on the country by preferencing the ALP above the Coalition.

Yet when all is considered — at the outset of a campaign so long that literally anything could happen — the bottom line is this.

Were the election set for this Saturday, Labor would have to be favoured to win by a nose; this election is Shorten’s to lose, and whilst the benefits of incumbency and tools like the imminent federal budget are in Turnbull’s hands, he has shown to date a near-total inability to exploit such advantages.

Turnbull’s trajectory — for almost six months — has been steadily downwards; it is taking the government with it, and the danger of defeat now looms large.

At the start of the campaign — and whilst I will personally take no steps to help facilitate a change of government — I would find it difficult to publish an endorsement for either side were polling day scheduled for this weekend rather than 2 July.

It promises to be a pretty uninspiring period in what should be the pinnacle of Australia’s political cycle: insipid indecision and nothing to get excited about versus blatant opportunism, a naked lust for power at literally any cost, and a sackful of big sticks to hit people with if the insidious enterprise pays off.

What a choice.

But momentum at the outset is with the opposition, and it would be dishonest to try to suggest otherwise.

Time will tell whether this alarming state of affairs is remedied over the next ten weeks, but whether it is or whether it isn’t, Malcolm Turnbull will be responsible for it — either way.

 

Ipsos, Newspoll: Turnbull Election Loss A Distinct Possibility

MUCH AS IT PAINS some in the “brains” trust of the Liberal Party, this column calls political life as it sees it, and is uninterested in rah-rah propaganda for its own sake; today, with new polls from Ipsos and Newspoll, the trend we’ve been charting — a collapse in the Turnbull government’s standing — persists, with those figures (and some gut instinct) suggesting the Coalition, whilst not yet dead in the water, may nonetheless just about be cooked.

Exactly eight months after the Queensland LNP won a state election — ending 14 years of ALP government in the biggest landslide in Australian political history — I raised in this column the prospect, despite the 12.2% swing required, that it would lose the following election in 2015: and despite the torrent of abuse that poured through my phone in the days immediately afterward, along with a steady dripfeed of stories filtering south about what a fuckwit I was, on 31 January last year the LNP did precisely as I had predicted. It lost a state election.

The problem in commenting on (and making predictions about) a business as infinitely changeable and subject to wildcat acts of treachery as politics is that inevitably, some calls will be right and some will be wrong; we’ve nailed far more than we’ve missed here over the past five years, and if some in my own party resent the fact I make tough calls on the Liberals as much as on our opponents, then so be it. After all, I’ve been excluded from the inner sanctum; it’s a bit rich to then complain that I don’t regurgitate what’s on the song sheet. You can’t have it both ways.

Regular readers will know that I wrote the Abbott government off as terminal not too long after its politically disastrous 2014 budget; had it been implemented (and the merits or otherwise of the Senate’s behaviour notwithstanding) it would have gone some way to redressing the balance sheet, but not as far as required. In any case, then-Treasurer Joe Hockey had produced a politically incendiary package that targeted swinging Coalition voters in marginal seats, and backed by a thoroughly dysfunctional political machine in almost every conceivable sense, was unsaleable.

And whilst flatly opposed to the ascension of Malcolm Turnbull (and having said so repeatedly up to and including the day before he became Prime Minister) I was nevertheless emphatic that if he went to a pre-Christmas election last year, the Coalition would translate a quick sugar hit in public support into a sizeable election victory…but that the longer Turnbull delayed, the more support he would lose, the more his unreconstructed failings from his first stint as Liberal leader would resurface, and the likelier it would grow that the government would be defeated.

Two days before he rolled Tony Abbott, I published an article that comprehensively set out my reservations about (and my opposition to) a Turnbull Prime Ministership, and having looked it out to link into today’s piece, the arguments against Turnbull back in September look positively prophetic.

My reason for opening with this coverage of old ground (and a little self-defence) is that I think the federal Coalition is wandering very close to the point now at which its election prospects will become terminal: just as they were terminal under Abbott, a temporary reprieve from which was (ironically) delivered by the Turnbull coup, they are becoming so again as all the risks and flaws I warned about (as did other conservative commentators across the country) spring sharply back into focus.

In short, a Turnbull election loss is now a distinct possibility; some would argue it is probable. We will come back to that in a bit.

But it is against this backdrop that two new polls surface this morning — Newspoll in The Australian and the Fairfax-Ipsos poll — and whilst they show the government remaining competitive (on 49% and 50% of the two-party vote respectively), the bottom line is that if replicated at an election, the Coalition would probably lose narrowly. Across the basket of reputable polls we monitor in this column, the average two-party figure for the Coalition remains locked below 49.5%: leaving it dependent on enough votes in a tiny handful of key seats to fall across the line.

First things first: readers can access the Newspoll tables and the Fairfax press’ coverage of the Ipsos poll here and here respectively; I’m only going to allude to the findings rather than replicate them in full, so if the details are of interest please feel free to click through.

There are some really dangerous (or downright stupid) assumptions being made that find wide acceptance as common wisdom as to why Turnbull can’t lose, and before we get to talking about issues, or — again — the unforgivable drift and dithering of Turnbull’s government, I want to explode a few of them.

  1. Labor’s primary vote is too low to win an election

At 33% in Ipsos and 36% in Newspoll, in ordinary circumstances it should be too low to win; Essential (for what it’s worth) has seen it fluctuate between 35% and 38% over the past month, and my own “guesstimate” of the trend figure puts it at about 35.5%.

Yet with the Greens averaging 12% across all polls and the ALP guaranteed of 75-80% of these votes through preference flows, this lifts the “underlying” Labor position to 45%: from there, and with “Others” averaging 11% across all polls, the ALP need only attract 45% of those preferences to reach the 50% mark. As it usually scores 50-55% of these votes on preferences, the contention Labor can’t win with 35.5% of the vote on its own (if that proves the eventual figure at the ballot box) is simply untrue.

2. Malcolm Turnbull is the Coalition’s secret weapon

To achieve what, exactly? Ipsos is kinder to Turnbull than Newspoll, but the trend downwards is identical; even so, Newspoll — which is generally the most accurate survey of federal voting intention — shows Turnbull is not popular at all, with just 36% of its respondents (down another 2% in a fortnight) approving his performance, and 49% (+1%) disapproving. And in case anyone quibbles about margin of error, the resulting net approval score of -13% is a full 51-point turnaround in just five months: hardly the stuff of statistical blips.

Both of today’s polls show Turnbull with handy, but unconvincing, leads over Shorten as “preferred Prime Minister,” but in both cases those leads are diminished: Newspoll has it 47-28, whilst Ipsos (again kinder to Turnbull, but consistent with Newspoll on trend) finds it 54-27. It is rare for opposition leaders to win this measure, especially against first-term governments. That Shorten did so intermittently against Abbott speaks to the dysfunctional nature of Abbott’s political apparatus more than anything. Shorten’s numbers against Turnbull may be poorer, but they are not extraordinary in cyclical terms. Importantly for Labor, they represent a sharp upswing from their nadir prior to Christmas.

3. Bill Shorten is unelectable

Generally, I agree. Certainly, in my view, he is the least suitable candidate put forward for the Prime Ministership by any major party in decades, if not ever, although I’m not going to rehash those arguments today: there’s a wealth of articles dealing with Shorten and what should be his terminal defects readily accessible in the archives to the right.

But if we’re going to talk about “unelectable,” the Left spent three years screaming the same accusation against Abbott, going out of its way to smear and defame him to substantiate their charge. Nevertheless, Abbott won a thumping victory in 2013.

And if being “unelectable” is a bar to election victory, let’s consider a few other names. Steve Bracks. Bob Carr. Colin Barnett. Paul Keating. Jim Soorley. People forget that John Howard was “Mr 18%” and widely regarded (and lampooned) in the late 1980s as joke, or that Jeff Kennett lost two state elections (and, temporarily, his leadership of the Liberal Party) before storming to office in Victoria in 1992 and becoming a political titan. Admittedly, none of these men were as abjectly contemptible as Shorten.

Yet stranger things have happened.

4. Labor has no policies and is unfit to govern

Oppositions don’t win elections, governments lose them: and Shorten knows this all too well.

As I argued last week, Labor’s program boils down to two words — new taxes — and a lot of new taxes at that: some $102 billion of them over ten years.

And it’s certainly true that the last Labor government committed unprecedented acts of economic vandalism on the federal budget, compounding this by its antics in opposition in marshalling obstruction to virtually every attempt to undo the damage in the Senate.

The country can’t afford another Labor government if it behaves as the last one did, obsessed with power to the exclusion of responsibility, and obsessed with socialist frolics and the empowerment of union thugs to the total exclusion of the national interest.

But — and this is a sad reality — the Coalition doesn’t exactly ooze policies either; three months of dithering, obfuscating and inaction over tax and budget policy means that a budget in 15 days’ time is going to have to produce a rabbit from a hat.

And the Liberal Party — through its knifing of Abbott, the mediocrity the Turnbull regime has proven to be, and the malicious preselection battles being fought out to knife conservatives in order to shore Turnbull’s position up — has gone out of its way to demonstrate that “unfitness for office” is not an epithet that applies exclusively to the opposition.

 

I must apologise to readers for my silence once again since my article on Thursday; that piece — written whilst sitting on the tarmac at Melbourne Airport in an A320 for 90 minutes, waiting for my delayed flight to Brisbane to get underway — provides a glimmer of insight into what awaits Australia if, God forbid, Shorten should be Prime Minister when we all wake up on 3 July.

I have in fact been preoccupied with other matters, and I have always made it plain that as this column is not a revenue-generating activity, other things that pay my bills must take precedence.

Time and other political events permitting, I will be publishing something during the week about Labor’s “grand strategy” during this term of Parliament, for I believe this has become increasingly clear over the past few months: and right now, one would have to say that it’s working.

Certainly, Labor’s political agenda — as fatuous and vacuous as it often is — is proving more fruitful at this point in the cycle than the Coalition’s, although as someone disinclined to buy into rah-rah propaganda and other self-congratulatory bullshit, I’ve long thought the defects in the way the Liberal Party has approached political strategy since roughly the midpoint of the final term of the Howard government have been obvious, although not as obvious to some as they should be, clearly.

Right now — after wasting a huge surge of electoral support, botching a series of ministerial appointments, eschewing hard conversations about the financial state Australia is really in and vacillating over what to do about it through tax reform — I think the Turnbull government is very, very close to the point its electoral position will become terminal.

It might not be showing up quite so starkly in the polls — yet — but since Christmas, every opinion poll in the country has contained at least one item of bad news for the government, if not several.

The Coalition’s primary vote is already down to the level at which Howard lost government in 2007; Labor support might be lower, but it has the Greens to guarantee it another 8-10% through preferences, which the Coalition does not.

Turnbull, personally, is every bit as unpopular as he was when booted from the Liberal leadership in 2009; he is little more popular than Shorten now, and faced with an opponent as cringeworthy and lamentable as Shorten is, that fact is an indictment.

Even Turnbull’s “preferred PM” numbers — the last sanctuary of the unpopular leader of an unpopular government — are drifting further and further downwards, and anyone who stakes the government’s re-election on a bet based on this particular index is delusional.

Today’s polls merely reinforce these observations.

The Coalition might not quite be dead in the water, but it has spent the year to date apparently determined to flirt with its political mortality, and to experiment with just how much water must be inhaled to induce drowning: its inability to make decisions, articulate policy or to sell its position convincingly is almost politically suicidal this close to a 2 July election its own handiwork has effectively locked it into.

Competitive as an averaged 49.4% across the full gamut of polls might appear on the two-party measure ten weeks from an election, the bigger question is whether the government is already cooked even if it isn’t running dead.

One of its signature tactical moves — a special sitting of Parliament, with plenty of inherent capacity to explode in Turnbull’s face — commences today, and concludes with an early budget on 3 May that possesses as much or more explosive potential.

In the next few weeks things will grow clearer, but for now — if you are wont to bet and looking for tips — I’m reticent to put my standard wager of a tenner on the Coalition just yet.

Oh, and for those who beg to differ, if Tony Abbott and his Prime Minister, Peta Credlin, were still leading the government today, it would be careening downhill toward certain defeat. Its policies may continue, but its political smarts in office were non-existent. On the latter point, Abbott and Turnbull might have more in common than they care to admit.