Australian Politics

The view from Billinudgel

No New Tax

As if this election wasn’t mad enough already, both sides have decided to break the cardinal rule of Australian poll politics: No New Taxes.

In fact, not only have both Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott declined to make this core promise: each is going into the final months with at least one new tax proudly displayed on the party’s campaign banner.

Of course, they’re not actually taxes; rather they’re, well, levies. But whether you call it a levy, or a duty, a toll, an impost, a tariff, a charge, an excise, a tithe, a scot, a tribute, scutage, octroi, gabelle, danegeld or simple extortion.

But the punters, like Gertrude Stein, know that a tax is a tax is a tax. And they don’t like it. That’s all that needs to be said, really.

At least, it has been in the past. Just twenty years ago John Hewson lost the unlosable election by foreshadowing his Goods and Services Tax. Three years later John Howard won by promising never, ever, but then changed his mind and in 1998 took Hewson’s GST to the 1998 election – although he insisted it was not a new tax but a new tax system, which would include the abolition of other state-based taxes.

Actually it didn’t; but even before the public discovered that fraud, a five percent swing reduced the coalition to just 49 percent of the vote. They hung on, but at the cost of 19 seats. And in 2001 they were still heading for defeat until 9/11 and the Tampa rescued them.

In 2004 Mark Latham refused to play the game and guarantee no new taxes; his honesty contributed to his defeat. In 2007 Kevin Rudd made climate change the big issue, but later dumped his Emissions Trading Scheme when Abbott spooked him by rechristening it the Great Big New Tax on Everything.

And in 2010 Gillard famously pledged no carbon tax. The pattern was set: you had to make the promise, even if you broke it later. It appeared that what had always been a precautionary principle had become an inviolable rule.

But rules, as they say, are made to be broken, and now both Gillard and Abbott are locked into an increase in the Medicare levy to fund DisabilityCare Australia, with Abbott determined on an additional impost on big business to pay for his lavish parental leave scheme.

There have been mutterings, notably from Abbott’s own troops, that this is just not the way to go – particularly for a conservative opposition seeking to re-establish its economic credentials. But then, Abbott is hardly your conventional conservative opposition leader.

And Gillard, having wedged him into supporting the DisabilityCare levy, is hardly in a position to complain. The times are well and truly out of joint.

Mungo MacCallum

Mungo MacCallum is a political journalist and commentator. His books include Run Johnny Run, Poll Dancing, and Punch and Judy. Visit his blog, The View from Billinudgel.

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