Politics

The view from Billinudgel

Housing divided
The government is more concerned about opinion polls than solving real problems

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Scott Morrison says that Labor’s eight-point plan to help ease the housing crisis will make no real difference. Well, he should know.

Barely a week ago Morrison cautioned that the government’s own prescription was a long-term treatment – it would take at least one election cycle before it kicked in. Indeed, there is more than a little doubt that it ever would, but that, too, is well past the next election. Both Morrison and his Labor counterpart, Chris Bowen, have admitted that there are, regrettably, no silver bullets – the housing bubble has long been inflating and it will take a long time to let down without a disastrous pop.

Morrison is constrained by strategic considerations. Having dismissed changes to negative gearing and now facing party room vetoes on capital gains tax reform and using superannuation to provide deposits for homebuyers, there is not much left for him to offer, which is no doubt why Malcolm Turnbull is now hosing down the issue. It will definitely not be a centrepiece of the forthcoming budget, our prime minister assures us, while remaining vague about what, if anything, will be.

Bowen’s problem is more tactical: in an attempt to ensure that his policy would worry as few voters as possible, everything is to be grandfathered – only new investors would be affected, which means, effectively, that the current generation of housing hopefuls will see no serious benefits.

Over the years, there is no doubt that the Labor agenda would be more effective, but that will not help those seeking immediate relief. However, that, like so much of what passes for policy debate in these troubled times, is hardly the point: the idea is to be doing something, or at least talking about doing something.

Thus while Turnbull and his threatening colleague Peter Dutton were rabbiting (or more accurately dog-whistling) on about Australian values Bill Shorten and Bowen were spruiking housing. In the eve of the next Newspoll, it was a battle of the announceables, and if the media is any judge, the government clearly won.

The chatter over 457 visas and citizenship tests drowned out Labor’s concerns, proving once again that it is easier to start an argument about abstractions than realities. Less than 10% of foreign workers will be affected by the changes to 457 arrangements and while the debate over Australian values may provide the cultural warriors with endless amusement, most people more or less know what they more or less believe they more or less mean, so there is no harm in discussing them over a beer.

Housing prices are not only more worrying, but more intractable; given that successive governments, both federal and state, have left them in the too-hard basket for so long, the punters can be forgiven for believing that there is no real solution. So unless they are personally involved, they can safely ignore anything the politicians say on the subject on the justifiable grounds that it will – just as Morrison says – make no real difference.

Government by announcement, government by distraction, government by irrelevance. But mainly, government by opinion poll. How Turnbull must regret that he ever set that standard. And how Shorten must be hoping and praying that the figures continue his way. And how the rest of us wish that both of them, and bloody Newspoll, would just go away and get on with their real jobs. 

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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