Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Today by Paddy Manning

Bowen shapes up
Labor’s shadow treasurer wants a mandate for reform


Absent a post-budget bounce in the polls, the Coalition’s re-election strategy seems to rest on attacking Opposition leader Bill Shorten. Not only is this a fundamentally negative strategy, it has a key weakness in that Bill Shorten is surrounded by a team of Labor frontbenchers well known to the electorate – former federal ministers like Tanya Plibersek and Penny Wong, Anthony Albanese and Tony Burke. Then of course there’s Chris Bowen, who, in his budget reply speech at the National Press Club today revealed that after five years he has become the second longest-serving shadow treasurer in Australia’s history. It is Bowen who will get the keys to the economy, and he is clearly hungry to be Labor’s next treasurer. Whether the next election is held this year or next, Bowen today said that Labor was ready for it and, more importantly, ready to govern.

Bowen’s speech was measured, not full of major announceables. He outlined Labor’s firm commitment to bigger (and better!) budget surpluses to cushion us from future economic shocks, and the reappointment of the same costings review panel (comprised of Bob Officer, Mike Keating and James Mackenzie) who reviewed Labor’s pre-election platform in 2016. It’s an additional layer of scrutiny that Bowen described as “PBO-plus” (in reference to the Parliamentary Budget Office). Bowen’s sharpest critique of the government was over the politicisation of the Treasury, which he made when he accused Treasurer Scott Morrison of using his department as a crutch and a “political battering ram”. He swore not to do the same, if elected.

Bowen’s central pitch was that Labor in Opposition was getting the “big calls” right, like the banking royal commission (pinched from the Greens, by the way). Once again, a hefty question by The Guardian’s Katharine Murphy elicited the most meaningful, honest response. Murphy surmised that one “big call” for Labor ahead of the next election was to make its pitch to those voters who’d been left behind, rather than those who were thriving, and asked what Bowen had to offer the latter. Bowen waffled momentarily and then confessed: he’d been struck by the number of people who were massive beneficiaries of negative gearing, capital gains tax relief, family trusts and super concessions, and who were quite rationally maximising those benefits while they could. But these people were nevertheless coming up to him to say: “I’m really glad you’re getting rid of [these benefits] … something’s got to give and at last somebody’s saying so”. It is the key, politically, to Labor’s reform agenda. It is not class war, it’s an end of unsustainable taxpayer-funded largesse, which overwhelmingly benefits the old and wealthy at the expense of the young and disadvantaged.

At some point in the depths of the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd misery, a Labor source mourned to one newspaper that “these are the Whitlam years”. That is to say, Labor’s self-inflicted woes of 2007–13, after a long period in Opposition, were in some ways a repeat of the turbulence of 1972–75. The hoped-for implication was that Labor could return to office sooner rather than later and, if it learnt its lessons, would be set for a long stretch in government, just as Hawke and Keating governed for 13 years from 1983. Whitlam’s death in 2014 served as a historic reminder of what being in government was meant to be about for Labor.

As Bowen stressed today and as The Australian’s Paul Kelly acknowledged this morning [$], Labor is not presenting a small target – you have to go right back to Hewson and Fightback! in 1993 to find a braver Opposition. Bowen said it best himself: “we want a mandate, not just to govern, but to reform”. Bowen wants his chance to make history, and as Fairfax’s Peter Hartcher informed us in an important profile over the weekend, one firm supporter is Paul Keating, who has inscribed Chris Bowen’s copy of a collection of his own speeches: “I write with faith and hope in your public life”. We are being softened up.

since this morning

Australian workers are continuing to see little improvement in their pay packets, with the ABS Wage Price Index growing only 0.5 per cent in the March quarter – the second slowest on record – or 2.1 per cent over the year, putting last week’s budget projections in doubt.

The Coalition’s candidate for the Tasmanian seat of Braddon, Brett Whiteley, claims that a $60 million cable car on Cradle Mountain [$] will do for the north of the state what gambling magnate David Walsh’s MONA art museum has done for tourism in Tasmania’s south. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Premier Will Hodgmann were on hand to announce joint funding for the project. In 2016 Whiteley lost the seat to Labor’s Justine Keay, who is now facing a by-election.

in case you missed it

Blackmail charges against Victorian construction union officials John Setka and his deputy Shaun Reardon have been dropped [$] by the DPP, midway through their committal proceeding, but federal Minister for Jobs Minister Michaelia Cash says the decision doesn’t damage the union royal commission’s legacy.

People with disabilities are facing delays of up to nine months when they attempt to have their bungled National Disability Insurance Scheme plans fixed, an Ombudsman’s investigation has found. The Ombudsman found that up to 8,000 people are still waiting for an outcome on their reviews.

The inspector-general of taxation has announced an investigation into the use of garnishee notices by the Australian Taxation Office to claw back outstanding tax debts from businesses and individuals.

The Guardian’s Katharine Murphy reports that the Right faction of the ALP believes it is on track to command a majority at the looming national conference, a development that would make life easier for the federal party leader, Bill Shorten, as he faces the challenges of a mini-election season over the coming weeks.

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Paddy Manning

Paddy Manning is contributing editor (politics) at The Monthly and has worked for the ABC, Fairfax, Crikey and The Australian. He is also the author of three books, including a recently updated unauthorised biography of Malcolm Turnbull, Born To Rule?


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