Monday, June 25, 2018

Today by Paddy Manning

Envying the PM
Malcolm Turnbull’s wealth is a matter of public interest

Image of Malcolm Turnbull from ALP ad


Labor’s attack ads against Malcolm Turnbull, targeting his personal investments, have not been well received in the media, but our richest politician is fair game. The prime minister can give as good as he gets, and, as he pointed out in Question Time this afternoon, his life story is “hardly a secret”, having been picked over for decades (although there is one important detail that is consistently left out). Is it conceivable that the prime minister is governing so as to benefit financially, eventually, by an amount that in percentage terms would be less than a rounding error? No. Is it possible that the prime minister lives in such a wealthy bubble that he may be completely out of touch with middle Australia? Absolutely. And it’s not Labor’s class warriors who have made that argument most forcefully, but critics on Turnbull’s own side of politics.

Malcolm Turnbull’s member’s interest statement is entertaining reading: lately, for example, the PM has forked out to keep a kayak given to him by French president Emmanuel Macron, and a telescope given to him by Donald Trump. Most of Turnbull’s serious assets, however, are held indirectly or in company structures that end up being opaque – nothing sinister in that, it is how the very wealthy invest.

Turnbull told parliament this afternoon that his assets were managed by an external financial adviser, mainly in managed funds and much of it offshore, precisely so as to avoid conflicts of interest in any Australian shareholdings. Labor has done its homework on these managed funds, cross-referencing the funds’ underlying holdings with a list of companies that stood to benefit from the big business tax cuts, distributed earlier this year by Finance Minister Mathias Cormann. Their finding? Turnbull’s Statement of Interest shows that, through at least 15 of his 39 managed funds, he invests in 18 businesses that have a turnover of more than $50 million and an additional 14 businesses that have a turnover of more than $1 billion per year. Labor concludes Turnbull “stands to profit” from his own $80 billion tax cuts to big business.

The attacks have not gone down well in the press. In the AFR, Phillip Coorey describes the ads as “a pretty low-rent personal attack designed to foster resentment against success”, and asks whether Turnbull might actually be hurting his own financial interests, because the effects of dividend imputation undercut the benefits of the tax cut. Elsewhere, Fairfax Media’s David Crowe writes that “The party that wants to form government is behaving like the junior staff from the Hollowmen television series.”

Turnbull has been extremely personal in his attacks on Bill Shorten, labelling him a hypocrite for enjoying billionaire Dick Pratt’s champagne, and is forever lashing out at his union track record. Defending the ads on ABC’s RN Breakfast this morning, Labor’s finance spokesperson, Jim Chalmers, pointed out that the members’ interest register was there for a reason. The Coalition and the media is entitled to turn the tables on Labor, and trawl through their members’ statements. Only Mark Dreyfus and senator Kristina Keneally are said to have significant investments that are in any way comparable.

Turnbull dropped off the BRW Rich List – where the cut-off now stands [$] at $387 million – years ago. Estimates of his personal wealth are not reliable, but when I wrote his biography in 2015, the figure was about $200 million. It’s not how much Turnbull is worth that is politically significant, though, it’s how he made it. This is what’s often left out: Turnbull’s father, Bruce, was an extremely successful hotel broker who made a fortune in his own right, but who died in a tragic light plane crash in 1982. Turnbull, an only child, inherited property and assets worth at least $2 million (and you will hear much higher figures), which would be worth $7 million in 2017 dollars. Turnbull multiplied the fortune he inherited many times over, but he is only “self-made” if you ignore that inheritance. Labor knows that the public react very differently to someone who made their own fortune, compared with someone who inherited it. Labor’s ads do not rake over Turnbull’s history – they highlight Turnbull’s interests, and they are entitled to do so. 

Much more damaging have been the attacks from the PM’s own side. It was Peta Credlin who described Turnbull as “Mr Harbourside Mansion”, and it was former industry minister Nick Minchin who said that Turnbull could never be PM while he lived in “that house” in Point Piper. For attack ads, Labor has kept things comparatively clean.

since this morning

Opposition finance spokesperson Jim Chalmers says Pauline Hanson’s decision to help block the immediate debate of company tax cuts in the Senate shows that the One Nation leader is planning to support the government’s package, according to The Australian’s PoliticsNow [$].

The government’s foreign influence registry will be tightened so that it more precisely defines people and groups acting on behalf of foreign governments. The changes will ensure that groups such as charities that work with overseas governments but do not do the bidding of these governments would be exempt from listing on the registry.

The ABC is live-blogging hearings of the banking royal commission into farm financing, one of the issues that saw several Nationals push hard for the federal government to call the commission.

As flagged in April, the Commonwealth Bank has confirmed that it will spin off its wealth management arm, Colonial First State, as well as its mortgage broking businesses, and may also sell its insurance arm, as new chief Matt Comyn narrows its focus to traditional banking.

The Guardian’s Katharine Murphy writes that Labor frontbencher Anthony Albanese’s Gough Whitlam address on Friday was “a pitch to be drafted in the event internal confidence wavers over the coming months. It wasn’t a declaration of war. What would be the point? The stars will either align or they won’t.”

in case you missed it

A new Fairfax-Ipsos poll, the first since last week’s passage of $144 billion in personal income tax cuts, shows that Labor maintains a lead over the Coalition, with the government trailing 47 to 53 per cent in two-party terms.

In a bid to avoid a new round of government infighting, Coalition elders are urging the government to facilitate the entry of new coal-fired power stations alongside the national energy guarantee to drive down electricity prices and secure reliability.

The Age reports that Greens federal lower house MP Adam Bandt has a political headache ahead of him after the recent Victorian electorate redistribution, which will leave his inner-north home in Labor leader Bill Shorten’s seat of Maribyrnong.

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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 the author of Inside the Greens and the unauthorised biography of Malcolm Turnbull, Born To Rule?


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