Monday, March 26, 2018

Today by Paddy Manning

29 but who’s counting?
The Turnbull government doesn’t seem to know why it’s behind in the polls

Image of Malcolm Turnbull with SES


Malcolm Turnbull’s government is charting new depths of unpopularity: few remember it now, but under Prime Minister Tony Abbott, the Coalition actually lost just 29 Newspolls [$] between May 6, 2014, and September 15, 2015, when Turnbull toppled him.

So when Turnbull justified his challenge with his regrettable line – “we’ve lost 30 Newspolls in a row” – he was rounding up. At the time, Liberal Party sources said that in fact the last occasion the Coalition had lost 29 Newspolls in a row was when Turnbull was Opposition leader, and Rudd was PM.

At the start of this year the government expected a rough patch around early April as Malcolm Turnbull crashed through the “30 Newspolls in a row” barrier. From then on, the thinking went, in the absence of a viable challenger, the Turnbull strategy would start paying off and he would lead the government on to the sunlit uplands of cutting tax, killing Bill, and winning an against-the-odds third term. Which suggests the government doesn’t understand why it’s in an election-losing position, which is the same reason it doesn’t understand why it would not get a bounce from the apparent backlash against Labor’s decision to abolish cash refunds for unused franking credits.

Simon Benson’s Newspoll report [$] in The Australian this morning quoted an senior Liberal MP saying “If we don’t get a bounce out of this we won’t get a bounce from anything … You would expect at least a two-point movement ... If we don’t it suggests that the vote is so baked in that it doesn’t matter what Shorten goes and does to people.”

That is extremely revealing. The government believes it can play a “politics of envy” card against Labor, and Bill Shorten in particular. It is trying to reheat Howard-era politics, a decade past its use-by date.

It was one thing for the Liberals to chase Howard’s battlers in the middle of a mining boom, when commodity prices were hitting unprecedented highs and there were skills shortages across the debt-fuelled economy. Traditional blue-collar workers were commonly getting six-figure incomes in mining and construction. A forward-thinking Labor leader like Mark Latham was not talking about industrial relations but about social entrepreneurs, universal share ownership and the “ladder of opportunity”.

When Latham overstepped the mark by proposing to remove taxpayer funding for obscenely well-resourced elite private schools with rifle ranges and the rest, Howard could wheel out accusations of class warfare and “politics of envy” to devastating effect, because in the 2000s everybody genuinely believed they could get ahead if they worked hard.

The sensational colour and rare honesty of The Latham Diaries, published in 2005 after he had lost the 2004 election and the leadership, distracted from one of its main messages: on page 14 Latham made a stunning admission: “As a Member of Parliament, one of my mistakes was to promote the importance of aspirational politics.” This concession never got the attention it deserved.

Somewhere between the financial crisis of 2007 and the end of the commodities boom in 2012, aspirational politics tanked. Perhaps the Liberals have never learnt the lessons of the financial crisis because it happened on Labor’s watch, and they never want to credit Labor for managing the worst economic shock since the Great Depression. Turnbull was leader at the time and in retrospect had a point when he criticised the Rudd government’s “blind panic” and $43 billion spendathon, which sank a previously sound budget into a decade of deficit from which we are yet to emerge. Labor does make too much of its recession-dodging achievement, which was extremely close – a tenth of a per cent here or there and Australia would’ve been in technical as well as actual recession. Installing pink batts was at least a good idea (in theory), but did we really need to suddenly spend so many billions on school halls? The Liberals have made so much mileage out of playing down the financial crisis, that they almost appear to forget that we had one. But we did, and it changed everything.

It is harder to be pro-business now. Suddenly those well-paid CEOs were in distress, in need of a government bail-out. Suddenly those masters of the universe, the financial engineers, were revealed as charlatans. A former Goldman Sachs banker like Turnbull knows precisely the causes of the financial crisis, in the toxic debt and derivatives that fuelled the sub-prime crisis and subsequent bust, but therefore risks explaining it away as a one-off and preventable problem, rather than a systemic one. A good example is Treasurer Scott Morrison, boasting this morning of retaining Australia’s AAA credit rating. Does anyone believe the AAA credit rating, issued by agencies that were literally on the take, carry as much weight nowadays, after the crisis, or can any longer be used to lecture governments?

Labor appears to have twigged, starting with when the then treasurer, Wayne Swan, targeted mining billionaires in the 2010 resource tax debate, pausing to take in Andrew Leigh’s Battlers and Billionaires, and carrying through to Bill Shorten’s preparedness to argue for limits on negative gearing and franking credit refunds, defying accusations of class war.

Why should the Coalition government be popular, after killing off the car industry when the dollar was temporarily high, delivering a poor excuse for the NBN, and punishing welfare recipients with scandalous robo-debt calls and drug testing? The politics of aspiration has been lost in a sense that the system is rigged against ordinary workers and ordinary people. It’s not about the politics of envy, it’s more like the politics of anger.

since this morning

The Australian reports that senate crossbencher Derryn Hinch is demanding [$] an overhaul of the Serious Overseas Criminal Matters Scheme, which has paid $500,000 in legal costs for accused paedophile and child killer Peter Scully, on trial in the Philippines. It is reported that Hinch has made the demand as a condition of his support for the government’s corporate tax cuts.

Crikey’s Bernard Keane writes [$] that if the government does pass its company tax cut legislation, it will be “the textbook example of how policymaking in Australia has been corrupted by neoliberalism”.

South Australian upper house MP Dennis Hood has quit [$] Cory Bernardi’s Australian Conservatives to join the Marshall Liberal government. The decision leaves the Conservatives with just two parliamentary representatives: Senator Bernardi in Canberra and Victorian state MP Rachel Carling-Jenkins.

Tony Abbott will launch Pauline Hanson’s new book in Canberra on Tuesday, although she blamed him for putting her in jail 14 years ago and at the time said “I detest the man”.

in case you missed it

The Guardian reports that more than 30 high-profile women from the Australian media and entertainment industries – including Tina Arena, Deborah Mailman, Sarah Blasko and Danielle Cormack – are spearheading a new national organisation, Now Australia, led by Tracey Spicer, to tackle sexual harassment, abuse and assault in workplaces across Australia.

Hundreds of childcare centres across the country will be closed tomorrow as childcare workers strike for better pay. Helen Gibbons of United Voice spoke to ABC’s RN Breakfast.

by Bronwyn Adcock
Sick on the inside
Our corrective services struggle to cope with the mental health requirements of inmates

by Mungo MacCallum
Don’t bank on it
The banking royal commission is unlikely to lead to lasting reform

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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