The Politics    Tuesday, May 5, 2015

You say tomato ...

By Sean Kelly

The government’s word games won’t work

When I first sat in on focus groups a quick truth emerged: most people are barely engaged with political debate. That’s not a controversial view. One third of NSW voters can’t name their premier.

But the other thing that becomes obvious five minutes into a focus group is that even the most disengaged voter knows exactly what money they get from the government, and exactly how much money the government takes from them – and the precise impact any rumoured changes will have on that income.

Fair enough, too – most people are living right up to the edges of their incomes, and are too busy to spend time watching adults shout at each other.

Perhaps ironically, then, that very disengagement, coupled with the focus on monies received and taxed, has a huge impact on politics and the way it’s played.

This morning, Social Services Minister Scott Morrison flagged changes to the operation of the pension assets test (he’s been flagging them for some time).

He hasn’t made clear what those changes will be, but current arrangements allow a couple with assets worth $1.15 million – not even counting the family home – to claim some pension money.

Meanwhile, Labor has proposed changes to superannuation taxation – in essence, raising taxes on superannuation for those at the top end of the income scale.

In other words, both parties want to repair the budget by way of taking back money from older, wealthier Australians.

Morrison this morning tried to make the argument that they were very different plans, because one involved welfare and one involved tax. He said that Labor were:

just proposing to spend more and tax more. I mean they want to tax superannuants more on the income they earn … A welfare payment is not the same as taxing people more. They’re not the same thing. And I think this is a big demarcation in this debate … And I don't think we should confuse the two, but the Labor party clearly do.

This comes a day after the Australian reported the prime minister had rejected a new charge on internet shopping in order to marshal “a new attack on Labor for proposing higher taxes rather than tougher spending cuts”.

Now cast your mind back for a moment to last year’s budget – to the ugly pantomime of Tony Abbott denying he’d broken promises, to the semantic circus of when-is-a-tax-not-a-tax. None of the government’s word games worked.

Because whatever fancy words you use, whatever complex ideological arguments you bring to bear, the voters are looking at what you’re doing.

People watch politics the way they should watch magic shows: they keep eyes on a politician’s hands, not their mouth.

And that goes double for when a government is taking money away.

So, yes, the treasurer will have a nice, consistent line for budget night – he’ll argue the Liberals are the party of lower taxes (despite the fact that tax as a proportion of GDP is higher now than it was under Labor). And that will, at least, allow him to avoid looking like an actor who hasn’t learnt his lines, which will be an improvement on last year’s effort.

But those voters affected by the changes will know how much money they’ve lost, to the last cent – and they won’t give two hoots whether it’s through tax or welfare.

As a side note, this Joycean gem was also in the Morrison interview, or at least in the ABC transcript: “the Government has to wash its face with its expenditure”.

Tony Abbott has mounted a steady comeback in the polls over the last few months. He is now even with Bill Shorten (at 38%) as preferred PM.

Interest rates came crashing down today (or, more accurately, they continued their slow, stilted slide) to 2%, indicating the Reserve Bank doesn’t think much of our economy right now.

I’ve been diving into the latest Monthly magazine. Much of it’s behind a paywall (you can buy the whole thing at the newsagent or on your device of choice) but I really recommend this piece by Annabel Crabb on the joys of mansplaining.

This article in the New York Times is about income mobility, but the other interesting thing about it is that its first few paragraphs change depending on where in the US you’re reading it. (It will tell most of you that you live in Manhattan, which might come as a shock.)

Women have to work an extra 15 years to get as much superannuation as men.

More Labor MPs are announcing their support for gay marriage (though not for a binding vote). And Qantas chief Alan Joyce, openly gay himself, has made a strong statement in favour of changing the law.

Some more detail from David Crowe on the government’s childcare package.

State news: The Victorian budget has been handed down. It’s an effort to play to Labor strengths, with money for schools and hospitals.  The NSW premier has vowed to pass new laws to ensure that past ICAC findings remain valid, after a High Court decision threw some into jeopardy. 

Sean Kelly

Sean Kelly is a columnist for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, and was an adviser to Labor prime ministers Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd.


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