The Politics    Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Chaos theory

By Sean Kelly

Chaos theory
Source
Everywhere you look, the government is confused

Boy, did the PM lead with his chin today.

“This is yet again a case of my government taking long overdue reforms out of the too-hard basket and getting on with the job,” he said at a press conference to announce competition reforms.

After the GST debacle, and Scott Morrison’s backdown on tax cuts (which we’ll come to), he’s lucky the assembled members of the press didn’t guffaw.

The problem for the PM right now is that absolutely everywhere you look the government seems confused. That was obviously true on the GST, and it is true now on whether or not we’ll see an early election. But it’s also apparent in much smaller ways.

So, for example, even today’s announcement of the introduction of an “effects test” – under which the actions of larger companies are prohibited if they are found to reduce competition – is made muddy by the fact that Turnbull is widely seen as having previously opposed the test.

He protested that view today, saying he had always had an open mind. But compare the enthusiasm of his “overdue reforms” line from today with the distancing he employed back in September, when it became apparent that a cabinet discussion of the test was part of the agreement he had reached with the Nationals when he became PM: it “is not a decision that is made by me as PM. It is a decision, and would be a decision, by the cabinet”. Technically, of course, that’s true of almost everything the government does. But Turnbull does not often feel he has to say it.

Or consider the timing of the government’s tax plan. This comes from a Phil Coorey column, written just last Friday:

Last month, cabinet agreed to not be spooked and to announce the tax plans at the budget. A week later, Turnbull indicated it would be brought forward. This week, the position was again to leave it until the budget, whenever that will be.

But today Mitch Fifield, manager of government business in the Senate, said that Morrison “will release before the budget our tax plan”.

Or this, from the same Coorey column:

It was seriously rumoured this week that so limited have the government's options become, that it was possible there would be no tax cuts in the budget. After some prodding, sources said that would not be the case. After all the talk, delivering nothing would be a political catastrophe.

But in the last two days Morrison has come closer and closer to indicating that personal income tax cuts might be off the table altogether, with only company tax cuts remaining.

Confusion everywhere, and all of the government’s making.

A related problem for the government, and a big one, is that most of these confusions involve Scott Morrison. While Labor’s Chris Bowen was seriously overegging things by saying Morrison should consider his position, it is true that Morrison is fast developing a credibility problem.

Small things in politics can sometimes be indications of large problems. On Monday, Morrison gave one of the firmest statements we’ve heard recently on the timing of the budget, certainly from anyone so senior: “The budget is on May 10 and that is what I am preparing for and that is what we are hard at work doing.” But speculation that the date will change continues to run rampant.

While the PM of course has the final say on budget timing and election timing, for a treasurer to be so clear and yet be largely ignored gives a sense of how little the press and Morrison’s fellow politicians feel they can rely on his words right now. Heading into a tax plan and a budget that will be crucial to the government’s fortunes at the election, that is hardly ideal.

 

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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.

@mrseankelly

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