The Politics    Thursday, March 31, 2016

Running on empty

By Sean Kelly

What’s Turnbull going to campaign on?

I am becoming really excited about the approaching election, largely because I’m genuinely intrigued about this question: What on earth is Malcolm Turnbull going to campaign on?

Letting the states charge their own taxes isn’t the answer. You can’t explain that plan in fewer than 250 words (or at least the PM doesn’t seem able to). And there isn’t a clear problem it’s trying to solve, or, again, not one that doesn’t take multiple waffly paragraphs to describe.

In fact, the state tax plan wipes out one of the Liberals’ other tried and trusted campaigns: standing for lower taxes. The PM keeps insisting that the state tax plan is not about raising more tax, but the whole point of it is so that premiers can do exactly that. Without that part it really is just an accounting exercise, in which the feds raise the money but give it a different name.

Until recently I’d been expecting the government’s election campaign to be all about the economic transition from the mining boom. But all the whispers out of Canberra seem to be about company tax cuts (which voters don’t seem to care very much about), and not income tax cuts (which voters were pretty much promised by the forward-leaning treasurer, but now seem unlikely to get).

Turnbull could campaign on stopping the boats, but he doesn’t like talking about that very much, presumably because of its associations with Tony Abbott. He could talk about axing the carbon tax, but that has both the Abbott problem and the state-tax problem mentioned above.

Media reforms, senate reforms and bankruptcy laws are all big changes, but do voters care? “Innovation” sounds good, but come voting time people start to wonder whether these words actually mean anything solid.

Labor disunity is out the window too, given the Abbott problem and the seeming impossibility of ever getting Scott Morrison on the phone to discuss a major announcement in the minutes before the PM has absolutely decided it must urgently happen.

So are we looking at an overwhelmingly negative campaign based largely around union corruption and Bill Shorten’s personal inadequacies? Voters tend to expect more in the weeks leading up to an election. Tony Abbott in 2010 and Kevin Rudd in 2013 both suffered from a failure to put much on the table.

Government MPs will cut a leader a lot of slack, but one thing they tend to demand is a plan for winning the election. The new bit of Turnbull’s thinking to emerge today was the proposal that the federal government stops funding public schools and gives the states full responsibility, while the feds will continue funding private schools. That doesn’t come across as very electorally palatable either.

Last week it seemed Turnbull had a plan. This week that’s not so clear.

 

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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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