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All you need is love

Our leaders are getting loose

This morning, the prime minister of the country was asked if one of his budget policies was based on any evidence and he said …

“This is a policy that is based on love.”

Remarkably, this is not a huge story. This seems to be a level of competence with which we have become comfortable.

The prime minister was talking about the policy to trial drug-testing of welfare recipients in select locations. Now, what you need to know is that multiple attempts at implementing this policy have shown it does not work. It does not decrease the number of people receiving welfare. In other words, it doesn’t help people into jobs. It identifies only a tiny number of drug users. It costs more money than it saves.

The PM’s answer was longer than that one sentence, and I don’t want you to think I’m misrepresenting him, so here’s some more of it:

“I think it’s pretty obvious that welfare money should not be used to buy drugs, and if you love somebody who is addicted to drugs, if you love somebody whose life is being destroyed by drugs, don’t you want to get them off drugs? ... This is a policy that is based on love and a commitment to support Australians … It is based on the plain common sense ... it is plainly sensible, rational, compassionate to ensure, as far as possible, that people are not addicted to drugs, and certainly welfare payments should not be used to buy drugs.”

Oh, common sense! But anybody who has been even remotely involved with any policy of complexity will tell you that “common sense” rarely gets you very far, due to the large number of unintended consequences waiting in the wings. Which is why drug experts have condemned this policy as likely to do more harm than good.

On the other hand, common sense can be quite useful when discerning political motives. It’s mostly Occam’s Razor: the simplest answer is the right one. Or in this case: the government wanted headlines about cracking down on bludgers (and it got them). It cynically decided it would pick on the unemployed – those among us who are vulnerable to poverty, homelessness and mental health problems – because they can’t fight back.  It’s also worth noting that occasional Liberal National rebel George Christensen has been asking for this policy for years and I can’t help but wonder if this wasn’t a deliberate sop to him in advance of a budget he can’t have liked very much.

(For the record, one of the responsible ministers, Christian Porter, has also not come back to me with any evidence.)

Let’s turn to the broader political battle.

Here, too, Turnbull’s failure to answer is a problem. Not because anyone will care too much – the unemployed never get much of a look-in when it comes to national debate – but because it was the second time in two days he didn’t have an answer to an entirely predictable question. Yesterday it was the cost of the company tax cuts. The budget was smart, but this failure to prepare is a worrying hint that the “old Malcolm” – of smug from-first-principles-answers and waffling unpreparedness – is loitering a little too close to the surface.

Mind you, he’s not the only one getting loose.

Turnbull made two mistakes in two days. Bill Shorten made two just today. Asked by Fran Kelly this morning how much his revised Medicare levy hike plan – Labor will only impose it on people earning over $87,000 – will cost, Shorten couldn’t answer [$]. Given he tripped Turnbull up with a similarly simple question yesterday, this was careless, to say the least. Later, he said low-income earners would pay more tax from 1 July, when the hike doesn’t kick in for two years. This is simple stuff, easily avoided.

Turnbull has a long way to go in his journey back from despair and he can’t afford mistakes like these. But Shorten is facing a government that has just notched up the four most competent weeks of its life and can’t risk complacency either.

Shorten’s budget reply last night was, like Turnbull’s budget, politically sharp. The decision to limit the Medicare levy hike to the higher end of the income spectrum enables him to keep talking fairness and is unlikely to leave him looking heartless on the National Disability Insurance Scheme (though Scott Morrison is doing a good job with his rhetoric). I suspect the government will be forced into agreeing on the Medicare levy, though restoring the deficit levy might be a bridge too far for the conservatives in the Coalition. Mostly, though, I suspect none of this debate will end up mattering too much.

Finally I want to mention the forgotten people. By this I mean the Liberal backbench MPs who are the largely unacknowledged factor in Turnbull’s success over the past few weeks. Despite a near flare-up over schools, they have kept their nerve. They might not have showed enthusiasm this week, but nor did they relentlessly background against the PM, as has often been the case.

There will be numerous polls out over the next few days. Sky had a ReachTEL poll this afternoon showing Labor ahead 53-47. If the other polls are similar, or even if they rise then fall back in coming weeks, the backbench will get nervous. Julie Bishop was right in telling the party room that the full impact of the budget won’t filter through for a couple of months. The backbench would do well to suspend judgement until then. Recent history suggests they won’t wait that long. 

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About the author Sean Kelly

Sean Kelly was an adviser to prime ministers Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard. He is the Monthly’s politics editor.

@mrseankelly
 
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