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Not a great week

Unfavourable grades all round

Some unfavourable grades to be distributed this week.

First up: the Coalition largely wasted this week. Last week Malcolm Turnbull and Scott Morrison delivered a politically crucial budget supposed to reclaim the centre ground for Turnbull, and neutralise Coalition weaknesses on health and education.

It’s true that much post-budget campaigning is invisible to an aerial view. It’s taking place at a local level, with local MPs delivering the message by hand, by foot, by flyer. Still, the government would have wanted such an important budget to dominate the news this week. It needed it to.

Instead, things were so quiet that by yesterday a fairly fine distinction between Bill Shorten and Anthony Albanese was the most interesting political story of the day. The rest of the week we saw a bit of debate on the bank levy. This is not, for Turnbull, the most important part of the budget. Those bits are the ones that touch people’s lives directly, and that convince them the government has heard them on economic insecurity, wages growth and social services. The levy might be populist, and even popular, but that doesn’t mean it’s Turnbull’s core business right now.

Even on the bank levy – and here we get to the second black mark of the week – I’m not sure the government is where it would hope to be. This is because Morrison, I think, is playing a dangerous game with his comments. On one hand, he is trying to give the impression he can somehow bully the banks out of passing on the levy to customers, saying today, “They know they can absorb it – who’s going to be the first to actually give Australians a fair go?”

But it’s clear the government expects banks to do the exact opposite. Niki Savva, impeccably sourced when it comes to government opinions, wrote this week [$] that “Even though they know the banks will do what they always do and slug their customers, just because they can, the government remains more than satisfied with the reaction to the ‘levy’.”

Morrison said as much on the ABC’s Insiders last Sunday.

Barrie Cassidy: You can’t guarantee they won’t pass on the costs.

Scott Morrison: In the same way the banks have put up interest rates when there hasn’t been a move in the Reserve Bank cash rate. I mean, banks will find any way they can to charge their customers more with fees and charges.

I agree with the consensus that Morrison has lifted his game of late. But I’m also reminded of the fact that Morrison has never had any trouble underestimating voters, speaking to them in slogans, withholding information. That type of condescension is what did him so much harm in last year’s election campaign. Most voters don’t pay politics that much attention, but they notice when they’re being talked down to.

So it’s a pity that Morrison, having been flatly contradicted by Cassidy on ABC’s Insiders and forced, on air, to correct himself, and having had at least two articles (one here) written about it, this week continued to repeat the deliberately misleading accusation that Labor’s tax policy means “the Labor Party wants you if you do well in life to spend one day working for the government and one day working for yourself”. He clearly had the line distributed to other Coalition MPs, too, who repeated it.

This is pretty staggering hubris, in my book, demonstrating complete disregard for voters and a debate based on facts. Most voters probably won’t notice. But some will, and some will notice the next time he misleads them, and some the time after that, and soon enough these things add up. If Morrison wants to claw back respect from the public he should start by showing the public some of the same.

Finally, I can understand Albanese wanting to stamp out the stories about tension between him and Shorten, especially given that it seems his speech was approved by Shorten’s office. I can understand him finding the fuss frustrating and juvenile. (My view, as I wrote yesterday, was that it wasn’t as big as it might seem, but nor was it nothing.)

But he should not have gone and called it “fake news”, as he did on Channel Nine this morning. Albanese has always spoken his mind, and is one of the rare politicians to retain a reputation for frank honesty. As such, his words matter. Politicians should – of course – pour as much cold water (or manure) over any story they believe is wrong, but lumping the work of experienced political journalists in with the malicious falsehoods of internet trolls undermines the chances of serious public debate in this country enduring.

Not a great week for the government. But not really a good week for the rest of us, either.

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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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