The Politics    Friday, July 21, 2017

Wrong time, wrong place

By Sean Kelly

The times just may not suit Malcolm Turnbull

John Howard famously predicted that the times would suit him. He had to wait a while but, eventually, they did, and continued to do so for about 12 years.

If the times can suit a politician, the corollary is obviously true: sometimes it seems someone – sing it with me – just wasn’t made for these times.

I’ve been wondering about this recently in relation to Malcolm Turnbull. Turnbull has plenty of faults, and is more than capable of a dumb blunder; he’s also sharp, articulate, sometimes tactically quite clever and can be strikingly original in his thinking. But whatever his virtues, it may turn out to be precisely the wrong time to be Malcolm Bligh Turnbull.

To take one small example, Turnbull and his treasurer, Scott Morrison, spent a fair bit of time back in May absolutely hammering Labor for its proposed top marginal tax rate of 49.5%. They did everything they could to present this as a massive shift that would destroy ambition and handicap the workforce. And they mounted this argument despite the fact that the top rate under the Coalition had been 49% for the past while, and despite the fact that Morrison felt he had to distort the facts to make his case. (The rate will now be 47%.)

Now, ask yourself: was that actually a helpful argument to win? Are we sure that at this point in time voters want their government to expend time and effort lowering the tax rates for the wealthiest in our society?

Glancing at the Guardian’s website earlier, I was struck by two headlines, both of them unsensational descriptions of actual news. They were not presented as deliberate contrasts, but the contrast was nonetheless striking: “Bill Shorten says inequality threatens Australia’s economy and social cohesion,” ran one, “Turnbull ready for Senate battle to push through big business tax cuts,” ran the other.

That’s not a matter of eccentric news judgement. Other outlets ran similar stories. That’s actually what is happening right now.

Of course, Turnbull has to take responsibility for those business tax cuts; the choice to proceed with them was his decision, as was the choice to go ahead with removing the deficit levy, always supposed to be temporary. But at another time these would have been fairly straightforward, relatively unobjectionable Liberal policies. And without them, Turnbull wouldn’t have that much Liberal clothing. In a sense, he needed them. But right now they seem to be pulling Turnbull and his party in the wrong direction.

That said, the government isn’t governing in a vacuum. They’re up against an Opposition that has done everything it can to paint the picture of top-hat Turnbull, with an Opposition leader who has adopted policies on housing tax concessions that fit right into this narrative. As Bernard Keane put it today [$], “Aspiring to be in a position to take advantage of major rorts has been replaced with a deep-seated loathing of how high-income earners benefit from the system while ordinary households get dudded.”

Over the past week, Shorten has been steadily applying pressure to Turnbull and his fragile party. First, he offered to meet the prime minister in “the sensible centre” (Turnbull’s phrase) on energy, a place it seems increasingly unlikely the PM can reach.  Then his treasury spokesman, Chris Bowen, flagged [$] the importance of looking at “concessions and loopholes” to deal with budget repair.

Today, Shorten further solidified this call by flagging further changes to the tax system. That’s big news, and signals an increased willingness within Labor to open up new policy battlefronts. Not long ago Bowen said he would be willing to consider imposing gender quotas on company boards.

It’s about time: Labor has breezed along for 18 months now largely on the strength of its housing and superannuation policies.

Shorten did two additional things. The first was deploy rhetoric [$] that, naturally enough, picks up on Labor’s he’s-for-business-we’re-for-everyone-else message. Shorten said there was now a business-class tax system and an economy-class tax system.

The second was to tie this to both young people and an actual shift in the shape of Australian society: “Faith in the generational contract is retreating because inequality is on the march.” Shorten is positioning himself not just as the bringer of solutions to individual woes, but as medic to the entire febrile country.

And Shorten is doing all this while Turnbull’s party continues to squabble. There will likely be more trouble this weekend as the NSW Liberals debate party reform.

Because it’s not just the shift in the inequality debate that is hurting Turnbull. He is governing at a time when his party is facing what is increasingly looking like a genuine philosophical schism. Some of this is his own burden, bought when he deposed Abbott, but much of it is the result of long-building historical factors. In turn, the collision of those factors with a changing electorate (yes, including its concerns about inequality) is exacerbating the difficulty.

One indication of the scale of Turnbull’s challenge came in Peter Dutton’s attempt [$] to attack Labor this week. For once, this wasn’t Dutton’s fault; he didn’t have much to work with. Would Shorten come out and explain whether or not Kevin Rudd’s tweet about the history of offshore detention meant that Shorten was being insincere at last year’s election? Huh? Run that by me again? Perhaps there’s a logic there, but good luck explaining it to voters. If that is the best attack the government has right now, then things are exactly as dire as they seem.

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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.


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