The right balance
The PM isn’t political enough while Bill Shorten risks overegging it
It’s certainly a difficult combination to pull off. Malcolm Turnbull, swamped by chaos, has to find a way to convince voters that the ordinary business of government is continuing. At the same time, he must lay the groundwork for an early election he hopes is not coming, believes – with fair reason – is not likely to come, but knows may, in the end, be coming anyway.
In offering income tax cuts, Turnbull may have found a way to satisfy both aims.
The prime minister spoke last night to the Business Council of Australia. He reminded the assembled businesspeople of his commitment to company tax cuts, but added: “In the personal income tax space, I am actively working with the Treasurer and my cabinet colleagues to ease the burden on middle-income Australians, while also meeting our commitment to return the budget to surplus … Another way of putting more money into people’s pockets is by increasing their disposable income through lower taxes.”
It’s a vague commitment, but that’s no criticism. By keeping details in the shadows, the PM achieves a number of things. He gets positive headlines, but without the possibility of concrete criticism. He conveys the impression to most voters that it just might be their turn, without anyone yet feeling like they’re losing out. And he leaves the door ajar for many more news stories in the future, as the details of the potential tax cuts are slowly dribbled into the media.
The announcement itself, detailed or not, carries two important benefits. The first is that, yes, it might help the PM’s polling. Labor made this criticism today, but wouldn’t Turnbull be crazy right now not to try to lift his polling?
Don’t forget that the government is fighting two byelections right now, when it is, on national figures, a long way behind Labor. This stat, in the Essential poll, caught my eye today: “Voters were more likely to think Labor would win the next federal election than not (36% to 20% thinking the Coalition will win), with 18% believing there will be a hung parliament.” In other words, voters think the Opposition will win, and are still giving it their vote. Labor’s lead is (probably) not just the symptom of a protest vote, and if I was about to face two byelections that would worry me.
The second, of equal importance, is its potential to convince Coalition backbenchers that the PM has a plan. The only thing more unstable than a desperately unpopular government is a desperately unpopular government that appears to be drifting. That’s when MPs begin to give up. Turnbull is doing what he must, which is to loudly proclaim, via policy proposals rather than fluffy reassurances, that he knows how to fight his way back.
Turnbull’s problem is often that he fails on the politics altogether – yesterday’s delay of parliament being a good example. Today’s announcement can be criticised for being political, but actually the PM could do with more where that came from.
On the other side, it is hard to resist the conclusion that Bill Shorten has been leaning too far into the politics. Last week, when Christopher Pyne’s Twitter account “liked” a porn site, Shorten joined Cory Bernardi in calling for an investigation. When you find yourself on Bernardi’s side, you should probably think again. The line was designed to sound serious, but really it was about embarrassing Pyne by keeping the story going. It was low politics and, when the question was lobbed at him, Shorten should have let the delivery pass him by. Labor later backtracked.
Less egregious, but still OTT, was Labor’s threat to turn up to Canberra next week to protest parliament’s delay, accompanied by language about the delay being an “assault on democracy”. Shorten already had good lines at his disposal – calling Turnbull a “coward” is both sharp and plausible – and so had no need to up the ante. Labor appears to have backed down on its threat to go en masse to Canberra, and that’s a good thing. Oppositions have the license for a stunt here or there, but the scale of this was too much, and risked rebounding.
If you were Shorten and his team, why would you change your approach at this point? It’s a fair question: ignoring the advice of others is part of how Labor has got so far ahead. There are two reasons. The first is that Shorten – as those Essential poll numbers indicate – is increasingly seen as the likely PM. People will be watching him through that prism, and he should keep that in mind. The second is that recent experience suggests leaders tend to govern as they campaigned. You might think they’ll change, and they do, in some respects; but not as much as you might hope. Donald Trump and Tony Abbott are the most recent examples. Expectations that they would grow into their jobs were disappointed.
The counterargument is that Turnbull is under so much pressure right now that Labor would be mad to let up. That might be fair. But there is also a chance of Labor appearing overeager, slipping up, and giving Turnbull room to move.
A final note. Turnbull yesterday called the independent Cathy McGowan, who seems to be the sole crossbencher supporting the PM’s delay. He may have called others, but she is the one onside. McGowan is also one of two independents – with the Nick Xenophon Team’s MP, Rebekha Sharkie – guaranteeing supply and confidence. If the government’s numbers fall as a result of byelections, further citizenship disclosures, or the mysterious Coalition MP threatening to leave the government, McGowan and Sharkie will begin to attract a lot more attention. Whether that changes their attitude to the prime minister will be interesting to see.
In other news
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The director of ‘The Lobster’ can’t quite pull off this high-concept dance between the grandiose and the grotesque
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