Uselessness to the Power of Two
Australians confront a grim choice: a purported conservative who is nothing of the kind and an unctuously insincere main-chancer who makes the skin crawl. Labor doesn’t deserve to win and the Liberals deserve to lose, but one party will — and the country will go right on being stiffed and stuffed
OPINION BY PROFESSOR ROSS FITZGERALD
The federal government’s GST plan, to give the states more money but not to redesign a bad system, shows how degraded Australian public life has become. At least two years too late, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has finally responded to former WA premier Colin Barnett’s plea for a fair go, but he and Scott Morrison have done it by putting in more borrowed money, not by making a fairer system.
The only sensible GST distribution is on a per head of population basis, with a pool to alleviate disadvantage and to reward good policy. The best way to make any big change is by a process of thoroughgoing tax reform, so that what people lose on the swings they might gain on the roundabouts. But that would take political courage – a quality noticeably lacking by current leaders of both the Coalition and the ALP.
Australian citizens are worried their wages haven’t gone up much in years, their jobs are less secure than ever, their children can’t afford to buy homes, public transport is full, roads are clogged, the world is getting more dangerous, and that very little in politics and public life seems “normal” anymore. Meanwhile, almost all our politicians do is hurl abuse at each other in a struggle for office that has little to do with making anyone else’s life better, let alone the nation more prosperous and secure.
Opposition leader Bill Shorten should have been a shoo-in for the next election but he’s not. This is because he’s moved to the left rather than to the centre like all previous successful oppositions. He’s against tax cuts for anyone earning more than $90,000 a year, wants more tax on business, has already pledged $200 billion in higher taxes over the decade on investors, and thinks that our problems in education and health can all be fixed by throwing at them more and more money.
Like Kevin Rudd, Mr Shorten thinks that climate change is the biggest challenge we face. He therefore wants more unreliable power in the system, and only supports the coal industry when he’s talking to coal workers! He’s a politician of flexible principles who always supported the Fair Work Commission until it did something he didn’t like – such as cutting penalty rates for workers in small business and banning strikes in essential services.
As for Malcolm Turnbull, he thinks his only real chance of winning the next election is to point out that the opposition would be worse.
Turnbull’s speeches boast of “the million jobs” the economy has created over the past five years (which are little thanks to him), and continue about all the extra (borrowed) billions he’s spending on schools and hospitals (to counter Labor’s scare campaign). These boasts usually come before a series of complaints about Labor’s lies and Shorten’s union links. This critique of Shorten is persuasive enough, but would have much more force and believability if Turnbull’s weren’t running such a Labor-lite government himself. Labor wants even more spending and more taxing than the Coalition, but neither side mentions budget repair anymore, except that which happens automatically because of economic growth.
The biggest gulf between the major parties is on border protection but Turnbull never really has his heart in attacking Labor on this issue, while Labor never really sounds convinced when saying it agrees with offshore detention and turning boats around.
But while the Liberals move to the left under Turnbull and Labor moves even further to the left under Shorten, few politicians are addressing the issues that people really care about, such as sky-rocketing power bills and cities choking on their own traffic.
The upcoming federal byelections on Saturday July 28 could be a circuit breaker. After 35 successive Newspoll wins, Labor should be favoured to retain the seats it holds, despite poor incumbents who should have quit once it became apparent they had dual citizenship.
A loss for Labor in Longman in Queensland or in Braddon in Tasmania (both of which seem to me possible) would be devastating blows to Opposition morale and a big loss for Shorten, who has always been less popular than his party. On the other hand, if Labor comfortably retains all its seats and the Libs fail to regain Mayo in South Australia, the pressure will be back on Turnbull to demonstrate how he can beat Labor while not really disagreeing with them on very much at all.
Voters’ concerns rarely change, not treally: they want safer and better lives and they look for parties and leaders they think might deliver this. Under Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard, Labor’s mistake was to put politically correct issues, like climate change, above bread and butter ones like cost of living. Under Turnbull, the Liberals have been little better. Both sides have been full of MPs who mistake themselves getting ahead for serving the nation. And, in relatively recent times, both sides thought that they could change with impunity the leader whom the people had elected.
For the sake of our polity it’s a pity that both can’t lose the next election and use the time in opposition to work out what they really believe and really want to do.
As things stand, Labor doesn’t deserve to win but the Liberals deserve to lose. It’s a choice between bad and worse, but often hard to know which is which! Perhaps the best thing for the forthcoming federal election might be for voters to forget parties and focus on candidates, supporting those with stimulating ideas, strong records and good characters.
Emeritus professor of politics and history at Griffith University, Ross Fitzgerald AM is the author of 40 books, including the political satire ‘So Far, So Good’ (Hybrid)
QUADRANT ONLINE, JULY 11, 2018