Libs Hardly Deserve To Win But Must Still Give It Their All
Voters are in a punishing mood but Labor’s tax plans will punish us all
Having spent the Australia Day weekend declaring what a wonderful country we have, we can now go back to denouncing as incompetent rogues the people who have led it.
Our tendency to assert our country’s surpassing magnificence while excoriating as a class the people who have been in charge is odd. We love our country but we are not so keen on its political leaders, and, at least in recent times, can’t wait to show them the door.
The federal government senses that its time is up, hence the ministerial exit queue. It’s surprising how the pull of family life intensifies as the prospect of staying in office recedes.
Yet, for all its self-inflicted wounds and internal divisions, the Coalition government has done a tolerably good job. We are safer and wealthier than we would otherwise be. No one thought that the boats could be stopped, but they were. No one thought that the carbon tax and the mining tax would ever go, but they did. No one thought that free trade negotiations would ever conclude, but that happened, too. No one thought that the economy could return to creating more than a million jobs in five years, but it did.
And after a litany of false promises from Labor in government and sabotage from Labor in opposition, the budget is finally back in surplus. Yet there has been no political pay-off for being essentially a good government thanks to a focus on leadership changes, the Senate circus, policy divisions and now the spectacle of rats leaving a sinking ship.
A solid economic and fiscal record should mean good prospects for re-election, especially as Labor has swung so hard to the green-left in opposition. As the government keeps telling us, with hyperactive Treasurer Josh Frydenberg leading the chorus, Labor under Bill Shorten plans $200 billion in new taxes over the decade. Thanks to Labor’s negative gearing and capital gains tax changes, there’ll be downward pressure on house prices and upward pressure on rents. Thanks to Labor’s abolition of franking credits, about a million retirees could lose thousands of dollars a year.
Labor’s 50 per cent renewable energy target and 45 per cent emissions reduction target will make electricity even more expensive and unreliable and will complete the job of driving our heavy industry offshore. Labor now thinks that even Julia Gillard’s workplace relations system is deeply unfair and wants unions to have the right to put management into a straitjacket.
Unlike his immediate predecessor, Scott Morrison has managed to stay on-message and voters should now realise that the next Labor government may be the most left-wing ever — but it seems they’re just not listening.
Perhaps this is because a government that regularly rolls its own leaders forfeits public respect. Or perhaps it’s because what the Morrison government is against is much easier to discern than what it’s for.
It’s for more spending, only not as much as Labor; it’s for 30 per cent emissions reduction, just not 45; and for 30-odd per cent renewables, rather than 50. Other than the things that everyone wants — more jobs, lower taxes, and a more livable environment — can anyone say what the Morrison government stands for except the constant repetition that you can’t trust Labor?
The Prime Minister’s re-election strategy is blindingly obvious. He wants a budget that announces four years of surpluses with more personal income tax cuts as the dividend to voters of good economic management. This could set up a plausible narrative of the Liberals as the party of lower taxes and stronger growth versus Labor as the party of higher taxes and union control.
Absent the self-inflicted wounds, this might have worked. But it’s exactly what Malcolm Turnbull would have done had he stayed leader, and it’s too much like politics-as-usual for a cynical electorate that thinks wages are stagnant, housing is still unaffordable, power bills are through the roof and the daily commute is taking longer than ever. The worst time of the year for traffic is February when schools are back and commerce is ramping up. The coming car-mageddon on capital city roads is certainly not going to improve the public’s mood.
If Labor wins the forthcoming federal election and, as expected, there’s policy-driven power failures, industry closures and economic stagnation while migration numbers continue at near-record levels, the Liberals will almost certainly become the party of lower immigration and more coal-fired electricity generation. So why not do it now to sharpen the differences with Labor? This would involve pitching the Libs as the party of the workers and of small business and letting Labor be the political force that, perversely, at the same time supports big unions and big business.
To his credit, since becoming PM, Morrison has been unflagging in his energy. The contrast between a driven PM and ministers who have checked out early couldn’t be sharper. Yet there are already three ministers who have announced their retirement and others who have always been invisible. Making Ken Wyatt, the first indigenous member of the House of Representatives, minister for indigenous affairs would do far more for reconciliation than debating Australia Day.
And making Tony Abbott minister for workplace relations would certainly highlight Labor’s union links.
After all that’s happened, today’s government doesn’t really deserve to win the election. But surely the Liberal Party still believes it has a mission to save the country from Labor. Yet to convince Australian voters will take much more concerted and co-ordinated effort from the Coalition than we’ve seen so far.
Ross Fitzgerald is emeritus professor of history and politics at Griffith University.
The Australian, January 29, 2019, p 10.