MUNGO MacCALLUM. Another distraction, but what a distraction.

Apr 11, 2017

The starting point is putting a price on carbon – some form of emissions trading policy. But this is total anathema to the coalition party room – worse even than negative gearing. 

Donald Trump’s impulsive missile strike on the assets of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad threw a huge dead pig into the international ring, even more rivetingly as no-one – least of all Trump himself – has any idea how it will eventually play out.

But it grabbed the undivided attention of leaders around the world, including our own Malcolm Turnbull, who unhesitatingly endorsed the great war leader’s line: “a calibrated, proportionate and targeted response.”

And he made it clear that for once he was not prepared to dither and temporise when it came to a brutal and ruthless dictator using illegal chemical weapons to kill his own civilians. “These crimes against humanity, shocking and horrific – even in the context of the Syrian conflict zone – cannot be committed with impunity …. The perpetrators must be held to account,” he thundered.

Well, up to a point: “we are not at war with the Assad regime and the United States have made it clear that they are not seeking to overthrow the Assad regime.” So that’s all right then – we can go on with business as usual, in the happy knowledge that the headlines, like the apparently endless stalemate in the region, will stay well away from our shores.

Certainly Turnbull will not lament the burying of Andrew Robb’s all too predictable report on the last election, in which the authors blamed just about everyone, including our hapless prime minister. And this is just as well, because the verdict was that the national economic plan for growth and jobs was almost entirely lost on the voters, despite the fact that Turnbull is attempting to resuscitate it as some kind of triumph following the passing of some of the corporate tax cuts he has finally negotiated.

Turnbull spent much of the last week traipsing through various carefully selected small businesses, whose owners assured him that they were absolutely delighted with the foreshadowed lot, and that they might actually try to expand their operations – and even their staffs – once the money started flowing. So if Turnbull had any real doubt, it would seem that the small business owners vote is now locked in.

Similarly the Treasurer Scott Morrison was tackling the big end of town, demanding that the world-weary executives band together to flog the government’s somewhat unwholesome package, apparently on the grounds that the government was unable to do the job itself. And once again he received a warm – well, warmish – welcome. It is more than likely that most of the fat cats will also vote Liberal.

But, as hardened psephologists will tell the duo of spruikers, this is not terribly helpful, because there are very few fat cats and more, but not enough more, small business owners. They are vastly outnumbered by their employees, who remain deeply sceptical of Turnbull’s insistence that the program of corporate cuts will produce even the most miserable of trickles down, and regard it, like such indulgences of section 18c, as no more than a distraction to the main game – and a far less interesting one than bombing air strips in Syria.

And given that wages are worse than stagnant, unemployment and underemployment stuck, and the cost of living pressures, most notably in housing and energy bills, growing weekly more critical, it may be that they have a point. Which is where, Syria or not, Turnbull will have to turn his real search for a solution: what the bloody hell is he, along with his fractious colleagues, to do about the forthcoming budget?

About all we know is that there will definitely be something about housing, although it appears that Turnbull, Morrison and the government’s resident spokesandroid, now renovated as negotiator and problem solver extraordinaire, are still squabbling over just what, how and how much.

Naturally negative gearing is not on the table: it is, says Morrison, a blunt instrument. And in a sense it is – the crises over the real estate bubble are now confined largely to Sydney and Melbourne, although it is not clear what, if any harm limiting negative gearing to the other cities and regions would actually do while the blunt instrument was swinging in the two big capitals. And the same could be applied to capital gains tax concessions, which may or may not be on at least the edge of the table, unless Turnbull has already pushed them off.

But if tax policy is a blunt instrument, where does that leave the Reserve Bank, which has had to resort to the sledgehammer of interest rates, which need to be raised to cool the housing market but lowered to revive the rest of the sluggish economy? The bank’s governor, Phillip Lowe, suggested, even pleaded, with the government to try and deal with both the supply side of the problem – on which Turnbull is very keen, given that land development is a matter of the states rather than him – and also the demand side, on which Turnbull is not keen at all.

Bribing investors to pay higher and higher prices for buildings in which they have no intention of residing is obviously not assisting despairing first home owners, but as far as the government is concerned it has to be good politics, because Bill Shorten is against it. So housing is, to put it mildly, awkward.

In contrast the other barbecue stopper, energy policy should be simple enough: just about everyone who has even the most casual knowledge in the field (and that includes Turnbull, his energy and environment minister Josh Frydenberg, and for that matter his former environment minister, Greg Hunt) is perfectly aware that the starting point is putting a price on carbon – some form of emissions trading policy.

But this is total anathema to the coalition party room – worse even than negative gearing. A carbon price cannot be contemplated, let alone articulated for debate. Thus the market, whether it is private or public, has no real idea of how to manage its future, and presumably will continue to muddle along as it has done for the last few years, giving increasing grief and aggravation to the consumers and, by extension, the government.

All of which means that the budget is not a pretty prospect. There must be times when Turnbull yearns for the direct approach of Trumpism. He could always get some good press if he could just lob a few bombs one of his many enemies. Ah, if it was only so simple.

Mungo MacCallum is a veteran Canberra correspondent who was a member of the Canberra Press Gallery for many years. 

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