MUNGO MacCALLUM. Can Turnbull learn from Trump?

Mar 28, 2017

It may have been one of the few rational things Trump has done since moving into the White House, but it was considerably more decisive than the endless procrastination of our own leader, who seems determined to hang on to the great National Economic Plan of 2016, the plan for massive across-the-board cuts to company tax.  

Malcolm Turnbull should follow the sensible example of Donald Trump.

No, this is not the message from Cory Bernardi, George Christensen and Pauline Hanson, nor the lunar right of Fox News and the Murdoch Press. It is the sober assessment of pragmatists who are finally ready to move on from the 2014 budget and the more recent futile policies which have never and will never pass a stubborn senate.

Last week The Donald, the consummate deal maker, quickly and decisively cut his losses. For most of last year he had been committed to the destruction of Barack Obama’s public health scheme – Obamacare, as it became known. This would be his first act in office; the obnoxious, unaffordable socialist menace would be replaced by something else – Trumpcare, perhaps.

It all sounded so simple and straightforward. But alas, the congress – the parliament – intervened; not all his fellow Republicans were convinced and the numbers were not there. So instead of endlessly procrastinating, keeping the bill on the backburner in the hope that something might eventually turn out, Trump dumped the zombie measure and moved on.

Okay, it may have been one of the few rational things Trump has done since moving into the White House, but it was considerably more decisive than the endless procrastination of our own leader, who seems determined to hang on to the great National Economic Plan of 2016, the plan for massive across-the-board cuts to company tax.

There was a moment last week when both Turnbull and his beleaguered Treasurer, Scott Morrison, appeared to acknowledge reality: that the senate would not cop it, and it would be smarter to pass the cuts for small businesses and confine the rest to the limbo from which they have never really emerged. And there was some encouragement when a massive rejig of the child care reforms, which had been stuck in the system for more than two years, suddenly saw the government ready to compromise to the extent that Turnbull was ready and willing to proclaim a rare victory. Suddenly all the stonewalling about the need for huge cuts to family welfare to pay for the child care melted away.

Morrison had always insisted that there were no alternative; he even threatened the National Disability Insurance Scheme might suffer if the government did not get its way. But in the event there were, in fact, entirely acceptable alternatives. And in the process it would appear that many of the proposed cuts – many of them zombie measures from 2014 – have just melted away.

Admittedly, this revolution was aided and abetted by the ratings agencies, which had indicated that pretending the stalled policies were actual reductions to the deficit could no longer be countenanced. But at any level it made sense. And thus, it was hoped, would Turnbull take the next step: canning the tax cuts for the big corporations, and thus saving vast amounts of money which could, perhaps, be diverted to more productive pursuits.

The idea of supply side economics – the theory that giving money to the rich in the hope that some of it might trickle down to the poor – has been comprehensively discredited for years.. These days even Turnbull does not spend much time on the fantasy except to berate Bill Shorten and Chris Bowen for once espousing it and now moving on.

The new mantra is international competitiveness: some other countries have lower corporate tax rates, and Trump’s America is foreshadowing huge reductions, thus Australia must not be left behind. Apart from being a notable example of cultural cringe, and also the risk of comparing avocados with pineapples, it is clear that a majority of voters reject Turnbull’s enthusiasm.

They are constantly harangued about the need for restraint, the end of entitlement, constant belt-tightening: the debt and deficit crisis is upon us, our triple A rating is in peril, the budget must be repaired. Yet it seems that the government’s priority is to give large sums of money to boost the already substantial profits of the big end of town in the hope that it will induce jobs and growth while the rest of us suffer the pain. Understandably, they regard the homilies at as best confusing, at worst a shit sandwich.

And unsurprisingly a majority in the senate agrees with them. The chamber is composed of those who won their seats at the election in which Turnbull’s plan was seen, charitably, as less than an unalloyed triumph,, and they are not in the least anxious to associate themselves with it. True, those in the coalition have little choice, but the rest of them – most particularly most of the crossbenchers – have decided that they have better ideas for the tens of billions on offer.

But Turnbull, we are told, is not for turning – well, not this time, or at least not yet. Rather than follow The Donald’s ungracious but resigned acceptance of defeat, Turnbull prefers another example of his Trumpery: alternate facts. If he just continues to push the doors marked pull hard enough, perhaps they will yield. And even if they don’t, he can pretend to his followers (if not to the rating agencies) that sooner or later it will all come right.

Evidence from the past makes it clear that it won’t – that in fact the stubborness and lack of realism will do more damage than good to the cause, and that it is more likely than not to end in humiliation and capitulation. But Turnbull insists that here his pet scheme will endure, rather as Tony Abbott’s paid parental leave scheme did – until the party room has had enough.

And then, of course, Turnbull will fold. We have already seen his surrender on 18c, which has now we are told, been triumphantly settled. Well, up to a point. And the next episode appears to be same sex marriage, where, incredibly, Peter Dutton is proposing himself as the solution.

But desperate as he is, surely this proposition is too much even for Turnbull.. He may have – no, he has – abandoned his principles on the issue, but to hand such a delicate matter over to the Queensland drug squad invites not deliverance, but ridicule. Following Donald Trump, may, just occasionally, be helpful. Following Peter Dutton is stretching the limits of credulity. Who will be the next mentor? Pauline Hanson? I am joking –well, aren’t I?.

Mungo MacCallum is a veteran journalist who worked for many years in the Canberra Press Gallery.

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