Sound the trumpets, fire the cannons, stop the presses – Scott Morrison’s fledgling government has actually managed a result.
The GST on tampons is to be abolished. It may have taken 18 years and six prime ministers to achieve this modest outcome, but finally the travesty of regarding women’s essential health products as optional luxury items will be exposed as the absurdity it always was.
So that’s the good news. Now for the rest. And that is when it comes to more wide-ranging policy reform, ad hockery rules. Morrison and his increasingly bewildered Treasurer, Josh Frydenberg, are still looking for quick fixes and dodgy bog ups.
The most recent was the lunge to secure the votes of disaffected Sandgropers with a swift cash splash in time for the next election. Morrison, ever the PR man, called it a new, fairer, GST deal, and the West Australians enthusiastically agreed: after all, they got almost all the money, $1.4 billion in the next three years.
But the other five premiers – Liberal as well as Labor – were less impressed. In spite of Frydenberg’s assurances that they would all get a bit of the loot too, they wanted it locked in. They not only wanted more money, they wanted it guaranteed, by legislation, in perpetuity.
This should not have been a surprise: Paul Keating once said that the most dangerous place in the world was to stand between a premier and a bucket of money, and both previous and subsequent COAG meetings have proved the truth of his assertion.
But as usual, the feds were caught unprepared. Frydenberg replied limply that he wanted to make new laws, not worry about the old ones, but given that Morrison had made it clear that he was determined to enshrine his GST fix into legislation to safeguard it from tampering in future, Frydenberg seemed at best ingenuous.
He could perhaps be forgiven for being blindsided; after all he has only just arrived in the job. But Morrison, a former Treasurer with many COAGs behind him, had no excuse. Not only did he know just how stubborn the states and territories could be when they put their collective minds to it, and to have been aware that with two of them (Victoria and New South Wales) facing imminent elections they were unlikely to be sympathetic to appeals to assisting the West, but Morrison already knew how fraught GST issues could be.
At the start of 2016 he took the idea of a rejig, simplifying the schedule of exemptions and raising the rate; Malcolm Turnbull promptly kyboshed it as being too expensive and too politically difficult. For ScoMo to imagine that just because he has switched roles he could get away with a chewing gum and fencing wire solution was more than naïve – it was deluded.
But it seems of a pattern with Morrison’s other nostrums. The Royal Commission into Aged Care will have no immediate practical purpose for many months – it was about making a decision for the sake of making a decision. But at least it could be cast as a positive. The same could perhaps be said of the Productivity Commission inquiry into the economic impact of mental health.
But almost all the rest have been negative – dropping the corporate tax cuts, tearing up the much-trumpeted NEG; the latter when the government was already sitting on a report that showed clearly its emissions policy, such as it was now going backwards. Then there have been a few lesser inquiries: the ABC, Stuart Roberts, more distractions than serious policy. And the thought bubble of an indigenous day of celebration has mercifully been canned.
It would be easy to get the impression that Morrison is more interested in clearing up the rubble of the last five years than in serious agenda of his own. Except in one area: religion.
It may well be that our current leader is the most assiduous god botherer ever to assume the role. At first blush, the bonanza shovelled out to the Catholics for their already over-funded schools was just another fix: buy them off, get the lobby off our back, we really need our votes. But no, says our evangelical prime minister: this is all about choice.
If the religious – well, at least the Christians, although this was all about the Catholics – don’t want to be part of the national, secular, public system, they should not have to do so and we – well, the taxpayers, actually – will pay them to go their own way. It need hardly be said that this is not a privilege accorded in other fields of government: normal workers who do not like their surroundings are not lavishly subsidised to provide others they prefer.
State aid for church schools has been a reality for more than 50 years in Australia, but it has seldom been expressed in such stark terms: if you don’t like the system devised by the constitution, you don’t have to put up with it – as long as the Prime Minister is one of you, a believer, one whose skin curls (whatever condition that may be) when he sees what goes on in public schools.
Morrison’s pentacostalism is absolute, beyond even his devotion for his football team, but even he apparently realises that his religious zeal may not be shared with all his fellow Australians. He has already told us that he plans to embrace Phillip Ruddock’s inquiry into enhancing religious privilege, but while he has been enjoying the fundings for months, they are still to be kept secret – certainly until the voters of Wentworth convene in a fortnight, before the apprehensive agnostics of Vaucluse are to be told they are not to be numbered among those blessed by their theocratic prime minister.
ScoMo does have his charitable moments; last weekend he admitted that Bill Shorten’s proposal for some pre-schooling for three year olds might not be a bad idea — if it was affordable. But that was before his allies in the pages of the Murdoch press discerned that it was actually a dastardly plot to snatch innocent infants from their mothers and deliver them to the Green Left Marxist deviates of the education regime.
Back to the culture wars – taking the tax off tampons was quite radical enough.