MUNGO MacCALLUM: Rituals of irrelevance and distraction.

May 28, 2016

So we have at last reached a marker along the long trek to the election.

The Pre-election economic and fiscal outlook (PEFO) was announced at the end of the second week, which is supposed to mean just where we and our political masters see the state of the nation.

PEFO was, like all its predecessors, determinedly optimistic: there are problems, sure, but we can expect things to get better. Nothing to see, folks. But for once there is a serious caveat: it just might not work out exactly as the Treasury and Finance Department hope. And if it doesn’t, we are up shit creek in a barbed wire canoe without a paddle.

However this prospect appeared not to concern either of our leaders: manfully assuming insouciance, Malcolm Turnbull and Bill Shorten simply ploughed on with business as usual – which mean they went through the customary rituals of irrelevance and distraction. The messages were there – jobs and growth versus health and education – but most of the headlines were about things they would rather not have been happening.

The most embarrassing instances were the ones where the leaders were attempting to dominate the agenda but instead sought to avoid it: not so much a forceful backflip but a quick bog-up job in the hope that it could be fixed properly after the election was out of the way.

Thus Turnbull proclaimed, with great fanfare at the first leaders’ forum, that the dreaded pathology tax was off the table: his health minister Sussan Ley had negotiated a settlement that would preserve bulk billing for all patents requiring tests. But alas, it turned out that this was not actually the case: in the threat of a campaign by the pathologists, what Ley had done was impose a temporary rent freeze on the premises of the practitioners, and in return they would waive co-payments – for the moment. After a few months it would have to go back to the drawing board, but at least that would shut the bastards up until July 2.

And so it was with the backpackers’ tax, loathed and resisted by the farmers and their National Party members. They would get reprieve – what was claimed as a review, but the likelihood was that the issue would again be duck-shoved aside until the heat went off it.

It all seemed a bit ad hoc; after all, that was the kind of detailed policy announcements that were supposed to be settled in the budget – in the national economic plan for jobs and growth. And even when they were apparently bedded down, the tone was less than robust.

The tweaks on superannuation were, surely, unarguable: the message should have been entirely straightforward. This was not about securing an income for retirement, it was about tax avoidance, pure and simple. So a very small number of very rich superannuants would take a small slap on the wrists. And if they didn’t like it, tough; they were not about to vote Labor. So just suck it up.

But instead, we had words which were conciliatory, almost apologetic. Yes, we know these are hard-working Australians who have made their plans to live in luxury, and we have absolutely nothing against them, and actually they are able to keep just about all of it anyway. Oh, and by the way, really, it isn’t retrospective.

And then there was, yet again, the case of Peter Dutton. Malcolm Turnbull’s wrecking ball unleashed on refugees: illiterate, innumerate, taking Australian jobs and infesting the dole cues. And, presumably, seducing our women, overwhelming our best schools and buying up all the waterfront property – when they aren’t smuggling drugs, bringing in diseases and harbouring terrorism.

It was straight out of the old Phillip Ruddock play book, and it caused all the old outrage from the left and indignant approval from the right. No surprises there, anymore than there have been during most of the 15 years the script has been refined since the days of the Tampa.

The suspicion was that Turnbull had deliberately put Dutton up for it, a classic bad-cop, good-cop routine. This was considered unlikely: Dutton is not that smart. His outburst was almost certainly instinctive unpleasantness.

But Turnbull’s own response was instructive: there was much truth on what his minister said, refugees were expensive. And as for Dutton himself, he was an outstanding immigration minister. After all, he had stopped the boats. This, apparently, is all it takes to consider him outstanding – or perhaps Turnbull was just pointing out that Dutton stands out, like the proverbial appendages of male dogs sensible pet-owners have removed in the public interest. Whatever the case, Turnbull once again temporised, perhaps assuaging his conscience with a largely irrelevant piece in the Fairfax press about how much he loved and embraced multiculturalism.

Bill Shorten was almost equally pussy-footed; when he was told his trusted cohort David Feeney owned a $2.3 million property he had not declared but had negatively geared, the opposition leader thundered that this was inacceptable – and then promptly accepted it.

Having vowed to oppose the abolition of weekend penalty rates, he said it was actually a matter for the Fair Work Commission – true, but clearly unsatisfactory to the unions pushing the issue. And then there were the AFP raids over the NBN leaks. Ham-fisted in the extreme, but not, or at least not entirely, the government’s fault.

Shorten effectively accused Malcolm Turnbull of lying about his denials of involvement. It took him far too long to get back to the substantial issue: why should the AFP raid the offices of politicians and their staff over a leak from a whistle-blower which may have embarrassed the company and the government, but was clearly in the public interest.

And so for a muddled and indecisive week two; but at least we got one thing sorted. Both the Labor and Liberal candidates for Fremantle have been punted for various good reasons. It’s not much, but at least we can say that it’s a start.

Mungo MacCallam is a political commentator and former senior correspondent in the Canberra Press Gallery.


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