A vague and uncosted promise of tax cuts and a debate on religious freedom are Turnbull’s tactics to push serious policy issues off the Parliamentary agenda, and to distract public attention from the Coalition’s troubles.
When all else fails, dangle the prospect a tax cut and hope that the jaded eyes of the voters light up.
Well, perhaps it’s not actually a prospect, more of a hint – or just a suggestion of a hint. But Malcolm Turnbull certainly mentioned the idea to an audience of the increasingly irrelevant Business Council, so presumably he intended it to settle in the headlines, which it duly did.
At this stage we have no idea how much or when this bonanza is envisaged, let alone how it is to be paid for, and it is likely that Turnbull himself is equally ignorant. All that can be reported is that he says he is talking about it with ministers, which, given the sorry record of how his “conversations” turn out, is not reassuring.
But not to worry; there will be pie in the sky, or at least a fistful of dollars at the end of the rainbow. And let’s face it, nothing else seems to be working.
But there is a problem; while the attempt to bribe a recalcitrant electorate into submission is an established political tradition, the efficacy is at least questionable. Many years ago the Labor Prime Minister Ben Chifley defined the hip pocket nerve as the most sensitive part of a voter’s anatomy and ever since then (if not before) leaders have tried to scratch the itch.
The most blatant example in modern times was in 1977 when the government of Malcolm Fraser produced advertisements which showed, literally, a fistful of dollars for the taking. The punters duly took it, but then it was snatched back in a few short months following Fraser’s election win; one headline summed up the episode as “LIES, LIES, LIES.”
In 1983 Bob Hawke was running against Fraser with the slogan of reconciliation, recovery and restoration. The New South Wales Premier Neville Wran brought the campaign meeting back to earth with the warning: “Delegates, it’s all very well to go on with this spiritual stuff, but if those greedy bastards out there wanted spiritualism, they’d join the fucking Hare Krishna.” Immediately, tax cuts were inserted into the policy speech.
Hawke’s successor as Prime minister, Paul Keating, went further: tax cuts were to be included as L-A-W law, but in the end they weren’t, and Keating was dogged by what was seen as a betrayal. And remember Fraser, Hawke and Keating were all regarded as far more effective and reliable than Malcolm Turnbull. So it is unlikely that what Bill Shorten unkindly but accurately dubbed the Prime Minister’s latest thought balloon will fly – certainly not without putting a lot more air into it.
But in a sense it may not matter, because, as always, distractions have overwhelmed Turnbull’s desperate efforts to regain traction on the slippery slope on which he finds (or more likely loses) himself. Last week’s wizard wheeze was the decision to close down parliament for a few days, a clear signal from the leadership group (an oxymoron if there ever was one) to panic, run for cover and pull the blankets over their heads in the hope things will go away.
This extraordinary desertion of duty has rightly been characterised not only as chicken-hearted, lily-livered and utterly spineless, but also as incredibly stupid; is an already sceptical public expected to believe that our legislators really have nothing to do until the senate finished talking about the same sex marriage bill?
With 53 items clearly listed on the notice paper of the House of Representatives, the proposition is too absurd to contemplate by a rational observer. The public may not be hanging out to watch very moment of the parliamentary sessions, but that does not mean they are happy about the idea of their well-paid representatives skiving off whenever they feel like it.
It is not a question of whether Turnbull is scared shitless, but of what – a lost vote in the parliament, the right wing rump, a potential uprising in the party room, or most likely all three. With a couple of numbers already down and the possibility of more to go once his postponed reckoning on universal disclosure, the situation is not benign; but trying to duck it will, as always, only make things worse – as Tony Abbott triumphantly pointed out.
Just as it may well be with the same sex marriage show down, which, characteristically, Turnbull and his brains trust have attempted to avert with yet another committee, this one to examine the need for what is euphemistically called religious freedom.
The personnel involved show the real aim: the chief inquisitor, Phillip Ruddock, is an old fashioned committed Christian, and his deputy, Frank Brennan, is a Jesuit priest. The last of the trio is the new Human Rights Commissioner Rosalind Croucher, who has adopted a very low profile following the exit of her predecessor, the redoubtable Gillian Trigg.
The Christians obviously have the numbers, as was intended: there will be an apprehended bias (to put it delicately) that the idea is not religious freedom (already enshrined in the constitution and numerous laws both federal and state) but Christian privilege – further exemptions from secular law. And the idea that other religions, especially Islam, should have a similar advantage is, of course, out of the question: stamp out Sharia law! Ban the burqa!
So the prevarication devised, we are told, by Peter Dutton, is simply putting off the next inevitable stoush. Indeed, it may not even do that: Scott Morrison is apparently determined to force his version of religious protection through the same sex legislation and Matthias Corman has already decided to plagiarise a human rights convention from the much loathed and derided United Nations to give it some authority. But the serious god-bothers in the party room are not appeased – although of course they never will be.
Just to prove the point, one of their most enthusiastic backers, Andrew Bolt, reported that one of them is preparing leave the coalition if Turnbull does not knuckle under – a rat is ready to desert the sinking ship. There have been empty threats from anonymous rebels (and even a couple of empty threats from identified insurgents like George Christensen) so it might not cause Turnbull too much cause to fret – not that he seems to show any, however dire the circumstances.
After the past year, surely things can only get better. At least he can look forward to a tax cut …
Mungo MacCallum is Mungo MacCallum