MUNGO MACCALLUM. Turnbull goes aspirational

Jun 26, 2018

John Howard announced that he was running on incentivation – a word that even his colleagues could not comprehend; they thought they were hearing things.

Malcolm Turnbull has turned to aspiration, which is at least literate, but seems to be equally hard to interpret. My concise Macquarie offers the primary meaning “lofty or ambitious desire,” or alternatively, “a breath.”

This, apparently, is to be the driving force the new one word slogan which will drive reluctant voters to the polls, weeping with gratitude for the largesse he will shower upon them – if, of course, they survive to trouser it come 2022 or perhaps 2024.

Some obviously won’t; the 60 year old aged care worker from Burnie, whom Turnbull adjured to look forward to advancement and promotion, is unlikely to get either and will therefore miss out on the bonanza. At a time when jobs are scarce and wage rises all but non-existent, lofty and ambitious desire may be admirable, but hardly practical for even in the circumstances of a by-election or five.

But such was the frenzy of the screaming match  over tax in parliament that practicality, or even rationality, had nothing to do with the case. Instead, having coined his one word slogan for the week, our prime minister then turned reality on its head: Labor, he thundered, was the party of the wealthy elitists holding back the workers. There was Bill Shorten quaffing French champagne with billionaires like his own old mate Richard Pratt while he, interned in his Point Piper harbourside mansion, was tirelessly working to make everyone, old and young, rich and poor, more aspirational.

That was his story, and last week it came to pass – sort of. The income tax cuts passed by the parliament (well, by Pauline Hanson’s latest tergiversation) are certainly kind of aspirational. They may not be lofty, or in most cases even ambitious, but there is apparently a desire for more money, which is entirely understandable in these straitened times.

Whether this desire will supersede the desire for better services like health and education, and perhaps even the more quixotic desire to balance the national budget is less certain, but at least it has finally been rammed through a reluctant senate and can thus be claimed as a genuine government win, the foundation for a long and acrimonious election campaign.

But it is also aspirational in another sense – the great plan does not really kick in for six years and does not reach its glorious climax until 2028, three elections hence. So, if this aspiration is also a breath, you would be unwise to hold yours.

The harsh reality is that next year, assuming the coalition hangs on to the next election, the great plan will provide a hamburger in the local club once a week, unless the price of minced beef rises. Apart from that there is only hope, leavened by the experience in the memory of John Howard’s fistful of dollars and Paul Keating’s L-A-W, both snatched back immediately after the elections were done and dusted.

Turnbull is banking on the idea of benign – indeed improving – economic conditions prevailing for the best part of a decade, and he is starting at a time when commodity prices have already peaked, China is going through conniptions and Donald Trump is apparently intent on waging an international trade war. Now that is real aspiration.

However, hope can be a powerful drug, and Shorten’s determination to kybosh it is what Sir Humphrey Appleby would call a very courageous policy. Stages two and three of the tax cuts may well be pie in the sky, but even the distant sniff of the pie can be alluring and it is a long standing political reality that taking anything away from voters, even far-flung promises, is always a big risk.

When John Howard flipped on his never-ever pledge not to pursue the GST and brought it to the 2001 election opposition leader Kim Beazley proposed to roll it back if he gained office. But he didn’t, and although the punters hated the idea – they had knocked it back in 1993 and when Howard resurrected it in1998 he lost the popular vote and had to survive on marginal seats – they decided it was not worth fighting about.

The current situation is of course different; Turnbull did not take his tax cuts policy to an election so he can hardly claim a mandate, but while many people have reservations about his plan, there is no real public outrage. On the other hand there is no immediate benefit offered to an electorate reared on instant gratification.

Shorten may be able to persuade an electorate already punch drunk on hyperbole that his more generous short term approach is preferable, but it will be a hard slog, particularly when by the level of abuse and invective from the government and the Murdoch media really ramp up. A sign of the times is that The Australian and Newspoll are really into push polling. The latest atrocity was the one on asylum seekers: one option was for Labor to “open the floodgates.” How very objective.

And before we get serious about the main race, there is the immediate pot hole of the coming by-elections. If the current polling is right (a somewhat dubious proposition, as we have  just seen) Labor could easily lose two seats, Longman and Braddon. It would be almost unprecedented for an opposition to lose a seat in a by-election and although the situation is itself unprecedented, there will be little excuse for Shorten if he drops one electorate, let alone two.

His unpopularity has become a serious concern, and although there is no move to challenge him yet, Anthony Albanese is showing a little more profile than his leader might like — although Pauline Hanson’s accolade, that Shorten would be the worst bloody prime minister we had ever had, might help

Perhaps surprisingly, the leftish Albanese is seen as more business friendly, less confrontational and generally more amiable than Shorten. The coalition and the Murdoch press would of course persecute him relentlessly given half a chance, but he might be a more elusive target than the more aggressive Shorten with his union links and ditching of previous leaders.

But at this stage this remains mere speculation, fantasy, Indeed, barely aspirational.

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