MUNGO MacCALLUM. Turnbull’s scare campaign on negative gearing

Jan 15, 2018

Exclusive, scoop, shock, horror! Politicians tell porkies!  In an amazing journalistic breakthrough, it can be revealed that sometimes Australia’s political leaders may not hold strictly to the unvarnished truth. Lengthy and painstaking research shows that there are times when they exaggerate and even mislead the public in a quest for advantage.  

The misinformation can extend across all parties analysis suggests that it can be particularly prevalent in election campaigns …

Well, yes; few voters will be surprised at this news, although there are those who may be despondent, and still a few are in denial – at least when it concerns their own side of the fence.

After being dragged reluctantly to the festivities when he hung on with his well manicured fingernails after the 2016 election, Malcolm Turnbull fulminated about the duplicity of Bill Shorten and what he termed Mediscare – the well orchestrated Labor message that the government was not only prepared to run down the public health system, but to sell it off to private interests.

With steam coming out of his ears, barely re-elected Prime Minister howled that this was unconscionable, a bare-faced lie – and indeed it was at the very least hyperbole, defined by the Macquarie dictionary as an exaggerated statement not meant to be taken literally.

Given the evidence of the coalition’s tweaking of Medicare by Turnbull and his predecessor Tony Abbott, Shorten’s line was credible – just barely, although it appears that was almost enough. But it was not, as Turnbull hyperventilated, entirely factual. Unforgiveable, he declared: something really had to be done the improve the standards of political discourse, to ensure honesty in the debate.

But, as he well knew, he was sitting on a few porkies of his own. For months, Turnbull and his colleagues had indulged in more than a little hyperbole over Labor’s plan to reduce what even Turnbull’s Treasurer, Scott Morrison, had called the excesses of the negative gearing regime.

It would take a sledgehammer, a wrecking ball to the housing market, and indeed to the economy of a whole, Turnbull warned: no homeowner would be spared from the depredations as house prices crashed, rentals soared and we would all be ruined.

But as we now know, our Prime Minister was perfectly aware that none of this was based on any more than his own rhetoric: his own Treasury experts had told him that any effect would be minor. And in case he had not got that message, the boffins in his own state, New South Wales, had told him that not only would rationalising negative gearing do little if any harm to prices, it could actually marginally improve housing affordability – a key plank for the newly appointed premier Gladys Berejiklian.

Berejiklian chose not to confront Turnbull over the issue, which was hardly surprising; but it would be strange if she or one of her colleagues had not at least mentioned the report, and if they chose the better part of valour, it is a very safe bet that their respective bureaucrats were totally au fait with it. Turnbull’s attack was not just a sin of omission; he knew perfectly well that what he was saying was not just an oratorical extravagance, but deliberate bullshit: Negascare, perhaps.

So, as always, truth was the first casualty in the ongoing political war. And the question is, as Turnbull asked as he reached the climax of his election night tirade, what can be done about it?

Regrettably, but predictably, the answer is: not much. Any rather half-hearted efforts at reform, run invariably by the minor parties (Labor and the Coalition , despite their expostulations, are actually pretty happy with the system as it is) have usually been broken on the rock of free speech: this is not actually written into our constitution, but on more than one occasion the High Court has found that it is somehow implied, and that as a result political propaganda, however over the top, is all but sacrosanct.

Many years ago the then leader of the Australian Democrats, Don Chipp, attempted to take on a particularly egregious instance after the 1977 election: quixotically, he hoped that his new party’s motto, Keep the Bastard Honest, might actually impinge on reality. The court, of course, found otherwise and Chipp lamented that the verdict proved that not only was it permissible to lie during election campaigns, it was virtually compulsory.

No-one expects politicians to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth; their job is to speak at the despatch box, not in the witness box. But equally, we would prefer them not to confirm the old joke about the way you can tell if a politician is lying is because his lips are moving.

Their most blatant absurdities seldom matter: the deranged predictions that Julia Gillard’s carbon tax would wipe out the township of Whyalla and increase the price of a leg of lamb to $100 were greeted more with weary amusement than serious trepidation. But at least a casual acquaintance with the facts would be a help.

When Josh Frydenberg continues to assert that the government’s policies are working to reduce carbon emissions when they are demonstrably not or when Matt Canavan repeats that the Adani mine will generate 10,000 jobs when Adani itself admits that the real figure is a fraction of that, it is more than just fudging: it is conscious mendacity and should be called out as such.

But not, alas, by Malcolm Turnbull, for whom reality must be subservient to the politics of the party room, in 2018 as it was back in 2016 and when, no doubt, it will still be in even greater measure as the next polling day approaches. And he will probably tell us, once again, that the election is all about trust. Well, perhaps his family trust. That at least would be more than partly correct.

In the meantime we should not hold our breaths for the really astonishing headline: Politicians stick to the facts.

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