30 April 2016
by Phillip Coorey

Turnbull's 'substance' experiment is over

Anyone who doubts Malcolm Turnbull's resolve to tough out the Manus Island debacle should hark back to his period as opposition leader.

It was Turnbull in late 2009 who held the blowtorch to Kevin Rudd once the consequences of Labor's stupidity in dismantling the Howard government's asylum policy began to manifest itself. As has been well documented, it was Rudd's inability to resolve the stand-off with Indonesia regarding 78 asylum seekers aboard the Australian Customs Vessel, the Oceanic Viking, that was the beginning of the end of his leadership.

Day after day, Turnbull would tear apart a hapless Rudd in Question Time and Rudd would just play a dead bat. Asked one day why he didn't engage, a staffer said: "That would ensure it got on the six o'clock news."

Turnbull has been rock solid on the issue ever since. When, as Prime Minister, he is pressed in Parliament by the Greens over the detention of people on Manus Island and Nauru, he states the bleeding obvious. Those centres and the intractable and inhumane problems they present are a consequence of the very policies advocated by the Greens and the Labor Left.

Under an open door policy, as as been shown, tens of thousands of people will arrive, many of who are economic refugees. Apart from the deaths at sea, it causes social unrest and undermines confidence in the entire immigration program. There is no humane solution once the flow starts, just inhumane and less inhumane.

On this issue, Turnbull has always been in lock-step with Tony Abbott. In other instances, where the pair once differed, they are becoming more alike. And it's Turnbull who is shifting.

Reality catches up with PM
Turnbull's stated goal to elevate the standard of political discourse in Australia lasted just over seven months. Like others before him with similar noble intent, the Prime Minister has been mugged by the stark reality that in politics, simplicity triumphs.

One of Turnbull's strongest pitches when he replaced Abbott was that people deserved substance.

"We need advocacy, not slogans," he said, promising a government that explained complex policies to the electorate.

All it got him was misery. Critics called him a waffler because he attempted nuance and detail. Attempts to speak beyond dumbed down grabs and walk voters through what he was thinking were dismissed as "Malsplaining".

One of the chief criticisms Turnbull and Treasurer Scott Morrison levelled at Abbott and Joe Hockey was that they had not been fair dinkum about tax reform. Too many options, like super and negative gearing, were ruled out without consideration, principally because Labor was already going there.

Morrison lamented the combative style of politics that drove this type of decision making. He went on to advocate curtailing the excess of negative gearing as an alternative to Labor's approach.

But politics prevailed and this week, with the government confirming it would not touch negative gearing. Turnbull claimed Labor's policy would take a "sledgehammer" to housing prices. Morrison and others started referring to Labor's plan as a "housing tax".

Just as Abbott did two months ago when in a spray aimed ostensibly at Labor but also at his own side, he warned a Shorten government would impose a "housing tax" (negative gearing), a "wealth tax" (hiking capital gains tax), a "seniors' tax" (super), a "carbon tax" (an emissions trading scheme), and a "workers' tax" (higher tobacco excise).

(The Coalition will, in Tuesdays budget, announce just a seniors' tax and a workers' tax).

Abbott right on carbon tax
By week's end, Abbott was further vindicated when "carbon tax" also entered the government's vernacular after Shorten confirmed plans for two low-cost emissions trading schemes to help reach Labor's aim of a 45 per cent reduction in emissions by 2030.

The first iteration would have no price or tax on carbon. There would be a pollution cap set. Emitters would not pay for any emissions under this cap. If they exceeded it, they could offset the excess by buying cheapjack overseas permits, currently worth about $1 a tonne.

The second phase, to run from 2020 onwards, might include a price on carbon. Labor, if elected, would design it in its first term in office in consultation with all stakeholders, business and political. Running in parallel would be an ETS for the electricity sector.

Even the Business Council of Australia, while wary of the 45 per cent goal, welcomed the ALP policy as a good platform on which to build and develop a final market mechanism that everyone could live with and put and end to the policy nonsense which has bedevilled the issue for a decade.

Fat chance. Even before the policy was officially released, Turnbull and his ministers were running around screaming carbon tax and repeating a discredited claim about power prices leaping 78 per cent.

Even if technically correct, Shorten goofed big time when he more or less repeated Gillard's disastrous pre-2010 election promise about there would be no carbon tax if Labor was elected.

By the close of business on Wednesday, the government had rushed out an attack ad. As one Liberal strategist said, most voters have no clue how negative gearing worked and even fewer understood the vagaries of carbon trading. Bugger nuance.

A day later, Liberal Party federal director Tony Nutt emailed Liberal party subscribers seeking donations to stop Shorten imposing the "world's biggest carbon tax".

Labor also scaremongering
Neither is Labor pure. For years, it has been known the government has wanted to outsource the back room operations of Medicare to save money. The idea was that the private operators would administer claims and payments while overseeing eligibility criteria.

When this was breathlessly re-reported in February as if it were new, Labor did not need to be asked twice and has been claiming ever since that the government wants to privatise Medicare.

"This federal election will be a referendum about the privatisation of Medicare," said Shorten on Thursday.

And thus with the election campaign a week away, politics has once again found its natural resting place. It is not solely the fault of its practitioners. Lazy and biased elements of the media and the alarming proliferation of cashed-up rent seekers all play a part.

But no-one seems to be unhappy. One Liberal, who had been concerned at Turnbull's attempts to reshape the game is relieved at the return to normality.

"There are times for rhetorical flourishes and there are time to crush the ant with sledgehammer."