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Thus Spake Mungo: Waiting for Malcolm

By Mungo MacCallum

As the coalition troops file back into their party meetings for yet another indecisive week in Canberra, they could be forgiven for chanting: ‘One, two, three, four; What are we campaigning for?’

To which their glorious leader and his reluctant treasurer might be forgiven for responding, in unlikely unison: ‘Five,  six, seven eight; we need more time to cogitate’.

Or perhaps the more apposite rhyme might be meditate, or procrastinate, or even vegetate. Not quite as snappy as a traditional Abbott three-worder, but then, we live, we are told, in more eloquent times.

But the problem for the party room, and for their long-suffering constituents, is not the fluency but the delivery – or at least a promise they can seriously consider. The suspicion that the Earl of Wentworth was more into speechifying than action has been simmering for a long time. It is now reaching boiling point – not yet overflowing into open rebellion, but certainly causing real concern as Newspoll, that infallible indicator so heavily relied on by Malcom Turnbull to assert his supremacy to Tony Abbott, has come crashing to earth, with the election result too close to call and even the popularity of their apparently invincible prime minister falling from stratospheric to merely mortal levels.

They were prepared to put up with the first act of Waiting for Malcolm in the belief that somehow, sometime, they were approaching a climax. But we are now well into the second act, and still nothing is happening, or is even being seriously foreshadowed.

The disillusionment with Turnbull is, to some extent, predictable; he could never live up to the hope and the hype. But what is genuinely surprising and alarming is that the disregarded and dismissed figure of Bill Shorten is, almost unbelievably, setting the agenda. Even the government’s most avid supporters among the shock jocks of commercial radio and the demagogues of the Murdoch tabloids have been forced to acknowledge that, however much they dislike the opposition leader and his policies, at least he has some. The contrast with the dithering on the other side of the chamber cannot be ignored.

Last week provided two turning points: Turnbull’s official rejection (for now, anyway) of an increase in the GST at a distant venue in Townsville and Scott Morrison’s lamentably underwhelming address to the National Press Club. This latter had been built up to be a big number, with amazing scenes and unexpected revelations. In the end it was no more than yet another rehearsal about how difficult it all was and how little could really be expected. And the former provided a sleep-in (with a few choice reds, naturally) with the New Zealand Prime Minister John Key, at Turnbull’s harbourside mansion, which looked more like self indulgence than real work.

The actual policy development was coming from Shorten and his quietly impressive shadow treasurer Chris Bowen, as they pursued what even their enemies had to admit was a courageous attempt to curb the excesses of negative gearing and capital gains tax concessions. Both fiscal entitlements have long been criticised as rorts and distortions by serious economists, but have always been regarded as too risky for the politicians to engage in reform.

Those with long memories will recall that in 1980 Bill Hayden was in front of Malcolm Fraser at the forthcoming election until the Liberals unleashed a ferocious scare campaign claiming that Labor was planning to add the family home to the capital gains tax. Labor wasn’t, but the tactic worked and Fraser sneaked back. Since then, the mere mention of  tinkering has been poison.

Shorten is not talking about the family home, but about property investments – but this could be enough, as Turnbull  is channelling his inner Abbott to attack any proposals other than his own – which, to date, means everything. But in fact Shorten’s ideas have been well received not only by the public, but by the hard-line commentators; The Australian’s economic editor, the iron-hearted economic rationalist Adam Creighton, complains that they do not go far enough – negative gearing should be swept from the face of the earth.

Shorten suggests that all existing arrangements would be honoured, but as from 2017, while building new homes would still attract the concession, the purchase of older ones would be taxed. To an ordinary observer, this seems fair enough as it would encourage the supply of new dwellings rather than property trading for its own sake.

Turnbull’s onslaught said that every homeowner would lose money – it sounded rather as though he was about to go on, a la Abbott, to deplore Labor’s raid on the piggy banks of the vulnerable. And it is likely that house prices would fall, although the drop would be small and sporadic. But if they did, so what? Real home owners would not be affected: they actually live in their homes and are not about to sell them.

The vast majority of others in the property market are investors, speculators, and there is no reason why they should not take their chances like everyone else in the game. There are some who would want to move homes for genuine reasons: downsizing, perhaps, or a sea and tree change. But while their selling prices might fall, so would their buying prices – no harm done.  Turnbull’s diatribe sounds more like the misleading and self-interested screams of the profiteers of the property industry than a considered response from a serious proposition.

And of course it appears that he is cutting off yet another option for his own tax reform, as he did later by denying any interest in capital gains tax changes. Suddenly the previously well-cluttered table is starting to look a bit bare. But that’s just the way his backbenchers want it. No more cogitation, whatever that is – give us colour, movement, bells and whistles, even a few catchy slogans: action.

Let’s sound more like Tony Abbott – not what we want him back, of course, well, at least most of us don’t and clearly the voters would be appalled at the very prospect. But at least he turns up swinging. Time to bring back the biff.


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