At 10.30 this morning, the nation’s political journalists were herded into the Main Committee Room at Parliament House to be given a locked-down heads-up on the Government’s Nation Building and Jobs Plan. As we had already been given a pretty clear idea of the contents — infrastructure, employment measures and energy efficiency (“Insulation!” the cry went up. “Insulation for everyone!”) — the main excitement was battling it out for the four power points.

Peculiarly, the Gallery was also called out yesterday afternoon by the Prime Minister for a press conference in his courtyard. We all clustered in the minimal shade to watch Rudd, Swan and Tanner relate… not very much. There had been a further collapse in tax receipts. Large numbers were bandied about. $115b was one of them. Journalists scribbled — to what end, was unclear. It’s an economic collapse, and economic collapses tend to reduce tax revenue. Whether it’s $115b or $315b doesn’t matter. There’s not a lot anyone can do about it.

The real purpose of the press conference was to put something into the media cycle, in the absence of the stimulus package (now grown into an economic statement). Heaven help us that a day should go past without the Government attempting to shape the agenda. The relevant something was to affirm how badly Australia has been mugged by the international economy, how the Government was going to move “heaven and earth” to fix it, and to bag Malcolm Turnbull as an extremist — in contrast, naturally, to the Government, which was mainstream, moderate and even “conservative”.

Laura Tingle’s savage commentary about that press conference in The AFR today was absolutely spot-on.

You may, by now — certainly if you subject yourself to the stuff I write on a regular basis — have spotted a pattern in the way Rudd characterises partisan politics. He is Mr Moderation, precisely positioned at the epicentre of Australians’ view of themselves and the world. Everyone else — Malcolm Turnbull or the Greens — are extremists, located on the lunatic fringe of political thinking. Rudd’s essay in The Monthly — of which, more later — aims at the same dichotomy between moderation and extremism.

Charging someone with extremism is a powerful tool not merely of partisan abuse but of de-legitimisation. Once upon a time, I was a trainee historian, and I once came across a wonderful phrase from a 17th century Anglican controversialist, charging that his puritan opponents suffered from “a calenture of zeal”. The image is of someone irrational, blinkered, unable to see reality for their fanaticism. Who listens to such people? If it works, after a while, all people hear from objects of such attacks are words and images that reinforce the perception of extremism. Every time Malcolm Turnbull declares his faith in markets, he’ll be confirming Rudd’s portrait of him. Of course, Rudd says more or less the same thing about his own faith in markets, but he’s Mr Moderation.

So the Prime Minister is busy being engaged in political games when he should be doing what he says he doing — being head down, bum up dealing with the crisis.

Moreover, the Opposition doesn’t need Rudd’s help to make itself look irrelevant. Malcolm Turnbull, this man who could be a fantastic Prime Minister with his mix of charisma, progressivism and intellectual brilliance, persists in attacking Labor over the deficit despite acknowledging it was inevitable. Turnbull appears trapped in pre-GFC mode. And on Sunday, Julie Bishop said:

There is substantial evidence to show that tax cuts, including lower marginal tax rates across all tax brackets and cuts to corporate tax, increase productivity by providing incentives to individuals and businesses to work, invest, take risks and pursue entrepreneurial activity. The new growth in jobs and output will expand the tax base and thus tax revenues.

I had to read that twice to make sure I wasn’t dreaming. Julie Bishop keeps getting accused of plagiarism. Her problem isn’t that she nicks stuff, it’s who she nicks it from. Now it’s Ronald Reagan. If Turnbull has trouble escaping from 2007, Bishop seems to have gone all the way back to 1981. There is no “substantial evidence” that tax cuts increase tax revenue. The Reagan and Dubya presidencies (and Dubya so wanted to be Reagan he had his own space shuttle disaster), have confirmed in trillion dollar detail that that nonsense simply leads to vast deficits.

Even vaster, that is, than what we’re headed for.

A confused and irrelevant Opposition and a Government bent on playing partisan wordgames. Just what we need right now.

Peter Fray

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