Welcome to the first day of Bill Shorten’s period as alternative prime minister.
That’s about the only thing that has changed as a result of last night’s Senate rejection of the ABCC bill. We already knew we were heading for a July 2 election. The government already had not one but two double dissolution triggers. But now it’s inevitable, and the election campaign has begun, even if it’s undeclared, which means Malcolm Turnbull and Bill Shorten are on the same political footing.
It’s a peculiar consequence of what has always been a political exercise. The ABCC is a political device designed to target one union to help Liberal donors in the building industry, and to demonise Labor for its links with that union. Its reappearance on the legislative agenda is primarily to provide an election strategy for a government that can’t run on its record and can’t work out what it really stands for, even if few Australians have the faintest idea what the ABCC actually is. The consequences of last night’s vote are entirely political.
And Turnbull begins this election campaign trying to put out a number of serious political fires. One is the bank royal commission proposal, which has left the government and its erstwhile banker Prime Minister looking like stout defenders of one of the most hated industries in the country. In question time yesterday, Turnbull went to great lengths to explain that royal commissions are in effect useless and achieve nothing for the aggrieved victims of the targets, which might come as a shock to those who have bravely given evidence of their abuse by religious institutions, or perhaps even employers who complained about the CFMEU to Dyson Heydon’s union royal commission.
Instead, Turnbull will, probably today, offer a hastily assembled package designed to create the illusion of greater oversight of banks — more funding for ASIC, which the government had stripped of over $100 million in funding and hundreds of jobs, and perhaps some more powers. The problem is, that’s a category error — ASIC had much higher funding than now in the period when it was blundering so badly in its handling of the Commonwealth Bank’s rotten, criminal wealth management arm. ASIC has been part of the problem, not part of the solution, and puffing it up won’t address the basic problem of a banking culture of gouging and profiteering from and defrauding customer. Australia also desperately needs much better corporate whistleblower protection laws to end the routine sacking and harassment of people who expose wrongdoing in the private sector.
The other, much bigger, fire is about tax reform and tax fairness. The government simply must address community concerns about tax fairness, otherwise it is leaving a massive and potentially fatal weak spot in both its election strategy and its economic reform plans. That’s why we’re now seeing stories about further tightening up of rules around capitalisation (to address the common abuse of multinationals lending their local arms funding at exorbitant interest rates, thereby siphoning off profits without being taxed). The government last year was at pains to insist it had already addressed multinational tax avoidance, but voters, plainly, don’t believe it and continue to see a stream of revelations about how large companies regard paying tax as a kind of petty annoyance to be ignored. Expect, also, that the government will hype its superannuation tax concession measures as curbing a rort for high-income earners. But it might confuse the message if it also commits to reducing company tax rates over time. Given most voters, regardless of whom they support, want companies to pay more tax, not less, voters may take from the budget lower company taxes rather than the more complex idea of dealing with thin capitalisation.
Only once those two immediate problems are dealt with can the government get back to what it wants to be talking about: trade unions and Labor’s links to them, let alone now-forgotten scare campaigns like negative gearing. There’ll also be a taxpayer-funded advertising blitz in the immediate aftermath of the budget, designed to sell whatever key points the government wants to get across to voters, in the hope that what is an ever-diminishing media cycle will catch and hold voters’ attention on the core messages Turnbull wants to get across to the electorate. Having wasted many of the other benefits of incumbency, a burst of taxpayer-funded advertising before the government goes into caretaker mode is surely beyond the capacity of even this stumble-prone government to mess up.
Thereafter, though, a long road to July 2 stretches into the distance. There’s a very real possibility the parties will literally run out of things to announce, and the media may well have lost interest even before the writs are issued. Voters — many of whom increasingly vote well before election day, or simply don’t bother to register at all, or vote informal — could be entirely indifferent come July. The result could be another Australian first — the election that died of boredom.