One of the reasons that Bill Shorten has been a successful opposition leader — there are several, and some of them, like his policy bravery, are to his credit — is that he has been lucky in his opponents. Tony Abbott was a widely acknowledged disaster as prime minister. Malcolm Turnbull has turned out to be a monumental disappointment. And just as Tony Abbott was lucky to have a de facto ally in Kevin Rudd, who constantly undermined Julia Gillard, so Shorten is lucky to have, in Tony Abbott and his right-wing pals, similar allies against Malcolm Turnbull.
It means that Shorten’s own flaws and errors of judgement have never exacted a lasting political price, because the Coalition could never concentrate on them long enough without yet another disaster, debacle, gaffe or piece of precision sabotage redirecting attention back to itself.
That dynamic played itself out again this week. It hadn’t exactly been a good week for the government, what with the WA Liberals turning their backs on nearly two decades of Liberal Party policy and preferencing the delusional fascists of One Nation and elderly LNP Senator Ian Macdonald engaging in a personal crusade for handouts for retired politicians. But Shorten had stumbled over funding of the National Disability Insurance Scheme and the government had managed to keep the focus on its energy scare campaign for a couple of days running, despite it becoming ever clearer its core component of “clean coal” was not merely a lie, but a lie dismissed out of hand by the companies that fund, build and operate power plants. It even managed to draw attention to the nebulous nature of Labor’s renewable energy targets.
But business as usual was soon restored. The government, it seems, had actually been engaged in some quality policymaking internally — investigating capital gains tax changes to reduce the tax incentives for housing investors, either along the lines of Labor’s own policy or some variant thereof. It had also, in a significant shift in rhetoric, been talking about the need to find either other savings or revenue measures if its omnibus savings bill didn’t go through. The journey from Scott Morrison’s insistence that he didn’t have a revenue problem was complete.
Then Phil Coorey yesterday revealed the government’s internal work on capital gains tax. By 2.45 the idea was dead, killed off, with some reluctance, by Turnbull in question time under repeated questioning from Labor. Finance Minister Mathias Cormann had already sunk the knife in earlier in the day. Tony Abbott, vulture that he is, flapped in to feed on the corpse today, yet again repeating that the Liberals shouldn’t be raising taxes.
It’s now a pro forma caveat, but as always we should note that under the hypocrite Abbott, taxes rose from 21.4% of GDP to 21.9% of GDP, and spending rose from 24% of GDP to 25.6% of GDP — the very reason Scott Morrison admitted the government had a “spending problem” in the first place. Abbott is always lecturing his successor to do as he says, not as he did when prime minister himself.
That the government can’t even run a sensible in-house analysis of probably the most widely agreed policy prescription to deal with housing affordability and the grossly skewed incentives for housing investors without the process getting blown up is awful both from the point of view of anyone interested in good policy, and from that of the government. Turnbull has devoted the last fortnight to trying to be Tony Abbott, running a hysterical, deceitful scare campaign on energy and personally attacking Shorten. He is adhering rigidly to the demands of the Liberal right. But it elicits no good will or respite from his enemies, earns no brownie points with those who don’t trust him.
Quite what will be in the housing affordability package the government insists will be a “centrepiece” of the budget is now a mystery. The government doesn’t control land supply, it doesn’t make planning decisions, it doesn’t build local government infrastructure or public transport services. It can hand out money, or it can change the way it takes money away via the tax system. Without negative gearing or CGT changes, it’s limited in what it can do on the tax front. And every dollar it gives in handouts, no matter how worthy the cause, deepens a deficit that will be the key benchmark by which ratings agencies will assess the budget.
Meanwhile, Shorten is off the hook again.