Like the Turnbull government, this government has a tendency to half-smart political tactics: ideas that sound great when cooked up inside the febrile environment of Parliament House but that, out in the real world, beyond Canberra and the political obsessives of the press gallery and commentariat, end up misfiring.
Michaelia Cash’s office’s tip-off to the media about government-instigated raids on the Australian Workers’ Union was your textbook half-smart idea; the only good that came from it from the Liberal point of view was wrecking the hopeless Cash’s prospects for advancement, even if the government’s handpicked Director of Public Prosecutions somehow invented a reason not to prosecute anyone over it. The idea to have a hopelessly partisan inquiry into Labor’s franking credit policy, and to put Tim Wilson in charge of it, is another piece of half-smart politicking that is now blowing up in the government’s face.
The idea that, because it had become a minority government, the Coalition would just dump a whole bunch of parliamentary sitting days in order to avoid being embarrassed in the lead-up to the election had half-smart written all over it. It’s not as if (rightly or wrongly) voters are already convinced politicians work hard; “the part-time parliament” charge was always going to resonate with the electorate.
And whoever devised the idea didn’t check the calendar of key political events in the new year, unless they assumed banking Royal Commissioner Kenneth Hayne wouldn’t recommend major reforms to address the problems of the financial services sector. Not the kind of arcane reforms that David Murray proposed after his inquiry — many of which sit ignored on a shelf in the treasurer’s office, perhaps dutifully passed from Joe Hockey and Scott Morrison to Josh Frydenberg — but reforms to address the seething hatred voters feel for the banks and to end billion-dollar theft, reforms to address the perception that the banks do what they like and nothing ever changes.
Labor might have initially struggled with the government’s line on Hayne’s recommendations; the latter was going to implement 75 of the 76 and find another way to deal with the mortgage broker fee one, which is universally agreed would decrease competition and benefit the banks. But the unlikelihood of any legislative action before the election is fertile political soil for an opposition desperate to portray the Liberals as continuing their protection racket for the banks. That was Labor’s opening.
Labor is correct that some recommendations, like getting rid of grandfathered commission and an annual opt-in for fees, could be legislated quickly. There’s no need for industry consultation; these issues were canvassed at inordinate length during the Future of Financial Advice consultations and again in submissions to the royal commission. Hayne dealt dismissively — almost contemptuously — with the objections to abolishing grandfathering. It would take an hour of drafting and a few minutes of parliamentary time. There is certainly no good reason for the government’s proposal to delay the abolition of grandfathering until 2021, other than to allow the diminishing minority of advisers who are rorting their clients an extra year or 18 months of commissions.
The delay will feed perfectly into Labor’s narrative that the Liberals aren’t committed to fixing financial services, and that under Scott Morrison (“ASIC is a tough cop on the beat”, a royal commission is a “populist whinge”) nothing will actually change. It’s a toxic image for a struggling government. The smart play — instead of the half-smart play — would be an extra week or fortnight of sittings devoted to implementing some of the easier Hayne recommendations, allowing Morrison to tell voters he’s getting on with it