Selling the GST won’t be as easy for the Coalition this time around

Following a spot of kite-flying earlier this month, seemingly aimed at gauging the community’s appetite for an early election, the Turnbull Government now seems set on establishing a mandate for economic reform at a full-term election late this year.

That’s the clear message conveyed by Treasurer Scott Morrison, who’s been hitting the airwaves in the past week, and who laid out the Government’s plans in a lengthy interview with a television program on the weekend.

Morrison makes no secret of his closeness to former Treasurer Peter Costello, who with Prime Minister John Howard, took the original proposal for a goods and services tax to Australian voters in 1998.

“Peter Costello has been a mentor of mine for many years,” Mr Morrison said.

“I have often said he was the best ever Australian treasurer. If I can simply emulate his success in even a modest way it will be a good day in the office and a good day for the country.”

Morrison has also surrounded himself with former Costello staffers, such as the highly-regarded Phil Gaetjens, who is reprising his role as chief of staff.

In retrospect, it was considerably easier for Costello to argue the tax system was broken and to offer just one tax – the GST – to replace ten other inefficient taxes. Income tax cuts were also included to sweeten the deal.

Having perhaps weighed up the pros and cons of using Malcolm Turnbull’s extended political honeymoon to pull off a quick and dirty election winbefore admitting to the unpopular elements of necessary economic reform, Morrison is now signalling he’ll follow the Howard/Costello blueprint instead.

That playbook depended on creating momentum in the public debate and a sense of inevitability among voters that everyone should do their bit to help the economy grow, and by doing so everyone would benefit.

It also depended on consensus among key community representatives – including the welfare and business sectors – being in support of the proposed changes.

In retrospect, it was considerably easier for Costello to argue the tax system was broken and to offer just one tax – the GST – to replace ten other inefficient taxes. Income tax cuts were also included to sweeten the deal.

It’s going to be much more challenging for Turnbull and Morrison to convince voters that the system is broken again and that necessary repairs require the GST to be increased or extended.

Nevertheless, that is the task that Morrison appears to have set himself, telling journalists on the weekend that “any changes to the tax agenda at that substantive level would be put to the Australian people before an election” because it was necessary to secure a “strong mandate” at the next election for “the sort of changes you need to implement over a term of government”.

According to the Treasurer, the Government will do so by “explaining what the challenge is, what the problem is we’re trying to address” and that the challenge was “all about growth, because that’s what drives jobs”.

“We have a very strong view about how we think we need to grow the Australian economy,” Morrison told his interlocutors, “and that will be laid out in chapter and verse over the months and months that are ahead of this election”.

Looking to the possibility of another obstructionist Senate, the Treasurer also noted this process could “assist in this new political climate, where mandates matter when it comes to dealing with the Senate”.

the Government is persisting with its “everything is on the table” rhetoric, perhaps in the hope of being seen to have an open mind on any innovative approaches to economic repair …

In addition to clarifying the timing of the upcoming election, Morrison gave the strongest indication yet that he would be plumping for an increase to the GST.

Claiming it was a “fantasy” to suggest cracking down on multinationals or superannuation would raise the revenue necessary for credible economic reform, the Treasurer also noted the reasons that dissuaded the Howard Government from extending the tax to health and education in the 1990s remained today.

That pretty much leaves only an increase to the GST on the table.

However, the Government is persisting with its “everything is on the table” rhetoric, perhaps in the hope of being seen to have an open mind on any innovative approaches to economic repair, but at least in part to frustrate the Labor Opposition’s attempts to pin down the details that could help strengthen its anti-GST scare campaign.

And there’s every indication the Treasurer will keep as many of those options as possible open for as long as he can. That means jettisoning the bureaucratic process traditionally used by the Federal Government to hone policy options – the white paper process.

In his only material divergence to date from the Howard/Costello GST playbook, the Treasurer has indicated his discussions with the Australian community on taxation reform will not be based on options put forward in the successive public drafts of a policy, known as green and white papers.

Telling his interviewers on the weekend that voters were not interested in reading a “large tome on tax”, Morrison argued that a white paper was simply a statement of government policy, which in fact can be done in “many ways” and that the Government was open to different ways of articulating the reasons for a policy to the community.

He pointed to the recent innovation statement as one of those ways, noting “we brought forward a whole range of issues on tax that were to be addressed in white papers on tax later, and we brought them forward and we put them in the context of innovation, so people could see that it wasn’t so much about tax as it was about spurring the agility in the economy that we needed, and tax had a role to play in that”.

It would be fair to assume from this explanation that Australians will be subjected over the coming months to plenty of soaring rhetoric but much less actual detail than voters were given during the 1998 GST debate.

Treasurer Morrison may well be hoping his mooted income tax cuts will be enough to encourage the electorate to overlook this considerable shortcoming.

Turnbull on terrorism: It’s not just the rhetoric that’s changed

Tomorrow, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull will meet with leader of the free world, US President Barack Obama, to swap diplomatic niceties on a range of contentious issues. Top of the list will be the Western world’s response to terrorism.

Of all the tricky debates Turnbull inherited from Tony Abbott – tax reform, penalty rates, asylum seekers, climate change – perhaps the most challenging of all is how to combat terrorism.

At first glance, the matter isn’t all that complex given Australia’s approach at home and abroad has bipartisan support. On this issue, if nothing else, voters appear to have approved of Abbott’s muscular approach, and consequently Labor couldn’t afford to use the matter as a strong point of differentiation.

That’s not to say the Opposition didn’t try on occasion to stand up to Abbott’s escalating aggression in response to the terrorist threat, but each time the Government mercilessly beat Labor with the “soft on terrorism” stick.

As a result, Labor trails the Coalition by about 20 percentage points as the party most trusted to handle national security and the “war” on terrorism.

Nevertheless, since becoming PM, Malcolm Turnbull has changed not only the rhetoric used by the Government on combating terrorism, but in recent days also the substance of Australia’s approach.

First, he rejected Abbott’s terminology of fear, refusing to play on community anxiety with references to death cults and the imminent threat of danger supposedly lurking in every Australian neighbourhood.

Turnbull also eschewed Abbott’s non-too-subtle asides that laid the blame for extremist acts on Australian soil at the feet of the local Muslim community.

Commenting on calls made by Abbott last month for Islam to be reformed, Turnbull spelled out the implications for those Abbott supporters who might be slow on the uptake:

Our best allies in the battle against terrorism are the Muslim community and it is absolutely critical that we maintain solidarity and unity within Australia.

What do the terrorists want us to do? … They want us to be scared. They want us to really frightened … They want us to abandon our values of freedom, tolerance and openness … and they want us to turn on the Muslim community in Australia, and indeed in every other country.

That is their objective. So we should not do anything that plays into their hands.

The PM has also stressed that everything he says on combating terrorism is carefully calculated in the light of advice he receives from the Australian Federal Police and from ASIO, and that his comments are aimed at making Australia safer.

The Government’s decision to “decline” a request from the United States to increase its military commitment in the Middle East should be seen in this context.

According to the respected Lowy Institute, only 24 per cent of Australians feel “very safe” and the highest risk to national security is considered to be the emergence of Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. The think tank also found in a separate survey earlier last year that 55 per cent of Australians believe our participation in military action against Islamic State increases the risk of terrorism to Australia right now.

The Turnbull Government’s refusal to keep ratcheting up Australia’s military involvement in that region may be a way of trying to ameliorate those community concerns.

Australia was one of 40 nations asked by the US to review its military commitment to the Middle East and consider whether additional support could be given. Defence Minister Marise Payne noted at the time of the request that Australia was already making the second largest contribution and that it was time for other nations to step up.

This has also been the tenor of Turnbull’s response. While Tony Abbott’s hawkish approach was to generate voter kudos by ensuring Australia stood head and shoulders above other nations in supporting the US effort, Turnbull appears to be seeking to reduce voters’ anxiety by bringing other nations into the fray and thereby taking the heat off Australia.

Visiting Aussie diggers deployed in the Middle East on his way to the US, the PM stressed the Iraqi government had not made any request for Australia to do more, and that Australia was encouraging other countries, particularly other European countries, to “step up and make a greater contribution“.

The PM also made it clear that Australia did not intend on staying in Iraq forever, which would have been music to the ears of the troops’ families, as well as those voters who believe our presence in the region increases the threat of terrorism at home.

But what of the voters who feel safer knowing Australia is doing its bit in the Middle East? Former defence minister Kevin Andrews and his fellow Abbott supporter Eric Abetz have wasted no time implying the Turnbull regime is going soft on terror by refusing to do more.

Public opinion may well be influenced by what President Obama has to say on the matter. Obama could strengthen Turnbull’s hand by not only thanking Australia for its significant contribution, but echoing his call for other nations to also step up. This would go a long way to helping the PM balance the expectations of both the hawks and the doves in the voting community.

Jamie Clements saga: The politics of sexual harassment a bipartisan affair

If there were ever any doubts the ALP suffers the same endemic sexism that wracks the conservative parties, they were dispelled yesterday by the sordid saga that culminated in the resignation of NSW Labor general secretary Jamie Clements.

The top party machine operative had no choice but to go when the woman who lodged a complaint against him six months ago finally went to the media with details of what she alleges occurred.

Stefanie Jones, a Labor staffer and former candidate, went public after agreeing to drop an application for an apprehended violence order against Clements in return for him signing a formal undertaking not to approach her for 12 months.

Jones recounted that Clements tried to physically intimidate her, locking the door of the room they were in and demanding that she kiss him because “you know you want to”.

Clements has denied this version of events, but his case was irreparably damaged when Jones publicly accused him of aggressive behaviour as well as making an unwanted sexual advance.

This sets Clements’s actions apart from the “inappropriate” behaviour of former minister Jamie Briggs, which was just as unacceptable but about which there was no allegation of intimidation and no AVO.

If the ALP had not moved swiftly to remove Clements, his ongoing presence in senior Labor organisational ranks would have cast a considerable cloud over any commitments made by Labor leader Bill Shorten to oppose violence against women. Shorten was due to share the stage with Clements at the NSW Labor State Conference in Sydney next month.

Shorten’s domestic violence policy credentials may have survived the Clements matter, but the same can’t be said of Labor’s planned campaign to pursue Briggs for distributing photos of the woman who made the complaint against him, and Immigration Minister Peter Dutton over his sexist SMS once Parliament resumes.

Taking turns as acting Opposition Leader during early January, Labor’s two most senior women, Tanya Plibersek and Penny Wong, led the charge against Briggs after his resignation was announced. They would likely have been prominent ongoing critics of Briggs and Dutton, and it’s a shame their acting duties were concluded before either had the opportunity to comment on the Clements matter.

Shorten did reflect on the allegations, forcefully calling for a report into the incident, but squibbing on the question of Clements’s future tenure.

It took two former Labor Premiers, followed by acting NSW Labor leader, Linda Burney, to create the momentum for Clements’s resignation. Burney noted that while the allegations were disputed, the matter had to be “resolved now in the interests of the party and its members”.

Shorten also reportedly called Clements and asked him to resign, after initially asking his chief of staff to make a similar call.

The swiftness of action taken against Clements is commendable, but it’s hard not to conclude that it was also intended to shut down another – equally concerning – complaint raised by Jones when she went rogue.

The young staffer claimed in retrospect she wouldn’t have made the complaint against Clements because it had been soul-destroying. She claimed to have dropped the application for an AVO because of lack of support from the ALP’s leadership and ongoing victim-shaming from some of her colleagues.

According to Jones, everyone wanted it “under the carpet” and one senior party official called her fiancé to ask what it would take to “make this go away”:

There’s such a lack of support (and) as long as the party has people like (that in it), the filth … the continuation of disgusting treatment of women will continue.

Jones’s experience appears to align with the findings of an internal party review fo the NSW Labor Party’s culture and treatment of women. The review reportedly found that:

Issues identified in the party include: women being given less prestigious roles than men, sexualised environments being accepted (sex stories, use of crude descriptions for women, reference to women’s presumed sexual history) and denigration of women on the basis of marital status or for not having children.

This is the bigger issue for Labor – having a culture that is hostile to women. But it is equally an issue for the Coalition, with the Liberal Party having received a similarly private but leaked report that found women in its ranks have to deal with numerous barriers including a “boys’ club” culture, chauvinistic behaviour, and party processes designed to perpetuate the power of those who hold political positions (namely men).

It is with these reports in mind that Malcolm Turnbull and Bill Shorten should be responding to incidents such as those alleged to have been perpetrated by Briggs and Clements. When Briggs resigned, Turnbull’s media release stated only that he was “disappointed” in the former minister’s behaviour, although he sharpened his criticism the following day to note that it was a “serious” matter.

These mealy-mouthed offerings are nearly as non-committal as Shorten only calling for a report into the Clements’s incident.

Sexism and other forms of disrespect against women can only be eradicated if all our community leaders, including the two at the top, actively repudiate those behaviours.

In both cases, Turnbull and Shorten should have said that if found to be true, this behaviour is unacceptable, will not be tolerated and will attract the highest possible penalty, that is, resignation.

Their kid-gloves response to the issue so far is a disservice and an affront to all Australian women.

A pre-budget election would be an insult to our intelligence

According to The Australian, two of Malcolm Turnbull’s closest advisers – Treasurer Scott Morrison and Cabinet Secretary Arthur Sinodinos – want the PM to cash in early on his high approval ratings by going to the polls within the first half of this election year.

The counter argument, reportedly being put by the new federal director of the Liberal Party, Tony Nutt, is that voters won’t be happy about being rushed to an election when the Government has not put forward a reason for why it should be brought forward from the second half of this year.

Former PM Tony Abbott would likely have pushed for an early poll too, using the royal commission into union corruption to create momentum, as well as Labor’s ongoing refusal to pass the union-busting laws already twice rejected by the Senate.

PM Turnbull may have a similar plan, having recently flagged his intention to introduce a strengthened version of the proposed law and reintroduce the bill that would re-establish the Australian Building and Construction Commission, following its first rejection by the Senate.

Seemingly with an early poll in mind, the PM placed an arbitrary deadline on the ABCC legislation, claiming if it is not passed by the end of March “then in one form or another it will be a major issue at the next election“.

However, it’s worth noting the phrasing of that prime ministerial threat – Turnbull merely confirmed the ABCC legislation would be an issue at the next election, not the trigger for holding one.

This is because there are only a few double dissolution options available to the Government this year, and bringing on a DD election would invite electoral and political complications that PM Turnbull could frankly do without.

With Parliament recommencing in February, debate on the union bills taking place in March, and the entire month of April being taken up by school holidays across the states and territories, the first five-week period available for an early election campaign would not occur until the beginning of May.

Calling an election at that time would allow for a DD election to be held on June 4 or 11, but no later because a DD cannot be held less than six months before the House of Representative’s three-year term is due to expire (in this case Nov 11, 2016).

As explained by the ABC’s Antony Green back in December, and reiterated in advice from the Senate clerk reported by The Australian last week, a DD election would throw the timing of future Senate and House of Representatives elections out of alignment, risking the wrath of constituents who would then have to vote in elections for one of the two chambers every couple of years.

The only way to remedy this disconnect would be to hold another full election by May 2018, only two years into what would have otherwise been a three year term. That gives hardly enough time for even a nimble Turnbull Government to bed down its contentious economic reforms before having to face voters again.

A double dissolution election would also potentially open the Senate floodgates to minor and micro party candidates, not only because a DD halves the quota of votes needed to get elected to the Senate, but because the Government has been unsuccessful in outlawing the preference-harvesting deals that saw some Senators elected in 2013 with only a microscopic proportion of the primary vote.

A large and unwieldy Senate crossbench would also make it difficult for Turnbull to implement any necessary but unpopular reforms.

However, there’s an even more compelling reason why the PM should eschew suggestions of an early election.

Turnbull’s first public pitch for the prime ministership last year was based on Abbott having failed to show economic leadership. Turnbull offered a necessarily different style of leadership, one that supposedly would explain the complex issues that Australia faced, set out the courses of action needed, and make the case for that action.

“We need to respect the intelligence of the Australian people,” said our hopeful PM in waiting. Yet taking voters to the polls before bringing down a budget would reduce those words to hollow rhetoric.

An unseemly rush to the ballot box without an adequate explanation of the Government’s plans for economic repair would be an insult to our intelligence. It would also expose the PM and his Treasurer to the Labor accusation that they have something to hide.

Voters were initially prepared to humour Treasurer Hockey’s “lifters and leaners” rhetoric until the 2014 budget exposed the slogan to be little more than a cruel hoax.

These days the electorate is clearly not so trusting. Labor’s continued banging of the fairness drum suggests their market research shows voters are not yet convinced Morrison et al won’t try to pull a similar swifty.

The new regime will only be able to overcome voters’ residual trust issues if it takes the time and effort described by Turnbull when he publicly wooed the Liberals’ party room last year.

Perceptions of fairness will also be critical. Turnbull has made a necessary virtue of fairness, saying that while it obviously is in the eye of the beholder, “fair is going to be whether people look at it and say ‘yep, that seems fair enough‘”.

And so, through his own words, the onus is on the Prime Minister to treat voters intelligently as well as fairly. Going to an early election does neither, no matter how politically expedient – or tempting – it may be to do so.

A pre-budget election would be an insult to our intelligence

According to The Australian, two of Malcolm Turnbull’s closest advisers – Treasurer Scott Morrison and Cabinet Secretary Arthur Sinodinos – want the PM to cash in early on his high approval ratings by going to the polls within the first half of this election year.

The counter argument, reportedly being put by the new federal director of the Liberal Party, Tony Nutt, is that voters won’t be happy about being rushed to an election when the Government has not put forward a reason for why it should be brought forward from the second half of this year.

Former PM Tony Abbott would likely have pushed for an early poll too, using the royal commission into union corruption to create momentum, as well as Labor’s ongoing refusal to pass the union-busting laws already twice rejected by the Senate.

PM Turnbull may have a similar plan, having recently flagged his intention to introduce a strengthened version of the proposed law and reintroduce the bill that would re-establish the Australian Building and Construction Commission, following its first rejection by the Senate.

Seemingly with an early poll in mind, the PM placed an arbitrary deadline on the ABCC legislation, claiming if it is not passed by the end of March “then in one form or another it will be a major issue at the next election“.

However, it’s worth noting the phrasing of that prime ministerial threat – Turnbull merely confirmed the ABCC legislation would be an issue at the next election, not the trigger for holding one.

This is because there are only a few double dissolution options available to the Government this year, and bringing on a DD election would invite electoral and political complications that PM Turnbull could frankly do without.

With Parliament recommencing in February, debate on the union bills taking place in March, and the entire month of April being taken up by school holidays across the states and territories, the first five-week period available for an early election campaign would not occur until the beginning of May.

Calling an election at that time would allow for a DD election to be held on June 4 or 11, but no later because a DD cannot be held less than six months before the House of Representative’s three-year term is due to expire (in this case Nov 11, 2016).

As explained by the ABC’s Antony Green back in December, and reiterated in advice from the Senate clerk reported by The Australian last week, a DD election would throw the timing of future Senate and House of Representatives elections out of alignment, risking the wrath of constituents who would then have to vote in elections for one of the two chambers every couple of years.

The only way to remedy this disconnect would be to hold another full election by May 2018, only two years into what would have otherwise been a three year term. That gives hardly enough time for even a nimble Turnbull Government to bed down its contentious economic reforms before having to face voters again.

A double dissolution election would also potentially open the Senate floodgates to minor and micro party candidates, not only because a DD halves the quota of votes needed to get elected to the Senate, but because the Government has been unsuccessful in outlawing the preference-harvesting deals that saw some Senators elected in 2013 with only a microscopic proportion of the primary vote.

A large and unwieldy Senate crossbench would also make it difficult for Turnbull to implement any necessary but unpopular reforms.

However, there’s an even more compelling reason why the PM should eschew suggestions of an early election.

Turnbull’s first public pitch for the prime ministership last year was based on Abbott having failed to show economic leadership. Turnbull offered a necessarily different style of leadership, one that supposedly would explain the complex issues that Australia faced, set out the courses of action needed, and make the case for that action.

“We need to respect the intelligence of the Australian people,” said our hopeful PM in waiting. Yet taking voters to the polls before bringing down a budget would reduce those words to hollow rhetoric.

An unseemly rush to the ballot box without an adequate explanation of the Government’s plans for economic repair would be an insult to our intelligence. It would also expose the PM and his Treasurer to the Labor accusation that they have something to hide.

Voters were initially prepared to humour Treasurer Hockey’s “lifters and leaners” rhetoric until the 2014 budget exposed the slogan to be little more than a cruel hoax.

These days the electorate is clearly not so trusting. Labor’s continued banging of the fairness drum suggests their market research shows voters are not yet convinced Morrison et al won’t try to pull a similar swifty.

The new regime will only be able to overcome voters’ residual trust issues if it takes the time and effort described by Turnbull when he publicly wooed the Liberals’ party room last year.

Perceptions of fairness will also be critical. Turnbull has made a necessary virtue of fairness, saying that while it obviously is in the eye of the beholder, “fair is going to be whether people look at it and say ‘yep, that seems fair enough‘”.

And so, through his own words, the onus is on the Prime Minister to treat voters intelligently as well as fairly. Going to an early election does neither, no matter how politically expedient – or tempting – it may be to do so.