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.

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