Does Turnbull actually get what women really want?

Does Turnbull actually get what women really want?

It’s easy to forget that just over a week ago Treasurer Scott Morrison handed down his first budget. Not long after, the Prime Minister fired the starters’ gun on the July election, so there wasn’t much time to check in detail what the budget offered Australian women or whether it treated you fairly.

The Opposition’s shadow treasurer, Chris Bowen, laid out Labor’s plans for the budget in Canberra yesterday, giving us a fresh opportunity to look at what the major parties think about Australian women.

It’s clear the Turnbull Government still doesn’t get it when it comes to treating women equally or fairly.

Financial security is a big issue for women: not only do you earn less but you have fewer dollars to put into in your superannuation account. Last week’s budget was meant to encourage women back to work by providing better childcare and improving superannuation.

The Government claimed the budget would “help” women build up a better retirement nest egg by extending a scheme that it initially tried – and failed – to scrap. The scheme, originally created by Labor when it was in government, will provide around two million women on low incomes with a refund of the higher taxes they pay on some super contributions.

That’s not “help” but fixing a distortion in the superannuation system.

Good news for super:

  • Allowing workers to put more funds into their spouse’s super
  • Letting women with less than $500,000 in super make “catch-up” contributions

However these changes won’t help if you don’t have a spouse or can’t afford to put extra super payments away.

There was no good news either in the budget for those of you with children, or planning to start a family.

Bad news for mothers and women hoping to start families:

  • The Turnbull Government stuck to the Abbott Government’s decision to stop new mothers from topping up base level, taxpayer-funded parental leave with payments from their employer. There will be no “double-dipping” under a government that Malcolm Turnbull leads.
  • There was also zip in the budget for childcare; in fact the Government postponed improvements to childcare subsidies that were promised in last year’s budget. Now the increases won’t apply until July 2018. This is because the Government plans to cut other parenting payments and family tax benefits to help pay for the changes. It blames Labor for the postponement of the subsidy increase because the Opposition won’t support these other cuts.

What about funding to combat domestic violence? Surely the Turnbull Government put its money where its mouth was on this critical national issue?

Well not exactly.

Bad news for violence against women and children:

  • The Government’s Women’s Safety Package provided $100 million for an advertising campaign, GPS trackers and an expansion of the national family violence counselling and information service. But it did not restore funding to legal centres and services cut by the Abbott Government.

Bad news for tax cuts:

  • Only one in five women will earn enough to get the cut, while one in three men will benefit. Women with families but who earn less than $80,000 will get no tax cut and no childcare relief for another two years.

Single women on low incomes will still have little or no superannuation. And if any woman is experiencing domestic violence, there is a good chance she won’t be able to find legal support or another place to stay because of cuts made by the Abbott Government that have not been reversed by Malcolm Turnbull.

In contrast, the Labor Opposition has more women-friendly policies, but is yet to fully spell out how it will pay for them.

Good news for mothers and women hoping to start families:

  • Labor is opposed to the Government’s proposed cuts to family tax benefits
  • Labor supports new mothers getting parental leave payments from both the government and their employer

Good news for violence against women and children:

  • Labor has promised $70 million to combat domestic violence, including $50 million for frontline legal services.

Good news for women at work

  • Through its industrial arm, the union movement, Labor is also focused on getting better pay and conditions for working women.

The Prime Minister said on International Women’s Day earlier this year that gender equality was an economic and social priority for Australia, noting that when a woman is empowered, the whole economy and community benefits.

Mr Turnbull challenged his audience to do “all we can” to ensure women get the same economic and social opportunities as men, are respected, have a strong voice, are financially and economically secure, and are safe from violence.

The Turnbull Government’s first budget did not live up to this challenge. However it still has around eight weeks left during the election campaign to convince Australia’s women that it can do so.

Originally published at The Australian Women’s Weekly.

Labor and Coalition rewrite the campaign playbook

Given politics is sometimes referred to as the world’s second oldest profession, scores of political orthodoxies have developed over the years.

In Australia, those conventions include three things to avoid: long election campaigns, campaigns during winter, and elections during the school holidays.

Yet the federal poll announced yesterday by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull does all three.

In fact, the past decade in Australian politics has been characterised by politicians and parties flouting conventional political wisdom, with varying degrees of success.

During the Rudd and Gillard governments, Tony Abbott became known for turning political orthodoxy on its head.

Never before had an opposition leader sustained such a brutally negative campaign against the government for so long. Never before had a political contender so relentlessly stuck to a three-word slogan to spruik his party’s credentials.

In effect, Abbott rewrote the political rulebook during that time, providing a new template for opposition tactics that was adopted in part by Bill Shorten when Labor returned to the opposition benches in 2013. By tapping into their inner Abbott, Labor took obstructionist tactics in the Senate to a new low, even opposing saving measures that it had originally introduced.

Other political traditions have been overturned since that change of government, firstly by Shorten’s Labor and more recently by Malcolm Turnbull and his team.

Labor did its own bit of political rule rewriting by revealing a smattering of policies over the past 18 months. The more conventional and less politically risky option would have been to take the small target approach, adopted by most opposition parties since the Liberal Party released its ambitious but ultimately ill-fated Fightback manifesto 16 months before the 1993 federal election.

Labor’s initial policies allowed the Opposition to make an early start on drawing the lines of differentiation that it hoped would eventually define the coming election contest.

In particular, its commitments to make the wealthy pay more, either through a crackdown on multinational tax avoidance or reducing tax concessions for wealthy retirees or property owners, established the “rich versus battlers” dichotomy that Labor has employed to suggest the Coalition does not treat all voters fairly.

In his budget reply last week Shorten rejected the PM’s depiction of this comparison as a class war, but it is nevertheless difficult to avoid the conclusion that Labor is trying to engage in the politics of envy.

This is again flouting the political rulebook, given the failure of previous Labor opposition leader Mark Latham to topple John Howard has been attributed at least in part to his attempts to whip up antipathy between lower income voters and their wealthier compatriots by slashing funding for private schools.

Going rogue when it comes to political orthodoxy can reap considerable dividends … or result in spectacular failure.

For its part, the Coalition has also flouted a number of political conventions. The first was to replace a first-term prime minister, which was unheard of before the Rudd-Gillard wars.

Once he became Prime Minister, Turnbull also tried to rewrite the way policy discussions were held in the public domain, refusing to play the gotcha game that is “rule in or rule out”.

However, by essentially leaving everything “on the table” Turnbull exposed himself not only to an Abbott-style scare campaign from Labor on the GST but electorally-wounding accusations of indecisiveness and questionable resolve.

With the budget last week, Treasurer Scott Morrison similarly tried to recast how things had traditionally been done, attempting to reframe the economic debate away from “winners and losers” to the bigger economic picture.

“Australians are over this class warfare, they are over the ‘us and them’. They are over it,” the Treasurer said, noting, however, that “they know the big economic challenges that are out there facing them and their future.”

For a tradition that is as old and conventional as politics, these experiments with new approaches are considerably risky.

Once he became prime minister, Abbott found it difficult to shake off the negativity that made him a lethally effective opposition leader. Shorten’s Labor has seen a number of its early policies recently neutralised through co-option by the Government. And it’s a fair bet Turnbull will think twice before leaving everything on the table again.

As for the economic debate, the coming eight weeks of the election campaign will soon disclose whether Labor’s “class warfare” prevails over Morrison’s big picture when it comes to voters deciding how to place their vote.

There are two other political conventions that may well apply in the coming days and weeks of the campaign. The first is “disunity is death”, which places a considerable onus on Abbott and his supporters to keep their grizzles to themselves until after polling day.

The other is that voters don’t throw out first-term governments. However, as the state elections in Victoria and Queensland proved in recent times, when given enough provocation, sometimes voters do just that.

It can certainly be argued that when it comes to politics, rules are there to be broken – or at the very least rewritten. Going rogue when it comes to political orthodoxy can reap considerable dividends, as it did in Abbott’s case, or result in spectacular failure, as it did in Latham’s.

We’ll know soon enough what Australian voters think of the latest round of political rule-making and rule-breaking.

Libs to play the imitation game in budget 2016

When Treasurer Scott Morrison delivers his first budget tomorrow night, he will tell the people of Australia that the measures contained therein are all about jobs and growth.

But as is often the case with politicians, the Treasurer will be telling only half the story.

The Turnbull/Morrison budget will be focused not only on the economy but also on the election, and therefore will also be about neutralising Labor’s most threatening policy initiatives.

We won’t know until election day whether Opposition leader Bill Shorten and the Labor Party were brilliant or foolish when they decided to release a small number of signature policies courageously early in the electoral cycle. The election result will determine our retrospective assessment of that strategy.

Not since Liberal leader John Hewson released the longest political suicide note in history, the 600 page Fightback policy manifesto, has an opposition been prepared to risk showing its hand so far out from an election.

Conventional thinking suggests the long lead-time simply gives the Government one of two free kicks – either an extended period in which to criticise any policies that have been announced early, or the option of stealing them altogether.

Nevertheless, Shorten and his strategy team decided to throw caution to the wind, releasing Labor’s first post Rudd/Gillard policy 18 months before the next election was due.

That was the policy to crack down on tax avoidance by multinational corporations, which is now supported by the vast majority of voters. The following month, Labor broadened its scope from fat-cat corporates to cashed-up retirees, announcing plans to cut tax concessions for wealthy superannuantsThis has also become a popular policy.

Labor now has almost two dozen “positive policies” listed on its party website. Unsurprisingly, the list is dominated by education initiatives, given that policy area is a traditional strength for Labor. There also appears to be residual good will in the community, if not necessarily for the Gillard government’s Gonski reforms, then at least to increase education funding.

Other budget measures proposed by Labor that appear to have captured the public’s imagination include proposed changes to negative gearing, and increases to the taxation of tobacco products.

Popular policies such as these pose an electoral risk for the Turnbull Government, a risk that must be neutralised either through co-option or by providing a credible alternative.

One of the biggest points of differentiation has been, until now, on the funding of education. The Government sought to narrow that gap on the weekend by announcing an increase of $1.2 billion to education funding for the final two years of the Gonski package, was well as an additional year.

This move stops Labor from saying the Government has abandoned Gonski, although the Opposition will still be able to point out that it is promising $4.5 billion in extra funding. It will be left to voters to judge which party is more likely to keep its word, and which commitment is more economically responsible.

Both questions will be on the minds of voters after the budget, as we commence the long walk to an election on July 2: “Can we afford this policy?” and “Who do I trust to run the economy?”

Treasurer Morrison has done his best to establish that frame of thinking, saying on the weekend that now is not the time for “throwing money around”. The PM has also done his bit, saying we must “live within our means”.

The Coalition’s decision not to tamper with negative gearing clears the way for it to depict Labor’s reforms as a tax increase rather than a housing affordability issue.

Granted, neither admonition seems to have applied to the recent awarding of a $50 billion submarine contract to the French, but that will be of little concern to the voters in South Australia who have been concerned about their job prospects in that beleaguered state.

The Government also appears likely to steal a couple of Labor’s initiatives, firstly the tobacco excise increase, and cuts to superannuation perks for wealthy retirees.

Morrison confirmed on the weekend that the budget will include measures to “better target the concessions” in superannuation, while some leaks to the media have suggested the Government has decided to up the ante on this point, lowering the threshold even further than the Opposition to minimise those getting an enhanced tax benefit.

It has also been recently suggested the Government will announce a crackdown on the tax minimisation/evasion tactics of multinational corporations, emulating the spirit of Labor’s policy, if not the detail.

In matching or co-opting some of Labor’s initiatives in tomorrow’s budget, the Government hopes to reduce the number of fronts on which it has to defend itself from Labor and clear the battlefield of all but the key points of differentiation.

One of those contrasts will be tax, which the Government plans to make a proxy for economic management. The Treasurer said on the weekend that the budget was configured to ensure the overall tax burden will not rise, and that the Government would save more than it spent over the forward estimates to reduce the deficit.

Accordingly, Labor will be depicted as the spendthrift, irresponsibly ratcheting up taxes but still spending more than it earns. The Coalition’s decision not to tamper with negative gearing clears the way for it to depict Labor’s reforms as a tax increase rather than a housing affordability issue.

This will be a compelling argument for voters still disposed to the view that Labor cannot be trusted with the keys to the Treasury coffers. The Ipsos poll found just a few weeks ago that only 25 per cent of voters said they believed Labor had the best policies for managing the economy, while 43 per cent nominated the Coalition.

We will likely see in Bill Shorten’s budget reply later this week how Labor intends to deal with that perception deficiency.

And then voters will be off to the polls. When July 2 finally arrives, it will be time to cast judgement on Labor’s go-early strategy, the Government’s neutralisation tactics, and the policies being offered by both parties. Even so, the final decision could rest on which party voters distrust the least.