Defeating the wizard

Finally, it happened. After months of equivocation, the government did what was obviously necessary but what it had for so long lacked the courage to do: it stood up to the News Corp papers and the opposition and redrafted the stage three tax cuts.

The next morning, the front page of The Australian was a wall of anxious text. The splash described it as “Albanese’s tax ambush”. Anthony Albanese was photographed sheltering behind glass. Apparently 1.8 million people, who are still getting a tax cut, who are still the wealthiest people in the country, were being used to fund a “political cost-of-living fix”.

One of two comment pieces on the page claimed the redrafting of the stage three tax cuts was a “bigger broken election promise” than Howard’s claim there would never be a goods and services tax. The prime minister had “trashed his credibility” and delivered a “cynical repudiation of the fundamental reform intention of the tax changes”.

Repeated were the old lies of productivity being restrained by taxes. There was the spectre of negotiating with the Greens. Class politics were invoked. The decision put the prime minister’s “character on trial”.

Mostly, it was like the scene near the end of The Wizard of Oz. For all the thundering rhetoric, there was not much there: a little man behind a curtain, whose name might be Dennis or Simon or Joe, whose loudspeaker is smaller than you’d guessed.

Albanese’s revision of the stage three cuts is more important than simple economics, although this also matters. He has saved the country from an entrenched inequality that would have destroyed our health and education systems. He has also proved to himself and his party that the orthodoxies of our politics can be challenged.

The Murdoch press is not all powerful. This has been true for decades, although no sitting politician has been willing to test it. The Australian does not decide the news. The metropolitan tabloids do not determine who wins in outer-suburban seats.

The entire empire can burn with indignation, can line graphs with upside-down arrows and bring war to the language of economic policy, and it does not matter. The world does not tremble, not even slightly.

Peter Dutton thinks there should be a snap election. He claims the prime minister has lied. This is a man who thinks the truth is something you used to buy when you picked up a scratchie. He has the integrity of a Cruskit.

It doesn’t bother him. He lives in a world of faux outrage. “I’d say to the people of Dunkley and the broader Australian people: if this prime minister is prepared to look at your neighbour in the eye and lie to him or her, you are next.”

None of this washes. For three decades, the Coalition leached the truth from politics. They made lying the language of diplomacy, as French used to be. There were special accents for core and non-core promises. The crimes for which Albanese is being fitted up were long ago struck from the statute books.

Besides, Albanese is not lying. He’s telling the truth, which is much harder. He’s saying that something is not possible, it’s not fair and it can’t happen. This shouldn’t be brave, but it is. Despite everything else, he is being believed.

The test now is to stay this course, to continue to refuse the politics of fear, the thinking that lets a few clapped-out newspapers and a loon opposition decide what is and is not possible. What’s possible is what is necessary and the country will be better for it.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on January 27, 2024 as "Defeating the wizard".

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