In any ordinary circumstances, Malcolm Turnbull would be out selling last week’s budget. Instead, he’s on the hustings, largely ignoring it. By Mike Seccombe.

Teething on the 2016 election campaign trail

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull campaigning in the Western Sydney seat of Lindsay this week.
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull campaigning in the Western Sydney seat of Lindsay this week.
Credit: AAP Image

You have continuity and you have change.

There was great hilarity two months ago when, with those words, Malcolm Turnbull unwittingly mimicked the campaign slogan of Selina Meyer, the fictional, stand-for-nothing central character of the US political comedy Veep.

In saying those words, Turnbull was trying to paper over the divisions between those who had hopefully installed him in the leadership as an agent of change and the Abbott conservatives who continued to resentfully undermine him.

People laughed at the phrase, but it amounted to a concise articulation of the central problem of his government. The first week of the election campaign has highlighted it further. As far as more progressive voters who were initially attracted to Turnbull are concerned, there has been too much continuity. And for large parts of the conservative base, too much change.

As a result, says Patrick Baume of the media monitoring company iSentia, “he’s been copping it pretty equally from both the right and the left”.

The progressive voters’ criticism is that Turnbull has disappointed them, turning out to be “Tony Abbott in a nicer suit” and a man who has “given up his principles”. Conservatives continue to complain that he is not Tony Abbott.

“Talkback radio is the remarkable one,” Baume says of his monitoring. “There is low support for Turnbull, even on commercial talkback, even on your [right-wing] stations like 2GB.”

In contrast, the feedback about Bill Shorten is “surprisingly positive”. Says Baume: “There’s been no hatred at all. Not like Julia Gillard, for example. That’s not just on ABC stations, either, but across the commercial ones, too.”

And on social media, where negativity tends to predominate, Shorten also has an advantage. His positives might be only in the low 40 per cent range, but Turnbull’s are in the low 30s.

In summary, week one of the campaign has seen Labor winning online and on the airwaves “at least with the people who are paying a bit of attention,” says Baume.

But not many people are paying attention so far. In terms of volume of online and talkback interaction, it’s been a slow start to the election – mercifully for all parties, and particularly the Coalition.

In the case of Labor, one candidate has been disendorsed after the revelation of a minor criminal conviction 30 years ago, and a couple of others have caused embarrassment by deviating from the party line on offshore detention of asylum seekers.

The Greens, which otherwise revelled in an unaccustomed amount of media attention, had one significant glitch. Jim Casey, their candidate for the potentially winnable inner Sydney seat of Grayndler, now held by Labor’s Anthony Albanese, has been exposed as holding extreme views on the desirability of class warfare and the overthrow of capitalism.

Casey’s candidacy inspired Sydney’s Daily Telegraph to produce a page one screamer in support of a lion of the Labor left: “Save our Albo.”

1 . Liberals missteps

But the problems of Labor and the Greens have been small in number and relatively local in their impact. It’s been much worse for the Coalition parties.

Some of their troubles were external and unavoidable, such as the appearance of Turnbull’s name in the “Panama Papers”, as a former director of a British Virgin Islands company set up by the law firm Mossack Fonseca to explore a prospective gold project in Siberia. While the details, first revealed in The Australian Financial Review, do not suggest any illegality on Turnbull’s part, they serve to remind electors that he lives among the tiny elite of people able to move their vast wealth easily and anonymously around the globe in search of financial advantage.

Other campaign problems for the government have been internal and unavoidable, given the continuity versus change tensions. But they have not been well handled, either.

Abbott loyalists have been refusing to help with the campaigns of MPs they blame for backing Turnbull’s leadership coup. Several examples have been reported in the media, but the standout is the member for Lindsay in Western Sydney, Fiona Scott.

The reason it stands out, though, is Malcolm Turnbull. He promptly went to Scott’s seat, taking the travelling media with him. They grilled her persistently about the leadership candidate – Abbott or Turnbull – for whom she had voted. Just as persistently, she refused to answer.

Turnbull then cancelled the rest of the day’s campaigning in Western Sydney. It served to present the candidate as evasive and underline the party’s internal divisions.

Then there was the reaction to the one really brave measure in the budget: the move to wind back superannuation concessions for high-income earners.

ISentia’s Baume says it has fuelled much of the negative talkback response – in contrast to Labor’s bravest proposal, to cut negative gearing of property, which has been better received.

It has also led to a threat by the Institute of Public Affairs, the right-wing think tank that serves as a pipeline of Liberal Party candidates, to fund a public campaign against it. It claims to have tapped “white-hot anger” among Coalition supporters and to have fielded hundreds of angry calls.

The IPA, opportunistically supported by Labor, argues the changes are retrospective, even though there is scarcely a credible economist in the country who agrees.

Whether the opposition to the superannuation changes does the government any damage is a moot point. It allows the government to present itself as being prepared to offend its wealthy and tax-averse supporter base for the sake of the greater good.

“The IPA’s opposition doesn’t amount to much,” says one political analyst. “In general, you can say that if the IPA is against something, most reasonable people will be reinforced in the belief that it’s a good idea.”

2 . Budget antipathy

And what can the cranky conservatives do other than complain? As independent pollster Andrew Catsaras says of Turnbull: “Even though they’re unhappy with him, they’ll still vote for the Coalition.”

This election, says Catsaras, “is basically a referendum on Turnbull”. The key factor is not what’s happening in the Liberal base, he says, but with voters in the middle of the ideological spectrum.

“Most of them aren’t really angry, but they’re disappointed. People saw him as the great centrist, small ‘l’ liberal. But he hasn’t proven to be that, so those centrist votes are leaking to the Labor Party.”

Catsaras compiles a poll of polls, which had the government 50-50 with Labor before the delivery of the 2016 budget and the calling of the election.

But the biggest problem for the government has emerged since then. It is the budget. The polls tell us that the punters are not impressed.

The Fairfax-Ipsos poll found just 37 per cent of voters thought it was fair, while 43 per cent thought the opposite and 20 per cent were undecided.

As Phillip Coorey noted in The Australian Financial Review, of the 14 budgets polled by Fairfax since 1996, it was second only to the Abbott–Hockey budget of 2014 in terms of perceived unfairness.

Newspoll reported similar antipathy, as did this week’s Essential poll. Tellingly, Essential found 32 per cent of voters said the budget made them less confident of the Turnbull–Morrison government’s ability to manage the economy, versus 21 per cent who were made more confident.

And that is ominous, especially as the government’s pitch for re-election is based on its “plan for jobs and growth”, which in turn is based on tax cuts for businesses and higher income earners.

The social values that made Turnbull initially popular with the voters of the middle barely got a look in. During his Mother’s Day press conference, officially starting the election campaign, Turnbull dwelt at great length on tax and business. Health and education received only passing reference. Environment and welfare did not feature at all.

The pattern continued through the early days of the campaign. While the other parties addressed a variety of issues in some detail – Labor has even produced an electorate-by-electorate table showing how much more it would spend on schools under its “Full Gonski” education policy – the Coalition has sung a one-note samba: “Jobs and growth.”

When this was put to cabinet secretary Arthur Sinodinos on ABC Radio on Thursday morning, he responded simply: “We’re out there selling the budget.”

But on the available evidence, the people aren’t buying it.

3 . Abbott measures retained

To a substantial degree, it is a rerun of the unloved 2014 budget, as noted by Cassandra Goldie, the chief executive of the peak welfare body the Australian Council of Social Service.

“The government remains committed to some $13 billion of cuts proposed in the 2014 budget, but not yet legislated,” she says.

“These are all cuts that were blocked in the senate, in our view for very good reason. They are things that would have affected people on low incomes, like reductions to family payments, that would increase child poverty.”

This budget, she says, continues the trajectory of 2014, further exacerbating inequality.

“The tightening of eligibility for the disability support benefit, for example, which happened under Labor, too, meant we had far fewer people eligible for the [pension] already.

“Now in this budget we have to reassess 90,000 more people, with a view to taking them off the disability support pension, and the only rationale is to make a saving.”

That saving is put at $62.1 million over three years. “These are people already living, by and large, either under the poverty line or very close to it.”

Then there is the $925 million being saved over two years in one health measure: “The continuing freeze on rebates to doctors is another way of shifting the cost of universal healthcare onto individuals, many of whom will be required to pay more out of pocket. It’s bad news in terms of both equity and health outcomes.”

Goldie also points to dental health cuts, worth $200 million a year. “Families on marginal budget will not be going to the doctor, or not taking their children to the dentist.”

The list of cuts, enacted or proposed, is long, and includes cuts to family payments, community services, particularly Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders Services, and the deferral of the government’s childcare changes worth $1.2 billion.

A big sleeper issue, though, could be the removal of compensation for the carbon tax from new welfare recipients, which is estimated to save $1.4 billion over five years.

It is not just the unemployed who count as welfare recipients, although many people think so, says Goldie. “Actually, 40 per cent of welfare expenditure is on the age pension, 25 per cent is on family and childcare payments, 17 per cent is on the NDIS. Just under 8 per cent goes on assistance to people who are unemployed.”

The removal of the compensation payment equates to a loss of $4.40 a week for the unemployed, and for people on pensions, including the age pension, it’s $7 a week.

It might not sound like big money to some, but to an unemployed young person, living on $38 a day, or a pensioner, it is significant.

“If you bundle it all up,” Goldie says, “the idea of returning the budget to surplus is heavily on the back of people who can’t afford it.”

4 . Foreign aid cuts

There are other cuts in the budget that are even harsher, cuts that in the view of one prominent politician, might qualify as unAustralian.

That politician is now treasurer but back in 2008, in his first speech to parliament, Scott Morrison made a powerful case for increased foreign aid.

The needs of the world’s poor were not diminishing, he said, “and nor can our support. It is the Australian thing to do.”

But following the Morrison budget we are now at the lowest level of aid in our history, according to the chief executive of World Vision, Tim Costello.

“In Abbott and Hockey’s first budget, 20 per cent of their savings came from aid,” he said. “It came down again in their second budget and now Morrison’s done it again. Another quarter of a billion dollars.”

For every $100 of gross national income, just 23 cents is earmarked for the world’s poorest.

Among the scores of countries and international agencies to whom Australian aid is distributed, the only three nations that have seen an increase are the ones used as dumping grounds for asylum seekers: Papua New Guinea, Nauru and Cambodia.

Costello contrasts Morrison with the Conservative British prime minister David Cameron, who drove legislation mandating Britain give at least 0.7 per cent of gross national income in aid.

“Cameron famously said the UK would not balance its books on the backs of the poorest.”

But Abbott and Hockey did just that, and now Turnbull and Morrison have done it even more, Costello says.

The polls suggest Australian voters don’t perceive the budget as fair. And the numbers – $50 billion in tax cuts for the rich and billions in spending cuts for the poor – lend weight to their belief.

But the numbers lend weight to another perception, too: that the Liberal government under Malcolm Turnbull is not much different from the Liberal government under Tony Abbott.

There is continuity and there is change. Change of style; continuity of policy.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 14, 2016 as "Teething on the campaign trail".

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Mike Seccombe is The Saturday Paper’s national correspondent.

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