Opinion

Paul Bongiorno
Labor pushes on with budget reply

On Monday, the first day back for parliament since budget week, Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce almost blew a gasket attacking Labor’s Bill Shorten. The opposition leader’s days were numbered, Joyce fulminated, because Anthony Albanese was going to shunt him out of the way. Albo’s ambitions were a recurring theme, as senior ministers became increasingly frustrated with the opposition’s negative response to key fiscal measures.

None was more niggling than Labor’s refusal to allow the National Disability Insurance Scheme to be used as cover for an income tax rise the government is pushing in the form of an increase to the Medicare levy. The hide of them. Treasurer Scott Morrison argued that when the schools funding bills came into the house, it was a Labor idea that the Liberals supported in opposition. He implored them to return the compliment. But Shorten, an original architect of the NDIS, and Wayne Swan, the treasurer at the time, insist that the 0.5 per cent Medicare levy rise, combined with other measures such as means-testing the private health insurance rebate, is already fully funding the scheme. 

There is an air of bizarre unreality about this argument. The fact is the budget is deep in deficit. Claims of fully funding anything are hard to sustain. Spending is outstripping revenue whatever way you look at it. But let’s press on. Morrison is just as adamant that Labor left him with a gaping hole in NDIS funding, which he puts at $55 billion over the decade. But there is another huge ravine. It’s the government’s $65 billion corporate tax cut over the same period. You don’t have to be Einstein to see the play here. It is politically easier to tie “every cent” of the proposed Medicare levy rise to supporting the disabled and their families than it is to ask 10 million workers to help pay for tax cuts to some of the biggest companies, many multinationals.

Shorten can see the political opportunity, but if you can believe a blow-by-blow report in the Fairfax papers, most of his shadow cabinet couldn’t. They apparently agreed with the argument Albanese made in a recent speech – that they support the full levy rise. It represents a capitulation by the Liberals and helps repair the budget, a task Labor will have within a couple of years if the polls are right.

Except there was also another argument put that shadow ministers were happy to leave to Shorten and the leadership group to run. Shorten and his deputy, Tanya Plibersek, have been doing so all week and it is politically potent. It is underpinned by proposing to retain the 2 per cent deficit reduction levy on high-income earners, due to expire in July, and to only raise the Medicare levy for those earning above $87,000. Shorten says this earns more revenue. 

Plibersek pulled it together this way: “It is wrong of this government to frighten people with disability by suggesting that the scheme is somehow under threat at the same time as they’re giving a $65 billion big business tax cut, at the same time as they’re giving millionaires a tax cut, at the same time as they are refusing other sensible savings like putting some restrictions on negative gearing and capital gains tax.”

Labor is confident this is resonating with voters. The Essential poll bolsters this view, and for the third week running has Labor eight points ahead. Which brings us back to leadership speculation. When you have a similar result in all the polls, it is hardly fertile ground for anyone to be running a campaign to roll the leader. The reaction within Labor ranges from anger to disbelief. Rightly or wrongly, they blame Albo for the story. 

Any attempt to destabilise Shorten can only benefit the Liberals. One very senior Labor politician says no one is talking about the need for changing the leader. “We feel we are ahead and everyone is working well together,” the MP said. “We’ve learnt from our mistakes and we’re not going to repeat them.”

Midweek on Adelaide radio, Albanese was asked about it yet again. “I want to be a minister in the next Labor government,” he said. “That’s my focus.” His Liberal sparring partner, Christopher Pyne, was not so easily convinced: “But if the opportunity presented itself you would take it, of course.” No denial, but in a realistic assessment of his current position, Albanese replied, “I’m just doing my job and we’re on 53 per cent of the vote.” There are various theories as to why the story got a run. The most plausible: Albo just wanted to remind his colleagues he is the next cab off the rank.

It is not only the refusal of Labor to give easy passage to the NDIS funding that is rankling for Malcolm Turnbull, though. The government is under increasing pressure over its schools funding plans. Labor will vote against them in the parliament. It says it is a $22 billion cut to the Gillard government’s original 10-year plan that began to be implemented in four-year agreements with the states, independent and Catholic schools. 

The Liberal government in New South Wales is still considering a court challenge. It has prepared an analysis that shows its public schools are losing millions of dollars. The Catholics are just as unhappy. They say the federal schools calculator is based on flawed assumptions. This has caused a pitched battle between the huge Catholic schools sector and the government. The prime minister, his education minister, Simon Birmingham, and senior minister Christopher Pyne have all accused the Catholics of lying. Pyne, who went to a Catholic school in Adelaide, did not hold back on Sky News’s Agenda: “The Catholic education system really is running a very dishonest campaign.” 

 Some Liberal backbenchers were dismayed that an almost $19 billion funding boost to education is being successfully framed as a cut. It is if you take the signed agreements made by the Gillard government as your base. These are still in place and will have to be legislated away. 

Shorten riled Turnbull in parliament when he asked, over the 10 years from 2018 to 2027, what is the difference in dollar terms between the government’s schools policy and the previous Labor agreement. The prime minister refused to give a number, and went instead into high dudgeon mode. Red faced, he yelled, “Labor has no numbers, no funded numbers and I’d say they have nothing funded. Nothing funded. Nothing funded. And, Mr Speaker, when it comes to numbers, the real question the leader of the opposition should be asking is what are the numbers of the member for Grayndler?” The last line, again, is a reference to Albanese.

Out on the ground, in electorates around the country, government MPs are aware that if the Catholics deliver on their threats to raise fees in low-fee parish schools or even to close some, they will get the blame. One marginal seat holder is hoping Turnbull will tell his minister to take charge before it gets to that. The instruction: “Simon, just fix it.”

Turnbull’s problem is he comes to the fray politically weakened thanks to his one-seat majority. It denies him clout in dealing with the hostile senate. “They can’t really govern,” is the conclusion of one Liberal veteran. It’s certainly not in Shorten’s interest to make life easy for Turnbull, to just let go through everything the government bowls up. Comparisons with the Abbott opposition are blind to the fact that this opposition is not just saying “no” and leaving it at that. Alternatives are being proposed and, as the budget shows, Labor has been on the winning side of key policy arguments.

Turnbull’s taunts about Albanese coming after Shorten scarcely hide a reality on his side of the fence. Some MPs are intrigued by the way Immigration Minister Peter Dutton is quietly positioning himself. For now, he says he’s loyally serving the prime minister. But what if the prime minister fails to revive his and the government’s stocks? 

Dutton’s hard line on refugees certainly impresses conservative Liberals, Tony Abbott among them. The former prime minister would be sure of reinstatement to the cabinet if Dutton replaced a floundering Turnbull. The latest terrorist atrocity in Britain, committed by the son of Libyan Muslim refugees, is sure to persuade many that Dutton’s approach is the right one.

Liberal patriarch John Howard dismisses talk of another strike on a sitting prime minister, though. He told Leigh Sales on the ABC’s 7.30 that there is no appetite for it. There wasn’t in Labor, either, until its MPs were staring oblivion in the face months out from the 2013 election.

But not all Liberals think Dutton is the answer. He is no Kevin Rudd, with real residual support in the electorate. Victorian Liberal Russell Broadbent fired a shot across Dutton’s bows in parliament when he supported Labor’s Tim Watts and the Nationals’ Andrew Broad in a motion for an increase in sponsored refugee resettlement. Currently, Australia allows 1000 community or private refugee sponsorships. Broad nominates raising it to 10,000 a year. Broadbent says he was only too happy to support it, despite upsetting some in his party. He told parliament, “What the motion has put out is a clarion call to compassion, conscience and common sense.”

More of any of these three virtues would lift the tone in the parliament and the nation.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 27, 2017 as "Shorten given Albo room". Subscribe here.

Paul Bongiorno
is a columnist for The Saturday Paper and a regular commentator on ABC Radio National Breakfast.