Paul Bongiorno
Shorten outpaces Turnbull on vision

At his major scene-setting speech at the National Press Club this week, the Opposition leader warned that Australia is in danger of becoming “a left-behind society”. While that is to be avoided, he is certainly working on applying it to Malcolm Turnbull and his government in the year-long run-up to the election. On the eve of federal parliament returning, the signs are ominous for the Turnbull Coalition. Already, three opinion polls this year have the relative standings of the government and Labor unchanged from last year. The most heartening for Turnbull was a Sky ReachTEL poll that put the two-party gap at four points. Two Essential polls have it as wide as eight points. On Monday, the 26th Newspoll since the 2016 election will report its latest taking of the national pulse.

Turnbull has invested heavily during the holiday period, using all the levers of incumbency to reverse voters’ perceptions of him and his government. These polls are not predicative of the election outcome, of course, which is likely to be held within the next nine months or so. But they are indicative of how the parties are travelling. They are market research that also influences the broader narrative.

Of the polls published so far this year, analyst Andrew Catsaras says “nothing has really changed”. There is a long trajectory of the Coalition’s polling woes, going back to the run-up in late 2013 to the Abbott government’s politically disastrous 2014 budget. It began as Christopher Pyne began walking away from the Gonski education reforms, or rather defining what he and Tony Abbott really meant by being in “lock step” with Labor on the funding package. They were there, but not for much of the whole journey. The 2014 budget, which broke every promise Abbott had made on the eve of his election win, precipitated a downward polling spiral that gave impetus to the successful Turnbull “putsch” in 2015.

Turnbull himself gave the benchmark for Abbott’s failure as 30 negative Newspolls in a row. By one estimate, that number could well be reached for Malcolm at the end of April, in the final stages of the treasurer’s May budget preparation. That budget is being billed as a pathway to tax cuts for middle Australia.

Turnbull’s real dilemma is what he can do to change the electorate’s view of him as such a great disappointment and dissuade them from giving the relatively unpopular Bill Shorten a go. The answer is not much, if the voters are so unimpressed they have stopped listening.

Shorten proved he is not allowing negative perceptions of him to get in the way this week, presenting a viable alternative government with policies that are more attractive to voters. As Opposition leader he has the luxury of being able to identify problems and promise to fix them if he’s given the chance. Turnbull, as prime minister, has been given his chance and is expected to be already delivering.

He believes he is. At his Toowoomba year opener speech, in the Coalition’s heartland on Queensland’s Darling Downs, there were no “big announceables”, just a passionate, somewhat shrill insistence on “the stark contrast between the government and our opponents in the Labor Party”. He said he is getting on with the job of creating more opportunities for Australians to invest and employ. He said, “We’re seeing that in the jobs growth: 403,000 last year. Highest jobs growth since records began. That is showing that we’re delivering.”

Turnbull is relying on his Enterprise Tax Plan – the one he took to the last election, with its promised $65 billion in corporate tax cuts, half of which are already delivered – to somehow be more impressive this time around. There was a repackaging early in the week, via his government’s massive defence spending over the next decade, into a “defence export strategy” – $20-plus million a year to help our mainly foreign-owned defence industry to eventually become the world’s 10th-biggest arms supplier.

Shorten, by contrast, is burrowing down into why these mega announcements and real improvements in the “macro economy” are leaving workers and their families cold. And this puts the political debate squarely on his preferred turf of industrial relations, health and education. He says the wages system, despite its roots in the Keating and Gillard governments, is not delivering. “Enterprise bargaining is on life support,” he says, proposing to change the rules and setting the scene for an anti-WorkChoices-style campaign. He’s on the side of the employees, he says, who are increasingly being casualised and who are seeing wages and conditions erode. All at a time when employers are pocketing substantial productivity gains for record profit growth. They are even refusing to renegotiate agreements, forcing their workers back onto lower-paid awards.

A Guardian Essential poll this week found a commanding 73 per cent of those polled think the cost of living has deteriorated during the past year, with 75 per cent thinking electricity prices are a major contributor. And, tellingly, 64 per cent of workers on average weekly earnings or lower believe their incomes have fallen behind. They’re in jobs, but far from happy, fretting about their household circumstances. That’s what Turnbull is up against.

When accused of “class warfare” Shorten throws the charge back, telling Channel Nine’s Karl Stefanovic: “I actually think class war is when a government is giving multinationals and millionaires tax cuts yet they are making millions of ordinary Australians pay more taxes.” Shorten and his treasury spokesman, Chris Bowen, continue to hammer the government’s proposal to raise the Medicare income tax levy – a tax rise for seven million low- and middle-income earners – in contrast to the tax cut given to high-income earners when the deficit reduction levy was not continued last year. “Labor,” Shorten says, “has a tax cut on the table.” The government is cynical, wanting to “hike your taxes now so they can claim credit for cutting them later”.

Labor’s case against the cost of private health insurance has strong appeal, based on consumer resentment. Shorten calls it “a con” but doesn’t spell out how he proposes to fix it. He denies he would scrap the $6 billion rebate subsidy. What he plans to do about it will be announced before the election. In fact, the speech was a pointer to 10 major policy announcements the Labor leader plans to make throughout the year, in an attempt to build momentum. If the early reaction from the government and sections of the conservative media is any guide, he will certainly be noticed. He won’t mind a bit. This is, after all, his last best shot at the top job.

The Shorten speech was widely seen as the Opposition leader getting the policy jump on Turnbull. His proposal for a national integrity commission, a federal version of the New South Wales Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC), was a case in point. This was his big “announceable”. He swept aside years of Labor wariness on the idea to seize the higher ground, “because the most corrosive sentiment in democracies around the world is the idea that politicians are only in it for themselves”.

Turnbull’s response was decidedly lukewarm. He said he’s looking at the issue and he hasn’t ruled it out. Nationals leader Barnaby Joyce thinks it’s a bad idea and unnecessary. Maybe he’s worried such a commission would take a dim view of blatant pork-barrelling. Joyce, like many in the Liberal and National parties, thinks there’s more than enough scrutiny of politicians already.

Some senior backbenchers are urging the prime minister to be brave and resist the idea. On Radio National, Attorney-General Christian Porter seemed unwilling to replicate ICAC. Politicians nobbling such a body would be a very bad look, almost as bad as refusing to set one up now that it is squarely on the table. And that’s the challenge Shorten has given Turnbull. Parallels with Turnbull’s long reluctance to set up a banking royal commission are certainly not misplaced.

For a while this week, the divisions within the government were being blamed for the leaking of confidential cabinet documents. At first, thanks to the timing the ABC used to dribble out documents from a seemingly bottomless source, it looked as if someone in the government was trying to damage Tony Abbott and Scott Morrison. Labor’s Anthony Albanese blamed the leaks on the antagonism at the top of the government. The ABC did nothing to disabuse him of this mistaken view.

It took three days for the real source to be revealed: the ABC had received two filing cabinets full of classified documents dating back to the Howard government and ending with the Abbott tenure. “The biggest breaches of cabinet security in Australian history,” according to the ABC, and it all began in the Ex- Government Furniture store in Fyshwick with a buyer who could not believe their eyes when they finally prised open the drawers.

Political pundits applying the cui bono rule (who benefits?) to guess who the leaker might be were left looking silly, much to the relief of the prime minister, who has asked his department to investigate.

That piece of good luck – insofar as for once the problem had nothing to do with internecine bastardry – may not last. In fact, the odds are against it.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on February 3, 2018 as "The left-behind society".

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Paul Bongiorno is a columnist for The Saturday Paper and a 30-year veteran of the Canberra Press Gallery.

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