Election 2016: Malcolm Turnbull's shaky start

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Dubbed "Mr Harbourside Mansion", Turnbull is looking out of touch as Shorten slowly moves ahead — John Passant analyses week one of the election campaign.

IT HAS NOT BEEN a good first week in the election campaign for Malcolm Turnbull and his Government.

The Prime Minister looks and sounds out of touch, aloof, and to use the words of Peta Credlin, comes across as "Mister Sydney Harbourside Mansion".

There is a good reason for this. He is.

The Liberals can spin all they like about Turnbull being the very model we all should aspire to — a man who built his $200 million (tax haven) empire from the ground up by hard work and intellectual brilliance. It isn't cutting through because it just reinforces the image of Turnbull as a "toff" and because many in the aspirational class, confronted by reality, have long ago given up that dream. At best, they will become small business women or men or subcontractors with illusions.

As for workers, they know that they will remain forever workers. There can be no climbing out of the working class for them. What is on offer is growing inequality and increased pressure on wages, increasing part time work instead of full time work and more uncertainty in job arrangements.

By contrast, Labor, the other party of neoliberalism, has begun by stressing fairness. As part of its differentiation strategy, Labor has also promised to restore spending to health and education – that the Abbott Government took away in 2014 – from the years outside the forward estimates (2018 and beyond).

The Government appears trapped in its one-sided class war against workers and the poor. Thus, the Turnbull-Morrison 2016 Budget, like its 2014 predecessor, was a class warfare Budget. It attacked the poor and low paid workers. Cassandra Goldie from ACOSS tells us:

“The budget locks in $13 billion in cuts from family payments, income support for young people and paid parental leave — and adds a further $3 billion in cuts to payments and essential services. This includes cuts to Medicare and dental health and income support for people with disability.”

The aim of these Budget attacks was to fund tax cuts for small business and then big business, over time.

The unfairness of the Budget explains why Turnbull hasn't been pushing it very much in this first week. Arguing too often and too strongly about how company tax cuts for the likes of Gina Rinehart, Clive Palmer and the banks will make us all better off, only reinforces the reality of the "us and them" society we live in.

That is why the Government has slipped into mantras about jobs and growth. Its own Budget papers, however, show that this year and next, growth will be below average and, indeed, may not be enough to sustain unemployment at the claimed 5.5% this year and next. This slight fall in unemployment is built on more part time jobs and removing 30,000 interns a year from the figures. It ignores the reality that there are about 750,000 unemployed and at any one time, only about 170,000 jobs on offer.

Reinforcing its "us and them" image, the Government has cut the payments for new welfare recipients like those on Newstart, Youth Allowance and Austudy, as well as pensioners (among many others). So while it is giving the 14% of Australians earning more than $80,000 a $6 a week tax cut, and giving millionaires more than $300 a week in tax reductions, it is cutting social support allowances by $4.40 a week for new students, pensioners, the disabled — the list goes on.

It is all about priorities. While the Turnbull Government has $50 billion for submarines and $48 billion for company tax cuts, it has cuts totaling around $70 billion for health and education spending, from 2018. Right now, it is freezing the Medicare rebate and will force some doctors, as a consequence, to stop bulk billing. This is, as the AMA points out, a co-payment by stealth.

I expect the Government to beat the terrorism and refugee drums to distract attention away from the fact that they are the open party of the 1% and austerity, whose message has not been cutting through.

Labor, by contrast, has cynically played the fairness card. I say, cynically, because it was the ALP, under Hawke and Keating, which first introduced neoliberalism into Australia and began the shift of wealth from labour to capital that has been the defining feature of Australian economic life since 1983. This Labor Party embrace of neoliberalism laid the groundwork for the rise of Howard and then, after six years of Labor, Abbott and Turnbull.

Labor has committed to keeping the extra $73 billion spending on health and education that comes out of commitments the Gillard and Rudd Governments made in 2013. It will fund the bulk of this spending by not cutting company taxes and by keeping the Budget deficit levy of 2% on that very small percentage of people earning more than $180,000.

Labor understands better than the Liberals the mood of quiet anger among many workers, middle class people and others. They see and understand that the beneficiaries of their hard work are the undeserving rich — the capitalist class. False trickle down arguments are not going to disabuse them of this. In fact they are likely to further inflame passions, since these are the very people who our extra unpaid hours, our small wage increases and the cuts to our social wage have already been propping up, with little to show for it in benefits. If trickle down is so good, why have we not yet seen its results?

One problem for Labor is that, unlike 1983 to 1996, the union movement is weaker and does not have the same social power. This is important because during the Hawke and Keating era, it was the trade union bureaucracy who sold the benefits of neoliberal policies to the working class, often under the guise of fairness and better wages and other outcomes for workers.

The key achievement of Labor and the majority of the trade union bureaucracy during this period, was the restrictions on the right to strike and other enterprise bargaining "reforms" — reforms which have hamstrung the union movement and see it today as a shadow of its former self.

Labor understands that there is a level of untapped anger among workers and others over growing inequality and out of touch politicians like Turnbull. It has learnt lessons from the rise of the likes of Bernie Sanders in the U.S. and Jeremy Corbyn in the UK and, of course, the rise of radical left wing anti-austerity parties across Europe, and their concomitant, extreme right wing and fascist groups.

Labor's fairness mantra is an attempt to harness that disquiet without unleashing the forces that propelled Sanders and Corbyn to the forefront of the fight against austerity and for a fairer society.

The reality for Labor is that its fairer society agenda, apart from being fairly meek and mild, is actually at worst, a smokescreen and at best, without mass social struggles, an illusion.

This is because there is a capitalist "logic" to attacking social spending, cutting wages and smashing unions. In a society organised to put profit first, in times of falling profit rates as exist today in Australia – and have for some time in other global centres of capitalism like North America and Europe and with slowing growth in China – those attacks are attempts to restore profit rates to acceptable levels.

And they can work for a time. It is just that, eventually, workers and others can no longer accept the attacks, as they undermine their living standards and their kids' future.

If the first week is any guide, Labor's balancing act between anger and redress, couched in terms of fairness, appears to be working.

John Passant is a former assistant commissioner of the Australian Tax Office. Read more by John on his website en PassantYou can also follow him on Twitter @JohnPassant

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