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Mungo MacCallum: Newspoll, the Banking RC and the Turnbull factor

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Cartoon by Mark David / @mdavidcartoons.

In the midst of the fallout of the banking royal commission and 31 disastrous Newspolls, just going away and shutting up may be Turnbull's best move, writes Mungo MacCallum.

CORRELATION IS NOT CAUSATION.

The scientific method instructs us that events which may often occur simultaneously or in close succession are not necessarily connected, let alone actually resulting in one another.  

So it is probably no more than coincidence that Newspoll usually seems to improve for the Government when Parliament is not sitting and to get better still when Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull is out of the country.

After all, we are constantly assured that our current Prime Minister is the last, best hope for the Coalition, so it would seem logical to display him as frequently as possible in the most media-friendly circumstances — and nothing attracts the commentariat like Question Time in the House of Representatives.

And yet a disillusioned and dysfunctional backbench is increasingly coming to the conclusion that Turnbull is, in fact, part of the problem — that the voters have simply stopped listening to him. They fear that the punters feel positive relief when their leader shuts up, when the confected outrage, the bullshit and bluster, the schoolboy taunts about Opposition Leader Bill Shorten cease for a couple of weeks while they take stock.

And when they do, the news is not too horrible: wages are still down in the cesspool, but there are signs that things might finally improve and that, no thanks to the politicians, the increase in commodity profits and hence company taxes means that there will be tax relief for some real people, as opposed to the corporate geniuses who are bringing us the Financial Services Royal Commission.

Thus, Treasurer Scott Morrison can make a virtue out of his latest backflip, and claim that the universal Medicare levy rise to pay for the NDIS is really not needed after all and can instead be tossed into the basket of goodies he is preparing for the budget.

In some ways this looks more like desperation than serious policy — the Medicare levy needs to be raised as a more or less politically painless measure, not just to secure the NDIS but to help fund the ballooning cost of our health system overall. Of course, nominating a tax rise for a designated purpose is always a con — all tax goes into consolidated revenue for Morrison, and his apparatchiks to dole out wherever and whenever they feel inclined.

However, that has not stopped Morrison, Turnbull and many of their lesser acolytes saying that the new tax was absolutely necessary to save the NDIS from the penury from which former Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s Government had consigned it and that Shorten was leaving the blind, the crippled, the halt and the lame to die in misery if it did not endorse it.

We now know that this was not true; that the funding was always a matter of priorities and – given that the levy had no hope of passing the Senate in its original form – it was sensible politics to dump it. There are enough distractions already, as the daily horror stories from the Royal Commission continue to unfold — and will likely do so right up to the election.

And on this front Turnbull is doing the best he can but, frankly, it isn’t all that much. His fallback position seems to be that he initially resisted the inquiry because he wanted to put other reforms in place first; thus the forgettable tweaking of ASIC, APRA and the lectures to the banking executives all proving, in the end, to have been completely ineffectual.

But the point is that if Turnbull was determined to push ahead with them, there was nothing to stop him from starting up the Royal Commission at the same time. Only last week, Morrison introduced serious legislation while the Commission was sitting. There was no suggestion that he should have to wait until it produced its findings. And during the previous Royal Commission into the unions, the Government was celebrating the new laws it was introducing with no restraint at all.

Turnbull has, at last, admitted that delaying it, mainly because it was the idea of the Greens, then adopted by Labor, was a mistake but it seems that he is still unsure what to do next. For starters, who is to pay and for what?

It is now being argued by the remaining supporters of the wayward banks that inflicting drastic penalties on them would be a form of overkill: either they would simply pass on the costs to their hapless customers or they would have to reduce their dividends to their innocent shareholders. But hang on, are the shareholders really so innocent?

Presumably, they knew the banks were bastards – everyone else did – when they invested their hard earned savings. But they hoped for rewards and, for a long time, they got them. But now, as it has emerged the banks were involved in fraud, theft, perjury and heaven knows what other shenanigans, it appears that at least some of those welcome dividends were the proceeds of crime — the shareholders were the receivers of stolen goods.

No one is seriously suggesting that shareholders should give them back but perhaps they could be persuaded to accept a small haircut in the immediate aftermath.

Similarly, the apologists want to separate the Commission from Morrison’s cherished corporate tax cuts. We should not, they tell us sternly, think of imposing some kind of morality tax. Well, actually almost all our laws are based on morality, or at least we thought they were — their aim is to protect the public from harm in various forms. That is why we put ordinary criminals (but seldom corporate ones) in gaol.

So the withdrawal of a huge tax bonanza could be seen as a hefty fine for misconduct, which seems entirely legitimate. And this dilemma will remain at the heart of the budget. Can Turnbull afford to give the impression that he is rewarding the banks? Next week’s Budget will tell the story — and also the next Newspoll.

And the debate that follows will show us whether the glimmers of hope that appeared while Turnbull was overseas will translate into a genuine recovery. And if the past is any guide, the mob will not be impressed if Turnbull reverts to form and uses Parliament as a platform for his "Kill Bill" strategy.

If he does and the following Newspolls mark him down, then the backbenchers may decide that he is unable to change by himself, so perhaps they will reluctantly have to act in sheer self-preservation.

Correlation is not causation, but there are definitely times when absence makes the heart grow fonder. And, it can appear, make Newspoll kinder.

Mungo MacCallum is a veteran journalist who worked for many years in the Canberra Press Gallery. This article was published on 'Pearls and Irritations' and is republished with permission.

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