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(Cartoon by Mark David / @MDavidCartoons)

Labor’s TV ads about Turnbull's career are hardly illegitimate — not many Australians start with a healthy seven-figure inheritance.

Bill Shorten’s decision last week was a real shock — but it was the second decision, not the first, that was the surprising one.

For years, Opposition Leader Shorten had been committing his party to the limiting of company tax cuts to firms worth $2 million or less. This was his position before the 2016 Election and it had not changed.

Labor voted against the additional cuts and although the Government parleyed them up to $50 million with the aid of some of the Senate crossbenchers, the Opposition’s policy had not been revised. Thus, when Shorten was asked unexpectedly if he was still determined to repeal cuts for those in the $10 million to $50 million, he replied simply: yes.

No story, one might have thought — except for the Press Gallery, feverishly pursuing its latest whiff of a leadership dispute, any leadership dispute, party and personnel irrelevant. And, of course, for The Australian, it was all shock horror. This is hardly surprising: our national daily’s default position is shock, horror, outrage, resentment, belligerence — and all were on offer for the next few days.

Rupert’s minions urged Shorten to flip, to forget about his long-standing platform and give the hard-working family businesses (and anyone else who demanded it loudly enough) a tax break — and, after a hastily convened meeting of a somewhat panicked Shadow Cabinet, he did just that. If and when Labor attains government, the existing tax regime will stand — but what has not been implemented, even if it has been legislated, will still be subject to repeal.

This means that the cuts which came in on Sunday, as well as those already churning through the books of the smaller and medium-sized firms, are confirmed. Immediate problem solved, but the cost for Shorten’s courage and credibility may be considerable.

At one level, the back down was simple pragmatism. The view was that while it was fair enough to oppose and vote against the existing cuts, once they were in place, unscrambling the eggs was just too hard. The punters are rightly sceptical about Malcolm Turnbull’s long-term aspirations — the six to ten years for the bonanza he has promised. But what we are talking about now is not the pie in the sky but the money in the bank.

They were ready to complain all the way to the ballot box if any bastard tried to take it away from them. While the threat remained latent and largely unspoken it could be managed. But to hear it uttered so bluntly and abruptly spooked them.

So Shorten had to listen and he did. He flipped. The biggest problem – at least in terms of raw numbers – were at the bottom end, the $2 million to $10 million cohort. There were at least 80,000 of them, and they presumably all had friends, relatives and employees. Shorten’s throwaway line did not target them directly, but it did draw attention to the overarching policy. So it was comparatively easy to tell them that they were okay, that they could keep their money without hindrance.

The next lot – those up to $50 million are certainly fewer; various authoritative estimates suggest anywhere between 10,000 and 20,000. Given that there are probably very few Labor voters among them, they could be considered dispensable. But some of them – those up to $25 million – were already trousering the money and the rest were pawing at the ground.

In all the circumstances, the most important of which was the looming by-elections, the safest option was to fold. The explanation – that Labor had suddenly found that the cuts to date were affordable after all but that anything further would be irresponsible – fooled nobody. It wasn’t even meant to — saving face is what you do when you eat a shit sandwich.

Minister for Finance Mathias Cormann has all but patented the technique; after yet another rebuff on the full corporate tax cuts package, he just bobs up like a Belgian jumping bean, eager for more. The theory appears to be that once the by-elections are out of the way, Senator Pauline Hanson’s fear of losing votes in Longman will bring her back to the negotiating table, where the bribe of a brand new coal-fired power station will get her and her sole remaining One National ally over the line. But even if such an economic, political and social travesty is in the pipeline, that would still leave Cormann two votes short. There will need to be more backhanders.

The tax cuts have become something of an obsession on both sides of the aisle. For the Coalition it is all about Labor’s politics of envy, for Labor, it is all about the Coalition’s politics of greed. Both Turnbull and Shorten have tried to widen the debate to include such things as education and hospitals but only as either a result of or an alternative to, the tax cuts — our civil society is in danger of becoming a purely economic battlefield.

And it is in this context that Labor’s targeting of Turnbull’s wealth is significant. The TV ads about his banking career are hardly illegitimate, in spite of the limp-wristed protests of the Right: our Prime Minister’s endless barrage of personal abuse and invective about Shorten’s alleged failings do not leave him a lot of high ground. And his defence – that he has worked hard to make a lot of money, just like all real aspirational Australians should – is a tad ingenuous — not a lot of other Australians start with a healthy seven-figure inheritance. Turnbull is not a candidate for a biography entitled "Log Cabin to The Lodge".

But Turnbull is, at least in his own terms, an unqualified success story. By making himself a role model for the aspiration of avarice he sells not only himself short, but all of us. And by playing the same game in reverse, Shorten is compounding the descent to the cesspool of greed, envy and division.

Nothing will change for at least a month, until and unless the by-elections provide a circuit breaker, which, given the relative imminence of a national poll, they probably won’t. But at least they might be a distraction.

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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