The Turnbull Government, the ALP and the political year ahead

| January 11, 2016

A sense of calm and policy focus came to distinguish the Turnbull Government’s first few months in office. Dominic O’Sullivan says the ALP would do well to enter the election campaign under the leadership of one who acts with the same clarity of purpose, confidence and certainty.

As has become tradition in recent years, 2015 saw a new Prime Minister. Malcolm Turnbull assumed office with the promise of ‘proper Cabinet Government’. There would be none of the ‘captain’s picks’ that exposed the poor political judgement of Abbott and Gillard, nor the shambolic management of government that distinguished Rudd’s first prime ministership. Cabinet, not the Prime Minister’s Chief of Staff, would run the government.

A sense of calm and policy focus came to distinguish the Turnbull Government’s first few months in office. Real politics resumed late in the year with the resignation of Jamie Briggs and ‘standing aside’ of Mal Brough from the ministry. The full seriousness of the allegations against Briggs have somehow remained concealed, but they were clearly of sufficient moment to satisfy the Prime Minister that Briggs’ continued presence would undermine the Government’s focus on domestic violence and determination to court the female vote. The contrasting emphasis with Abbott’s struggle to resonate with female voters is most significant. Turnbull’s patience with Brough is inexplicable and may yet taint his government with unnecessary scandal, even as one of the key tasks of political management is to keep the public focus on positive points of difference with one’s opponents. Rudd, Gillard and Abbott were abject failures in this respect.

Tax and workplace relations are emerging as the points of policy difference that the government wishes to take to the election, even though there are risks associated with both. The economic argument for increasing and broadening the GST will be hard to sell, especially by a party that is generally more ideologically disposed to reducing rather than increasing taxes, and not well disposed to increasing public expenditure when it is increased financial support for education and health that is likely to be the expectation of State and Territory governments in lending their support to changes in the consumption tax.

Recent revelations of just how much tax large corporations do not pay also makes the Turnbull Government vulnerable and gives the ALP wide political space to set out an alternative test of ‘fairness’ in tax policy. However, uncritically dismissing the GST as a potentially fair tax when, for example, corporations cannot escape consumption taxes shows the ALP continuing to prefer ideology over argument in its policy determinations. While few are excited by the complexities and finer details of tax policy, it remains among the more important policy domains for all political parties because it is, in effect, a compelling ‘short hand’ for the expression of underlying political values. Individual conceptions of ‘fairness’ are, in fact, expressions of what people think about what governments ought and ought not do.

Workplace relations policy is, similarly, deeply imbued in personal political philosophies as much as in immediate self-interest. Workplace relations policy sits alongside taxation as a policy domain where genuinely different ideas exist and where political parties can, with absolute clarity, set out and debate the values that set them apart. These are not abstract values, but values that influence people’s daily experiences of work, how much money they can earn and under what conditions; values that influence where the tax burden most heavily lies and what policy costs and benefits arise from taxation.

From the Coalition’s perspective the election campaign will focus on those instances of corruption and otherwise unconscionable practices that the Royal Commission into Trade Union Corruption has identified. Its political strategy is to manoeuvre the ALP into defending the indefensible. Thus far the ALPs response is defensive and it risks the proposition of a double dissolution election on, this, its weakest policy point. The counter argument of the Commission being a politically motivated witch hunt headed by a Liberal party stooge appears not to have worked. The ALPs utter dependence on its union affiliation system has left it to the Senate cross-bench to provide a way of removing union corruption from the election campaign; that is in the proposal to broaden the scope of the Government’s union ‘watchdog’ to one that has broader powers to investigate allegations of corruption wherever they occur in the manner of the New South Wales Independent Commission against Corruption (ICAC).

In removing this point of vulnerability for the ALP, the party would be free to campaign against the mandate that the Coalition will seek for further liberalisation of labour laws. In particular, its intention to reduce Sunday penalty rates which, for many workers, are the difference between a comfortable weekly income and one that is not consistent with contemporary costs of living. The ALP needs to back down on those issues that distract it from a politically profitable focus on questions where its test of ‘fairness’ is more closely aligned with prevailing public opinion.

For the ALP, its leader remains an obstacle to this kind of focus, while for the Government a distinct advantage is that for the first election in three, there will be a Prime Minister able to campaign from a position of personal security as party leader. He will also campaign with clarity of purpose, confidence and certainty. The ALP would do well to enter the election campaign under the leadership of one who enjoys those same attributes.



  1. Max Thomas

    Max Thomas

    January 11, 2016 at 9:54 pm

    Look, up in the sky, it’s…

    A.Prof O'Sullivan demonstrates the clarity of thought the ALP would do well to emulate if they are to avoid their worst drubbing in decades. An alternative leader "able to campaign from a position of personal security" and with clarity of purpose, confidence and certainty". To Dominic's fine blog I would only add 'able to leap tall buildings in a single bound'. The apparel that goes with that job description, I'm afraid, would make the present incumbent appear even more ridiculous.