Turnbull’s Policies Aren’t Liberal, They’re Incoherent

It’s hard not to conclude that Bill Shorten has the measure of Malcolm Turnbull. Policy after policy the Government is chasing the Opposition, rather than leading it.

For instance, this weekend’s talking point – negative gearing – is only on the table because Labor announced their negative gearing policy in February.

The Government’s reforms to the Australian Securities and Investment Commission are obviously because Labor called for a royal commission into the banks.

The assistant treasurer, Kelly O’Dwyer, announced a new public register of shell companies last week. Does anybody believe the Government would be so keen on this issue if Labor hadn’t made corporate tax avoidance a centrepiece of their economic message?

Labor declared earlier this year that it would hike tobacco taxes. Lo and behold so will the Coalition.

And the mooted superannuation reforms we heard about last week appear to be specifically calibrated to trump Labor’s proposal. Where Labor will increase taxes on those earning more than $250,000 a year, the Coalition will increase taxes on those earning more than $180,000.

These aren’t marginal issues: if the leaked script for the post-budget advertisements is correct, multinationals, tobacco and superannuation are exactly what the Government wants voters to think about.

More damningly, those three budget centrepieces all constitute tax hikes. (Any policy that increases government revenue is a tax hike, no matter how it is dressed up in the language of “loopholes” or “concessions” or “savings”. The Australian commentariat can be embarrassingly gullible when it comes to political euphemisms.)

If the political parties were only ever neutral policy shops freely picking and choosing ideas from across the political spectrum this wouldn’t be remarkable. Simple models of political competition suggest that in a two party system, party policies are likely to converge.

But the Coalition is not supposed to be a neutral policy shop. The Coalition is supposed to be – indeed, professes to be – the low-tax party, reducing the burden of government on the citizenry rather than increasing it.

Shortly after becoming Treasurer, Scott Morrison declared that Australia had a spending problem, not a revenue problem. Language ought to mean something. If our budget problem is not a revenue problem, then why are revenue grabs at the centre of the Government’s economic message?

Messiness in policy formation can always be overlooked … But messiness in policy direction is harder to ignore.

Prime ministers usually set the standards by which they are judged. Tony Abbott was unable to deliver the steady government he promised after the turmoil of the Rudd-Gillard years, and surrendered his “freedom wars” less than a year into office. Turnbull set his standard – to lead a “thoroughly Liberal government” – at the moment of the spill. It is a standard he has yet to live up to.

On the positive side of the ledger, there was the successful effort this month to abolish the Road Safety Remuneration Tribunal. This price-fixing regulator was established by the Gillard government yet left untroubled by the Abbott government.

But on the negative side of the ledger we have tax hikes and new spending promises, the latter amounting to $10 billion of expenditure announced since Turnbull took power. And the bevy of new powers being granted to ASIC will also represent a substantial increase in the regulatory burden – and a substantial empowerment of the regulatory state.

The Turnbull Government’s policy suite isn’t thoroughly Liberal – it’s incoherent.

Messiness in policy formation can always be overlooked. Government is a human enterprise not a divine one. And few voters are engaged enough in political news to identify complication and contradiction before policies are formally announced. But messiness in policy direction is harder to ignore.

This is one reason why Bill Shorten looks more electable by the day. To Labor’s credit, they have announced a suite of policies that fit together nicely and tell a coherent story about the world. It’s not a very pleasant story – banks are ripping off their customers, multinational corporations are ripping off the budget, rich taxpayers with large super balances are ripping off poor taxpayers – but it does give a picture of what Labor stands for and what a Shorten government will mean.

Voters still lack this information about Turnbull. After the entirely-forgettable innovation statement, the Government has been on a constant backfoot – chasing the legacy of decisions made by Tony Abbott’s team, such as the tax reform process, as much as trying to keep up with a stream of Labor announcements.

Some of this dynamic has been forced upon the Government. Leadership changes are disorderly. But not all of Turnbull’s problems have been forced by circumstance.

Turnbull needs to grab the agenda, and grab it in a way that is thoroughly – discernibly – Liberal, rather than an emulation of Labor. After all, if voters want the Labor package, why would they vote for the Coalition?