Friday afternoon, Malcolm Turnbull drops a bombshell. He intends to ignore the will of the people over tax reform. Speaking on ABC Adelaide he says:
“I think given we’re so close to the budget, the budget will be, for all practical purposes, the white paper.”
It’s no big announcement; he couldn’t be more low-key about it. More polite. Or less brutal. Forget the people’s input. There’s just not enough time. Imagine this as an election campaign slogan: ‘We really want to be democratic and consult and converse about tax but we just don’t have the time’.
After taking power because,
“It is clear enough that the government is not successful in providing the economic leadership that we need,”
Turnbull has aborted his national conversation on tax. He’s scrapped the time-honoured process of consultation whereby a discussion paper allows the people to identify and commit to a problem which leads to a green paper which airs possible solutions and seeks feedback, a paper which in turn provides the basis for the white paper, which sets out what the government proposes to do. ‘Economic leadership’ does not entail scrapping the consultation process.
At first glance Turnbull appears to be just following Treasurer, Scott Morrison, who will not be deterred, he says, from tax reform just because a hike of 50% in the GST might be unpopular. So claims ScoMo, for whom increasing tax and stopping boats are all the same thing. He’s done unpopular before.
Morrison makes it seem so simple. So easy. If only people would just shut up and let those born to rule get on with the job of government.
Then the champion of unpopular causes gets carried away with his own heroic virtue. Nervous backbenchers are just bed-wetters, ScoMo jeers. This alienates them further. But what, then, does this now make Malcolm Turnbull?
Late Friday, Turnbull tells an Adelaide ABC reporter, in passing, that his government’s White Paper will be dropped. It’s a sign that, after 140 days of Liberal floating a GST increase he’s now trying to torpedo the idea. Frantically.
Four months into his Prime Ministership and eight months out from an election as Lenore Taylor reminds us, Turnbull may not have a clue who he is or what he stands for but he knows what he doesn’t like. Opposition. The PM may have a pathological need for approval but that aside he’s shrewd enough not to sign his own political death-warrant. If only it were so easy.
The PM’s change of policy on consultation will come as a shock to those hundreds of Australians who made submissions in good faith that they might be listened to; that their voices might influence policy – especially on taxation, by a politician who came to power promising a consensus model which ‘respected the intelligence’ of the electorate. Now at least it’s clear. The people’s voice doesn’t matter.
Cheer squads are acceptable. Some, like Kate Carnell, veteran barracker for all businesses great and small are a shrewd investment; independent opinion is a disposable extra. Surely he can’t expect voters to be happy with their dismissal?
Unhappy also are Turnbull’s own backbenchers who are caught flat-footed, wedged between a tax conversation few of us can join in and the growing pressure of electorates which hate the idea of a 50% GST rise, an idea which has not been explained let alone argued. As Russell Broadbent tells the media,
“I am yet to hear a coherent argument as to why we are doing this, an argument I could use to convince the people of my electorate,” Broadbent says.
Instead Malcolm Turnbull proposes to ride rough-shod over any process of democratic decision-making. Clearly rattled by growing back-bench dismay over a 50% rise in GST, our unelected PM plunges headlong into another flip-flop. It’s a disturbing trend. Does he have a clue what he’s doing? What is the point of brand Turnbull if it is as weak and vacillating in government as the PM he overthrew? What price democracy under a Turnbull government?
Daily, Turnbull behaves more like his predecessor Cap’n Tony Abbott, an equally inept decision-maker with no clear agenda whose fondness for rash unilateral ‘Captain’s calls’ helped pave the way for Turnbull take his job.
Autocratic decisions are the order of the day, for the Abbott-Turnbull government while its main business of managing the affairs of the nation, or its policy, or itself remains confused and at worst inept. Kate Carnell has just been anointed Ombudsman for a GST hike and tax cuts for high income earners and business, a $6 million dollar move which does a public servant out of a job. Mark Brennan, current commissioner for small business, a former Labor appointee must make way for a political appointee. No fuss was made; no consultation was deemed necessary.
No warning or consultation preceded Turnbull’s words on Friday, either. He surprised those who heard earlier in the week his Treasurer promise that the White Paper would be ‘released before the next election’. Yep. The same white paper that was promised to be released before Christmas. The same white paper that Tony Abbott put on hold.
Democracy is on indefinite hold in this Liberal Party government. Turnbull, himself, is a PM in search of what he stands for, a PM whose chief distinguishing feature so far is his phobia of committing to any one policy. So far he is Tony Abbott in a better suit and a more coherent sound-bite.
Abbot came to be paralysed on policy by his fear of getting anyone off-side. Turnbull is every bit as fearful. Yet there is plenty of bold reflex action: business lobbyists such as Ms Carnell are welcomed on-board.
The White Paper on tax reform was supposed to reflect the nations diverse views. As it still says grandly, hollowly on its better tax website, the government tells us ‘
‘The Treasurer opened the conversation on tax by releasing the tax discussion paper on 30 March 2015. The formal submissions process has now closed’.
They got that last bit right. Closed. The government has taken our views into consideration and rejected all of them.
This was to have been a process of consultation, a national conversation, a way of government seeking out and recording the diversity of opinion amongst the Australian people on an issue of fundamental importance. Tax.
Hundreds of submissions were received. Typically a green paper would inform a white paper which would guide policy. Now, all is to be tossed into the garbage can.
Bugger the people. Bugger the fact that for months Treasurer Morrison has regaled us with his oily promise of a national conversation on tax reform. What we got instead was: ‘Let us pretend to value your opinion. Let us delay our white paper. Then, early in February, let us totally scrap the whole pretence.
Thanks for nothing, Mr Turnbull. Thanks for wasting our time. Thanks for the arrogance and contempt for what the people might think. Encourage us to give our opinions and then just trash the results. Clearly the people don’t matter to your style of government whatever that may turn out to be. You have made it clear we are irrelevant to you.
Just don’t be surprised when we return the favour in September. Dropping your 50% GST rise is your business but don’t expect Australians to take kindly to your trashing what’s left of our democracy in the process.