After 30 consecutive losing Newspolls, knives are out for Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. Peter Dutton, Scott Morrison, Julie Bishop and Josh Frydenberg now say they’re up for the top job if it becomes vacant. Tony Abbott’s restoration can’t be ruled out. Barnaby Joyce, in saying Mr Turnbull should do the honourable thing and resign if the government isn’t competitive with Labor by Christmas, merely reflects what many Liberal supporters are saying. Those, that is, who don’t think he should already have gone.
The final realistic chance of rebooting the Coalition and Mr Turnbull’s fortunes comes with next month’s budget. It may well be the last before the next election and, more than any Newspoll, it will determine whether this government deserves to stay in office, let alone keep Bill Shorten out.
The Australian reported last week that Mr Turnbull and Mr Morrison have approved the budget’s main measures. These are said to include personal tax cuts to complement the Prime Minister’s not-quite-passed company tax cut package. If true, we may get a ‘fistful of dollars’ budget with the switch flicked to electoral vaudeville, a voter-tempting grab bag of lower taxes and bid-spending policies and programmes designed to make Mr Turnbull a Daddy Warbucks when what we need is Scrooge McDuck.
For such goodies and ice-cream, the political thinking is this: buy the electorate’s love; get a sugar hit in the all-important Newspoll; and call an early election while the largesse afterglow lingers.
This, however, would be political folly and economic vandalism. As John Howard and Peter Costello found in 2007, Victorian premier Napthine in 2014, and even Mr Turnbull with his Labor-lite 2017 budget, big-ticket promises and unfunded tax cuts don’t win back disillusioned voters or cause a ‘budget bounce’ in the polls. They simply trash any reputation a struggling conservative government has for fiscal prudence and responsibility. Coalition profligacy feeds a Labor narrative that the government is directionless and panicking, losing what nerve it has left as its reckoning approaches.
Yet that same Labor party has traded shamelessly on big-spending populism since its knee-jerk opposition to Mr Abbott’s tough but fiscally-necessary 2014 budget. Mr Shorten knows how to spend drunkenly, and his raids on negative gearing and dividend imputation show his (and the Left’s) determination to squeeze dry the real wealth creators of our country: mum and dad shareholders and property investors.
To stave off Mr Shorten, Messrs Turnbull and Morrison must craft a solid, traditional Liberal budget. Include personal tax cuts certainly, but only if there’s a redoubled effort to attack government waste, and hack into the very un-Liberal budget deficit. Tax cuts funded by more borrowings, without seriously reducing bloated government spending, might sound superficially attractive to Liberal campaign strategists, but they would leave a profligate legacy a triumphant Labor would exploit and distort for years. On the other hand, voters will respect restraint and prudence.
In Australia, Coalition governments are elected to clean up Labor’s economic messes, not vice versa. Yet Mr Turnbull’s government debt as a share of GDP is 42 per cent compared to the 28 per cent Labor left in 2013. What Mr Turnbull needs to save his job therefore is a proper, economically-responsible, debt-reducing budget, not a spend-a-thon. Otherwise, it will be said of him ‘the prime minister has not been capable of providing the economic leadership our nation needs’. Mr Turnbull hurled his accusation at Tony Abbott in September 2015: we must now judge him by his own words.
Not so fast
China reportedly is sniffing around the South Pacific looking for a military base, and Xi Jinping’s eye has lit upon Vanuatu. Our Prime Minister, and foreign minister Julie Bishop, are rightly concerned. In these days of long-range strategic missiles, Vanuatu is our Cuba. For Chinese forces to treat our part of the world as they do the South China Sea is a threat to Australia’s and New Zealand’s security.
Mr Xi, in entrenching his own reign, seeks to emulate the great emperors of China’s glorious past. It is not paranoid to be alarmed at this potential flexing of Chinese hard power close to our shores. We should also be concerned about China’s lavish development aid buying off poor Pacific island nations like Vanuatu. Mr Xi fears determined opponents – witness his backing away from a trade war with President Trump. Australia must stand firm against a Chinese military presence in our region.