Coalition lives or dies by Morrison’s performance

The Australian

6 August 2016

Terry McCrann Business Columnist Melbourne

Scott Morrison is the last best and indeed only hope of the Turnbull government. It lives — brutally, maybe even just survives — or dies, in chaos and ignominy, on the Treasurer’s success or failure.

I do not mean or even just quixotically hope that Morrison can somehow succeed in waving some magical fiscal wand, slashing taxes and the deficit simultaneously and winning seamless Senate approvals.

Success in this contemporary economic and political context will be a far more modest affair. But any such success, limited as it might realistically be, will turn on Morrison aggressively projecting himself in this government and more specifically in this cabinet, as a 21st century version of the Paul Keating of the second half of the Hawke government in the 1980s.

Or to be more precise, as Keating subsequently projected himself and his role as being — perhaps in something of a posthoc rationalisation of his relentless stalking and ultimate toppling of someone who was easily Labor’s most successful prime minister and indeed the “bronze medal holder” in the pantheon of PMs behind the incomparable Robert Menzies and John Howard.

In essence Keating claimed that he became the PM-in-effect for the last four years of the Hawke government, providing both the policy grunt and political leadership in the PM’s “absence” . It is an interpretation that is a matter of some considerable contention.

Whatever the truth of that, Morrison has to become that Keating, of fact or fiction: because someone has to, given both the aimlessness and ineptitude of Malcolm Turnbull and the fact that there is quite simply no one else.

The PM’s party deputy, Julie Bishop? Pu-leeze . She’s too busy “projecting” herself into international forums, when she’s not attempting to do the same for a certain former PM.

It all comes down to Morrison and the absolute fulcrum is his superannuation proposals.

Now two weeks ago, I argued they had become the fundamental defining issue of his treasurership. Either he fixed the mess he unveiled on budget night or he announced his total unfitness to be treasurer.

That stands. But I would now take it to a broader and more defining level: fixing the mess — frankly, walking back from what he proposed — is the sine qua non of Morrison asserting himself into that more fundamental role of giving this government both policy cohesion and direction and political viability in the absence of the PM.

Turnbull’s , for want of a better word, performance in the 10 months leading up to the election was quite simply abysmal. As I wrote in April, he had proved himself to be a dud. In the month since the election, his performance has been depressingly worse. Not only has he “done” nothing in policy terms, not even just some articulation of where the Turnbull government would like to head; he’s given not the slightest indication that he’s spent the time working out that policy direction and a political strategy built around, but not exclusively, dealing with the Senate reality.

That in itself is just a continuation of his pre-election “approach” : as I’ve previously noted, in becoming PM, he was an example of “the dog who caught the car” — not having the faintest idea of what to do with it.

Pre-election he refused to engage in any meaningful, far less effective, way with the disparate individuals who comprised the crossbench, culminating in his “inspired” double-dissolution and Senate voting change tantrum.

Does anyone seriously believe that the “Sun King PM” of Bill Leak’s cartoons will deign to stoop to smooge with Pauline Hanson, who with her four senators is now the absolute fulcrum of getting any non-Labor /Greens legislation through the Senate?

The contemporary concern operates on two levels. The first is the drift and aimlessness; the second is not just the reality of letting the opposition fill the policy and political space left vacant, but even a willingness to do so. To let Labor and the Greens govern in effect from opposition.

In no small part this is because Turnbull finds it hard to disagree with what appeals to Labor and the Greens; further — and dangerously — he is likely to see, in various accommodations with either Labor or the Greens, the path through the crossbench complications.

This gives even greater heft to my point that the government must walk back from the worst idiocies of its super proposals; it would be all too easy to claim “success” in passing them essentially unchanged via a “Grand Coalition” with Labor.

As I argued two weeks ago, the great danger was a replay of the 2014 budget, when Labor was only too willing to pass tax increases — specifically, the high-income levy — but none or few of the spending cuts.

It’s bad enough that we are shaping up for an extended repeat. But worse, this process will start with “bad” tax increases, in the form of the super proposals.

They are mendable. Broadly, the two ceilings — the $1.6 million “retirement” pot and the $500,000 for after-tax contributions — need to be increased.

Morrison has first to accept they need major refinement. He also has to drop his hairychested silliness that any changes must be fiscally neutral. We need the “right” policy, not one that just “adds up” .

And “adds up” to absolutely no real fiscal point; for the changes will make four-fifths of very little real difference to the budget bottom line in the short term. But they would seriously damage it in the long term by encouraging even more investment in both negatively geared property and the family home, and by encouraging otherwise self-funded retirees to “retire” instead to the old-age pension.

For both the survival of the Turnbull government and for some hope of good policy that can also be politically effective, it is a case of Morrison or the bush.

He can prove he is fit to be both treasurer and PM, or we can start counting the days to Turnbull’s toppling.

Does anyone believe the PM will stoop to smooge with Pauline Hanson?