Doing nothing pays. Paralysis sets in

by Crispin Hull on December 30, 2016

THE last Newspoll for 2016 reinforced the basic political conundrum of this decade: Voters crying: “Me; me; me,” But also demanding governments make sure they address all of the important national-interest matters: budget deficit, economic growth, education, health care and infrastructure.

And do that important stuff without being polls-driven populists.

The last Newspoll for 2016 was more sophisticated than the usual fortnightly one. It was of more than 8500 people over three months. It tracked voting patterns by sex and age.

The results are enough to make you feel sorry for our political leaders.

Basically, the Turnbull Government was hammered by the over 50s, usually a Coalition strength, especially since the time of the Howard Government.

I suspect Turnbull copped it from both ends.

At one end were the wealthy who were annoyed (though a verb beginning with P might better express their feelings) at the changes to superannuation rules that curtailed their hitherto bounteous tax concessions on their superannuation funds that were well beyond what any government should ever have to do to encourage people to provide for their own retirement.

At the other end were the over 65s at the middle and lower end of the income spectrum who were even more than annoyed about the changes to means testing of the aged pension. “Worked all life. Paid taxes, Lived in middle of road in shoebox. Now Government wants to take away what is rightfully mine.”

The changes in aged care also affected this age group.

The result was that in the latest Newspoll the over 50s have deserted the Coalition. The Coalition’s two-party-preferred margin over Labor fell 12 points from almost 20 to 8.

The lesson for politicians is do not make anyone feel any pain however justified in the national interest.

Former Treasurer Peter Costello once said about the National Disability Insurance Scheme that the best way to cut government spending is not to start programs in the first place because politically they are too hard to take away.

More pertinently, he could have said not to hand out big tax concessions because they are too hard to take back when times get tougher – which is precisely what he did as Treasurer with superannuation and capital gains.

Interestingly, the latest poll showed the Coalition holding its own among voters in the 35-to-50 bracket who are less worried about retirement and more interested in negatively geared investments and the capital-gains concessions when they sell them.

As soon as the Coalition took changes to negative gearing off the table, this group was happy.

And the under 35-year-olds, bizarrely, slightly increased their support for the Coalition over the polling period. Perhaps the Turnbull gloss is taking a bit longer to wear off in the eyes of this group.

This group should have been demanding that more be done about housing affordability and been more hostile to the Government for doing nothing.

The government, after a major parliamentary inquiry into housing affordability made exactly NO recommendations as to how to improve the position.

It seems that doing nothing does not result in poor polling among the age brackets that could be helped, but if a government adversely affects an age group it gets hammered.

It is now getting to a paralysis stage in Australian (and perhaps developed-world) politics.

Perhaps it began with that simplistic form of journalism where reporters shoved a microphone in front of a politician’s face and asked: “Can you guarantee that no one will be worse off with this policy?”

Yet the very aim of good policy-making is – in these days of a finite cake in an economy that is not expanding – to reallocate the limited funds according to equity, economy, efficiency and – dare I say it – ideology. It means that good policy necessitates some people being worse off.

But if a politician admits as much, the backlash becomes so severe that the politician invariably goes to water and good policy goes down the drain (to mix metaphors).

The housing affordability inquiry is, surely, the nadir of Australian political paralysis. Here is a massive political, economic and social issue and the MPs from the governing coalition say they have exactly NO recommendations to fix it – not even the half-baked, high falutin or unworkable, let alone the sensible or helpful stuff that usually comes from parliamentary inquiries. But nothing?

How scared are they of the asinine media question “Can you guarantee that no one will be worse off?”

How scared have they become of offending the lobby groups that support them financially?

But, sadly, the latest Newspoll shows that they have every reason to be.

This assumes greater significance when you consider that Turnbull specifically cited 30 consecutive poor Newspolls as one of the reasons for challenging Tony Abbott.

If Newspoll is to be the yardstick and it points to the need to not offend voters and do nothing, the paralysis will be greater than just the need not to offend the conservatives in the party room.

Turnbull now seems to be trapped by two claws of a crab – Newspoll on one side and the conservative foursome (Abbott, Cory Bernardi, George Christensen and Eric Abetz) on the other.

Perhaps Turnbull would be better off if Bernardi did form a new Conservative Party, though whether many existing MPs would risk joining him remains to be seen. It might, at least, put a dampener on the rise of One Nation.

A separation of political forces on the centre-right as well as on the centre-left might give the Australian political system more clarity.

The two-party model has been been beset with the problem of each side trying to please all and ending up pleasing fewer and fewer and doing less and less.
CRISPIN HULL
The article first appeared in The Canberra Times and other Fairfax Media on 1 January 2017.

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