Malcolm in the Middle


Federal Budgets generally give the government of the day a poll bounce, even if only a momentary one. Some fall flat and register barely a twitch. The Turnbull/Morrison Budget for 2017-18 is the first Budget I can remember which actually gave a bounce – albeit a minuscule one – to the opposition, which is leading the government by 53 to 47 per cent two party preferred vote, up from 52 to 48 in late April.

The government has been very loudly touting its Budget as “pragmatic” and non-ideological, which are gentler terms for moving to the the centre, or to the left, depending how you like to look at things (and both are technically correct). I’ve heard party insiders spin the narrative that while the Budget might have abandoned the principles of lower-tax-lower-spend-lower-debt that have been the hallmarks of the Liberal Party over the recent decades, it’s actually very smart politics, because it beats Labor at its own game and nudges it off the political centre.

As this morning’s polling shows, maybe not so smart. If you try to out-Labor Labor you merely put Labor in voters’ minds; now, why would people then vote for an imitation Labor when they can have the real deal, which no matter how much you can try to out-do it, will always spend more of the money Australia doesn’t have? This is why outflanking works much better in war than in politics. By focusing almost solely on the issues that are the Labor staple – education, health and disability, bank bashing – while at the same time vacating its traditional areas of strength – economic management, taxation, security, cultural issues – the government has basically told people the future is Labor. And if that’s the case, they might as well have a Labor government. Labor voters will still vote Labor, swinging voters will vote Labor because Labor will do Labor better than Liberals, and Liberal voters will do… God knows; some of them will hold their noses and still vote Liberal, others will give their first preference to minor parties. Either way, there will be no new centrist coalition for the government.

The question now is this: having done the Liberal thing in a very half-hearted way and failed, and having now done the Labor thing and also failed, where else can the Turnbull government now go?

All this not to suggest that the political landscape is not diabolical for the Liberal side of politics at the moment:

More than half the respondents to the latest Newspoll supported the 0.5 per cent Medicare levy hike from 2019 to cover the funding gap for the National Disability Insurance Scheme.

And 68 per cent approved of a new $6.2 billion tax on Australia’s big five banks.

But 71 per cent of respondents said they did not believe the banks were justified in passing the cost of the levy to customers.

The most pernicious and destructive legacy of the Rudd/Gillard/Rudd governments is that in a very short space of time Labor succeeded in taking the electorate that cheered on as the Howard government reduced Australia’s debt to zero and then started to build up surpluses (not just budget surpluses, effectively asset surpluses – I know, seems so unbelievable now) and completely numbing them to spend-and-borrow as a feature, not a bug, of our political system. Australia used to be something else, something better, and then Labor turned it into just another European-style social democracy. And the people went along with it and are still going with it. As becomes a social democratic electorate, it now lives in a fantasy land of rainbow unicorns: yay, let’s tax banks, but no no no, they can’t pass it onto us! Well, I do not think that all those hot women on Tinder are justified in swiping left on me, but so what? If people want higher taxes they will get them, only to discover that in the end it’s them who end up paying.

The problem is that the current government has tried to be led by the people instead of trying to lead them, shape its own narrative and fight the battle of ideas to convince the voters about the rightness of our beliefs and policies. And so the government has been led nowhere.

The big reason for that is that Malcolm’s heart just isn’t it. I suspect he finds the reality as opposed to the fantasy of being the Prime Minister and governing to be a let-down; unglamorous and quite tedious. It would have been so much more fun being the Prime Minister of Wentworth than the Prime Minister of Australia.

This leads me to my last point: at heart, Malcolm is a European-style centrist who would thrive and excel in European centrist politics – Malcolm in the middle. This is why he got along so well with David Cameron – and even Obama – and I suspect would get along fabulously with Canada’s Trudeau and France’s newly elected Macron, as opposed to politicians seemingly on the same side of politics, like Theresa May or Mike Pence. I suspect that as Malcolm curls up to sleep at night his mind drifts again into the world of fantasy where he has just won the French presidential election. France, after all, is a country where no one sees anything at all strange in the fact that an investment banker can be a Socialist. In France, Malcolm can happily battle the forces of populism and obscurantism; he can spout his happy, optimistic and outward looking gospel of entrepreneurship and innovation while presiding over a tired social democratic state; he can wax lyrically about the European Union, fighting climate change, and for same-sex marriage; all while looking very elegant and glamorous and charismatic.

Alas, it’s morning again in Australia.