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Could Turnbull's lack of nuance lose the election?

By Glen Anderson and Alan Berman - posted Friday, 3 June 2016


By all accounts, Malcolm Turnbull has started the 2016 election slower than expected. The latest Newspoll shows that the Labor Party enjoys a majority of 51 per cent on a two party preferred basis. This result is replicated by the latest Morgan Poll. The most recent Seven News Poll has Labor's two party preferred lead at 52 per cent, and indicates a primary vote of 36.5 per cent for Labor, 41.1 per cent for the Coalition, and 9.6 per cent for the Greens. Regardless of which poll is preferred, the preponderant advantage enjoyed by Turnbull in 2015 and early 2016 has disappeared.

There are many reasons to explain these results:the end of Turnbull's honeymoon period, the inability to develop a Prime Ministerial narrative, a perception that the government has failed to develop policies which distinguish it from the Abbott era, a tightening of the polls as Australians think more critically about politics heading into a general election, and of course, Labor's performance, particularly its willingness to propose concrete economic and social reform measures.

There is, however, a deeper story buried in these points: Turnbull's reluctance to undertake nuanced differentiation from Labor on important political issues. Stated simply, Turnbull has sought to create greater differences between the Coalition and Labor than was necessary to win the election. By so doing, Turnbull has overreached in the differentiation stakes and risks alienating valuable centrist voters.

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How has this occurred?

Perhaps the best example is environmental policy, particularly reductions in carbon based emissions. To almost all observers of the 2016 election, it has seemed surprising that Turnbull has not developed a more progressive and forward looking policy response. Climate change science is now well established and scepticism in this domain is looking increasingly ridiculous. Just as humans rely upon scientific expertise in every facet of their daily lives – driving cars, using computers, utilizing GPS satellite navigation, speaking on mobile phones, taking pharmaceutical medication – so too we must rely upon science with respect to climate change. Once it is accepted that anthropogenic climate change is occurring, and that it is having a deleterious impact upon our environment and weather patterns, potentially leading to increases in sea levels which could displace millions of people and alter ecosystems, the next question is what to do about it.

One of the most useful responses is to turn away from fossil fuels as soon as is economically feasible. Labor has acted decisively by seeking a 45 per cent reduction in carbon based emissions by 2030. The Coalition under Turnbull has proposed a reduction of 26-28 per cent within the same time period. Given Turnbull's strong support for environmental policies in the past, particularly his willingness in 2010 to cross the floor of parliament and vote for an emissions trading scheme, his relative restraint has been conspicuous.

To avoid this type of criticism, Turnbull did not need to match Labor's figure – although this was certainly an option to neutralise the issue. If Turnbull had adopted a nuanced approach to differentiation from Labor, say an emissions reduction of 38-40 per cent, this would have allowed him to maintain his integrity on climate change policy, prevent attacks that he has "sold out" his leadership to his party's climate change sceptics and portray Labor's proposal as subtly out of step with economic realities. Turnbull could have marketed himself as a "man of nuance", possessing "superior judgment", and at the same time maintained his progressive stance on climate change. It may just have won over the hearts and minds of centrist voters.

Negative gearing is another example of Turnbull's failure to develop a nuanced policy response. Most commentators agree that Bill Shorten's decision to announce reforms to negative gearing in order to create an increase in new housing stock and stabilize the inflated metropolitan property market was a key turning point for Labor's electoral fortunes. Why? Because younger Australians, particularly those under the age of 35, are increasingly struggling to enter the property market. This is especially the case for single Australians who do not enjoy two pooled incomes. Moreover, there is a growing number of older Australian property owners who realise their children are unable to purchase a home and thus will not enjoy the same standard of living as they did in their youth. For these older Australians, further increases in the value of their property portfolios are not nearly as important as ensuring their children will be able to enter the property market.

Shorten's policy to "do something" about inflated metropolitan property prices is resonating with the electorate. Although Shorten's policy may not be perfect, perhaps requiring further stimulation on the supply side of the equation, it is nevertheless an attempt to try and make changes in the interests of intergenerational equity.

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What has been Turnbull's response to this important issue? Remarkably, he has done nothing. This, in effect, is a snub to younger Australians who cannot enter the metropolitan property market. Turnbull's policy lacks nuance, and has needlessly exposed the Coalition to electoral backlash. If Turnbull had announced at least some changes to negative gearing, he would have been able to portray his approach as a measured one reflecting "fine grained decision making." Given his business background, these arguments would have washed with voters. He could have neutralised the negative gearing issue and prevented valuable centrist votes from slipping away to Labor.

Another example of Turnbull's lack of nuance is arguably revealed by the proposed company tax cuts. While there is sympathy among voters of all political persuasions for small business to receive some taxation relief to stimulate much needed employment growth and investment, there is certainly almost no appetite to grant billions in generous taxation relief for large multinationals, the banks and mining companies. Most Australians know at least one small business owner and understand how difficult it is to establish a successful enterprise. But a consensus is emerging that the proposed company tax cuts have gone too far for present economic realities. If anything, the tax cut for companies should have stopped with an annual turnover of 10 million. Rather than budgeting to decrease the tax rate for companies with an annual turnover above 10 million in future years, it may have been tactically and economically more advantageous to pass further tax cuts – perhaps another one or two cents in the dollar – to companies with annual turnovers up to 10 million. Instead, Turnbull has become trapped by a "one-size fits all" argument on company tax cuts, at a time when average working Australians are less than financially buoyed. This lack of political nuance will inevitably fuel the perception of Turnbull as a nominee of big business, thereby unnecessarily alienating important centrist voters.

Finally, Turnbull's desire to lay the trigger for the 2016 election at the Senate's feet over its refusal to pass the Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC) legislation similarly lacks political nuance. Attacks on unions – which many Australians historically have supported and utilised in their workplaces – are unlikely to galvanise voter support. Stated simply, there was no need for anti-unionism to form part of the 2016 election. Far from being an election winning strategy for Turnbull, the emphasis on the ABCC legislation may only lose – not attract – centrist voters. It also opens the way for Labor and the Greens to reanimate the "WorkChoices spectre" which was in large part responsible for the Howard Government's 2007 electoral defeat.

One must ask: does Turnbull truly lack nuanced judgment, or is there something deeper at play? Most commentators readily concede that Turnbull is a sophisticated intellectual and political thinker. If so, why is he not implementing more nuanced policies and strategically astute political tactics?

Perhaps the principal factor accounting for the lapse in judgment is the influence enjoyed by the Liberal Party's right wing. This is the same right wing that tenaciously clung to Abbott's failed Prime Ministership. It is the right wing that has repeatedly announced its climate science scepticism and agnosticism as well as reportedly counselling Turnbull not to enact changes to negative gearing. It is the right wing that uncritically subscribes to trickle down Reaganomics and appears uncomfortably sympathetic to the large end of corporate Australia. It is the same right wing which during the Howard years enthusiastically cultivated anti-unionism and developed the unpopular WorkChoices policy. Turnbull, dependent upon the support of his party's right to obtain the Prime Ministership, has in effect, been forced to defer to these more immoderate political views.

In short, Turnbull's lack of nuance on key political issues – finessed by his party's right as the quid pro quo for securing the Lodge – could cause him to return to government with a greatly reduced majority or even possibly lose the upcoming July 2 election. Such a result – unthinkable just six months ago – would be a disproportionately high price to pay for a lack of nuance.

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About the Authors

Glen Anderson is a lecturer in law at the University of Newcastle. Dr Anderson researches and teaches in the areas of international law, equity, company and property law. He has formerly taught Australian and international politics.

Dr. Alan Berman, an Adjunct Research Fellow of the Socio-Legal Research Centre at Griffith Law School and a Senior Lecturer in Law at Newcastle Law School, teaches and researches in the areas of crime and Australian society, international human rights law and sexuality and the law.

Other articles by these Authors

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