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Turnbull loses poll advantage

Turnbull newMalcolm Turnbull has made it clear that his Coalition government is not prepared to match Australian Labor Party(ALP) promises to spend the billions of dollars pledged for health and education by the former prime minister, Julia Gillard.

“The money was never there”, he told Sky News Australia. “There is simply not the money to fund the promises that she made, and she knew that at the time”, Malcolm Turnbull said, describing the ALP forward commitment as a “fantasy”.

What Turnbull says is true, but his problem is that his predecessor, the man he overthrew, the hapless Tony Abbott, went to the last election pledging “no cuts to education, no cuts to health”, and then, when elected, dropped the Gillard proposals, giving Labor carte blanche to accuse the Coalition of cutting essential services. In fact, both education and health funding has increased by substantially more than the rate of inflation, but the public does not appear to have got the message.

In the Newspoll published April 5, News Corporation, Australia’s largest media group, put Labor ahead of the Coalition for the first time since Turnbull replaced Abbott last September.

This came after Tanya Plibersek, deputy Opposition leader, told a news conference that the Gillard proposals were still intact, and would be fully funded by a Labor government through increased taxes on superannuation, higher tobacco duties and forcing multinational companies operating in Australia to stop ‘profit shifting’.

While Labor’s arithmetic does not add up, the party’s message is simple, if disingenuous. It is designed to appeal to a large slice of the population that has grown used to generous handouts and government funding that owes much to the European model.

The Coalition, on the other hand, despite Turnbull’s pledge to improve on the Abbott’s government’s poor economic management, has – after a good start – appeared to veer from one policy to another, pursuing a slogan of ‘jobs and growth’.

Unemployment has come down, GDP has risen to 3%, the highest in the OECD, but the policies to be used to sustain the transition from a resources-based economy to one based on innovation, technology, tourism, and agriculture have wavered. First there was to be an increase in the GST rate from 10% to 15%; that was ruled out. Then the government flirted with ending the tax benefits of negative gearing, but ruled that out too.

The latest Turnbull initiative, which lasted for a mere five days, was to allocate a proportion of Federal income tax receipts to the States, along with the full responsibility to run health and education, a burden they mostly carry now. Turnbull offered to give the States the right to raise or reduce their own taxes. At a meeting between the prime minister and State premiers at the weekend, only one – Colin Barnett from Western Australia – supported the idea. They preferred to continue to go cap-in-hand to Canberra for funding shortfalls, rather than take on the accountability that goes with fiscal responsibility.

Turnbull – and some commentators – saw their refusal to cooperate as a victory for his common-sense approach. The verdict of the polls indicates the public thinks otherwise. This may be partly explained by the government’s inability to explain itself properly in the short-time available. Turnbull did attempt to do so in a long interview on a relatively obscure Sunday morning program on the subscription Sky News channel.  However, more noise came from the Opposition using their friends at the national broadcaster, the ABC, to repeat time and again the message of cuts to health and education that were Gillard’s aspiration -but never funded.