It’s half-time and the score is 0-0. Australia’s election campaign is an uncomfortable draw and, with four weeks to go, we cannot be sure we will get a result. The polls will tell you that Malcolm Turnbull’s 51-49 advantage on a preferred party basis after second preferences has been reversed to exactly that ratio in Labor’s favour.
These polls are meaningless, based on the opinions of just 1359 voters.
Opposition leader Bill Shorten needs to see his party capture 19 marginal seats to govern, and that is not going to be easy. The probability is that, whoever wins, the House of Representatives may lack an overall majority and an impasse is even more likely in the Senate, making it even harder for the government to push through its legislation. This will result in the same kind of indifferent government that Australia has experienced through four prime ministers over five years, in sharp contrast to nearby New Zealand where John Key’s three-term government has enthusiastically embraced a reform agenda.
So far, the Turnbull government campaign has focussed on the recent Budget package of a progressive reduction in company taxes over ten years to fuel jobs and growth. The government already has a reasonable track record: the current GDP growth rate is 3.1%, higher than any G-7 country, and unemployment stands at 5.7%, lower than it has been for some years.
Shorten, who used to be in favour of company tax cuts, is now opposing them, and is fighting the campaign on a plan to spend billions of additional dollars on education, health and infrastructure to create a “fairer society”. He has yet to spell out how he will pay for this or his promise to bring down Australia’s $44.5 billion fiscal deficit faster than a Turnbull-led government. One key plank of Labor policy is to end negative gearing in investments, including property, except for new-build apartments.
Curiously, very little attention has been paid during the first half of the campaign to the issue that precipitated the calling of an early election – the refusal by the Senate on three separate occasions to pass legislation to restore the construction and building industry watchdog. This follows a royal commission into corruption in the industry, which fully exposed the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU) for a host of malpractices and bullying, which has involved criminal charges being made against union officials. One common practice of the CFEMU is to demand – and get – the right of veto on sub-contractors on building sites, creating “jobs for the boys”. The industry watchdog was shut down by the Gillard government, of which Shorten was a leading member.
Last week in Sydney, at a seminar on Chinese investment in property, labor problems in construction and high costs were blamed for new projects costing 30% more than they should, limiting investment prospects. Construction workers are now the highest paid employees in Australia outside management, ahead of lawyers and bankers, and the CFEMU last week won a new pay deal in the state of Victoria giving them a 36-hour week and a 15% pay increase over three years – about two and a half times the rate of inflation.
Shorten has publicly supported the union – and the pay increase. For the remainder of the campaign we expect the Turnbull camp to focus on the Opposition leader’s tendency to back his union paymasters and their demands.