Turnbull's popularity rests on Labor's credibility gap

Issue 
Malcolm Turnbull: 'The government cannot any longer be a spend-a-thon.'

Several polls show that the new PM — and by extension, the Coalition — is very popular. Explaining Malcolm Turnbull's high approval rating is relatively easy: it is not too hard to be more popular than the hated Tony Abbott and Labor has long since given up on being an opposition.

According to Newspoll, Fairfax-Ipsos, Roy Morgan and Essential Research, Turnbull's numbers keep improving, even after 6 weeks in office. Depending on which poll you look at, Turnbull's approval is either Mr 52%, Mr 53% or Mr 68%.

A Fairfax-Ipsos poll showed that if a federal election were held today, the Coalition would have a 53% to 47% election-winning lead over Labor, based on 2013 preferences. The Coalition's primary vote would be 45%, compared to 30% for Labor and 14% for the Greens.

Turnbull also leads Shorten 67% to 21% as preferred PM and has a personal approval rating of 68%. By contrast, Shorten has a 32% approval rating and a 56% disapproval rating.

The Coalition's rise in the polls has occurred despite there being no substantial changes in government policy between Abbott and Turnbull.

Turnbull was slotted into the top job on the understanding that he would not deviate from the Abbott-Hockey agenda, and he has followed the script. “All of our existing policies and proposals, whether they are before this house or in the policy statements by minister, remain on foot [sic]”, Turnbull said on October 19.

He added “tough decisions” still needed to be made to bring the budget back to surplus and grow the economy.

“The government cannot any longer be a spend-a-thon,” he said.

There has been no change on asylum seeker policy — graphically illustrated by the appalling treatment of the Somali woman known as Abyan.

Nor has there been any change in higher education policy. As the Coalition was not going to be able to get its deregulation bill through the Senate, they are re-crafting the bill with the support of the crossbenchers, knowing that Labor is likely to support a reworked version.

Allowing public servants a 2% annual wage rise — up from 1.5% under Abbott — is no big change considering this is forecast to be below the inflation rate and private sector wage rises averaged 2.2% in the year to June.

One major new development has been the Coalition's successful elimination of greater scrutiny on the taxes (or lack thereof) paid by the super rich.

A transparency law drafted by Labor in 2013, would have meant that from December onwards, Australia's 800 biggest companies would have had to publicly disclose how much tax they paid.

According to a Tax Office official who gave evidence to a Senate hearing, one in five private companies with revenues of more than $100 million paid no tax last year.

The law has now been withdrawn, meaning that multibillionaires such as Gina Rinehart, Lindsay Fox and James Packer will not be required to disclose the amount of tax their companies paid.

Mark Zirnsak of Tax Justice Network Australia said: “The public does not have enough information at present to be confident that some large corporations pay what they should in Australia or elsewhere. This of course also applies to some foreign multinational companies that operate in Australia.

“This is why we call for the implementation of laws to require multinational companies to report their financial details broken down by each country in which they have a presence.”

A 2014 report by Tax Justice Network Australia and United Voice, Who Pays for our Common Wealth: Tax Practices of the ASX 200, examined how Australian companies avoided disclosing their subsidiaries in tax havens (“secrecy jurisdictions”) and found that a whopping 29% of ASX 200 companies pay a tax rate of 10% or less — not the legislated corporate tax rate of 30%.

“Why”, Zirnsak asked, “do a small proportion of ASX 200 companies report 77 subsidiaries in the British Virgin Isles, 75 in Jersey, 48 in the Cayman Islands and 44 in Bermuda?”

When asked about his own “investments” in the Cayman Islands, Turnbull's rehearsed answer was holier than thou: “Lucy and I have been very fortunate in our lives. We have more wealth than most Australians, that is true. We've worked hard, we've paid our taxes.”

Now, thanks to the Coalition's new law, the Turnbulls will not have to disclose their tax.

When we add to all this the Coalition's attacks on penalty rates and the union movement, and the lack of change on equal marriage or climate change policy, it is evident that those buying into Turnbull as a better leader are looking at a mirage.

In this context, the fact that Labor is failing to provide any progressive alternative is disappointing, but not surprising. Despite the polls, there has been almost no serious policy debate inside Labor, which is sticking to its failed small target strategy.

Shorten's politics of timid and corny zingers is not only failing working people in the short term, it is setting up long-term misery for the 99%.

Even if Labor changed its leader, there is no evidence it would change its cowardly strategy. Taking the Jeremy Corbyn approach of creating a real opposition is not on Labor's agenda.

Turnbull's popularity rests, in part, on Labor's huge credibility gap. And with no Jeremy Corbyn-like figure in sight, it means that progressive political alternatives face both a huge opening and challenge.

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