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Malcolm Turnbull, stop dithering on tax reform and tell us what you really think

The Turnbull government has yet to explain why we need tax reform. Meanwhile, Labor is strangely coherent on tax policies.

So after all that, turns out the most important thing right now is that we all get tax cuts. All that "budget emergency" stuff was apparently just a confusing prelude, consigned firmly to the past.

Nowadays, budget repair is "a Test match not a Twenty20 Big Bash" in the Treasurer's memorable phrase of the week. Seems the required run rate isn't as impossibly high as we thought. We just need to bat time. Which is just as well because we haven't been scoring for a while now: "We are basically in the same position that we were two years ago," Scott Morrison admitted at the National Press Club. Remember when the government breezily claimed it had halved the deficit? Yeah. Nah.

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In truth, it's a welcome moment of sense. The budget problem was only ever a midterm problem and not an emergency. And yes, tax cuts would be lovely given that bracket creep means average earners are being taxed at elite marginal rates.

But it's also true that the current budget – even with its ballooning deficit – relies heavily on bracket creep to rescue it. And now, with the GST left stranded at the altar, we learn that whatever tax cuts Morrison offers will necessarily be "far more modest". It's hereabouts the warning signs are visible.

What's the point of all this, exactly? Precisely when, and exactly why, did tax cuts become the pillar around which the Turnbull government's budget plans would revolve? Why are they more important than, say, funding the hospitals and schools which the states insist they simply cannot afford to keep running? Or more important than reducing the deficit? And if they really are that important, for whatever barely explained reason, what's the point of making them so modest?

There might well be answers to these questions. But one of the key lessons of the Turnbull government's failed GST foray was that it seemed remarkably uninterested in providing them. Yes, a raised GST wasn't popular. But it was more popular (37 per cent) than the Labor Party, whose primary vote is (up!) at about 29 per cent. It wasn't, therefore, a necessarily lost cause.

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The problem was that no one – including several on the Coalition backbench – knew why we were even thinking about raising the GST. The GST conversation very quickly became one in which we were being asked to pay a price, for no clearly identified benefit. How was that ever meant to succeed?

What's missing here is Turnbull's story. His explanation of what matters and why; of what is worthy of our sacrifice and what exactly we're trying to achieve. It's not really precise enough to criticise this as a do-nothing government. It's more a go-nowhere government right now.

Floating ideas – perhaps even good ones – but to no obvious end; with no unmistakable direction. It's a government as yet without a purpose. It has a series of positions it inherited from Tony Abbott – on climate change, same-sex marriage most famously, but also on things like welfare cuts for low-income families that everyone has forgotten about but which remain part of the government's budget.

Mostly, though, it has a table with lots of things on it. "Everything", in fact. Except the stuff, like the GST that suddenly isn't. Now Labor's put together a negative gearing policy which Morrison reckons is silly, but has chucked on the table anyway. Open-mindedness is fabulous. But not if there aren't any criteria to figure out what ultimately to accept.

Labor, meanwhile, is strangely coherent. More coherent than it has been in years. It's systematically going through tax concessions and loopholes that favour big companies and wealthy people, and pledging to capture that money to spend on wildly popular things like the hospitals and schools mentioned above. Leftovers will be used to reduce the deficit.

No one's listening, of course, which masks the fact that right now, the Turnbull government is being comprehensively outdone on policy. Not necessarily in the sense that Labor's policies are better – indeed you're free to detest them. More in the sense that Labor actually has them. And that it has a simple story to tell about them. It's a strange look, this. An anonymous, invisible opposition offering politically risky policies as though it's a secure government, and a politically secure government playing small-target politics as though it's in opposition.

Of course, none of this means Turnbull will struggle at this year's election. He won't. Forget this week's murmurings that his honeymoon is now in eclipse; that the parade of ministerial scandals and departures and party divisions have rendered us newly sceptical. He'll win easily as almost everyone in Labor expects. But as Abbott so powerfully showed us, winning an election doesn't necessarily mean much. If you have no mandate, no clear reason for being, you'll quickly find you've snookered yourself.

Abbott's position became unsalvageable because his opponents had a stronger story about him than he had of himself. And Abbott, having pledged only to abolish taxes while making no cuts to anything and somehow fixing the budget, had no way of recasting himself as something electable.

Labor will paint Turnbull as the Prime Minister who is happy to sacrifice health and education for the ability of wealthy people to gain investment properties; or for the sake of "modest" tax cuts you'll barely feel; or for something else like that. It will lose, but it will plant a seed.

And if Turnbull doesn't take advantage of his impregnable position to hammer a world view of his own, he might at length be strangled by the weeds.

Waleed Aly is a Fairfax Media columnist and a lecturer in politics at Monash University.

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