If you've been to the football or cricket, you'll know that while entering can be slow, getting out at game's end is even worse. Forty thousand or 50,000 people – which is what you can get at Docklands, the SCG, and the Adelaide Oval – is a hell of a lot of people. And they need to exit all at once, inching along through narrow gates before fanning out across the city crowding buses, trams, and trains, overwhelming the infrastructure.
Now, imagine this same gargantuan number, but this time, limit the crowd to just young people and children. And imagine they're quiet too – so quiet in fact that nobody notices them – or the fact that they are homeless.
What is negative gearing
It's a lot like Monopoly... sort of.
As middle-class Australia twists its collective innards over the "fairness" of crimping a generous capital gains tax discount on investment properties, and limiting tax minimisation opportunities for these additional dwellings, 44,000 young people and children, have no home to go to at all.
That is 44,000 kids left in the lurch, vulnerable. Unsafe. On any given night. What sort of a society accepts that? And they're part of a much larger number – estimated at greater than twice that in fact who are regarded as homeless. Some 110,000.
These represent the two Australias. The noisy indignant "haves", who would blithely change the government to protect a market-distorting tax break they should never have enjoyed – and which the country can no longer afford – and the invisible "have-nots".
In Australia's mercurial, and frequently venal, debate about tax reform, the oft-cited fair go, is a slippery concept, self-serving, and invariably loaded.
Treasurer Scott Morrison, who this week used a National Press Club address to dampen expectations around his first budget (forget about the debt and deficit disaster), likes to talk about tax breaks as the lifeline of teachers, nurses, and police officers. Ordinary, virtuous folk just trying to get ahead.
"Two-thirds of the people who use negative gearing currently have a taxable income of $80,000 or less," he told Sydney radio on Monday.
Of course you can get statistics to tell you all kinds of things. The fact that many negatively geared properties are owned by people with taxable incomes similar to these middle-ranking occupations, suggests many could well be teachers and nurses. But it also suggests that canny investors have found ways of ratcheting down their taxable income – including through negative gearing itself. How else to explain that some negatively geared multiple property owners have virtually no income to speak of, taxation wise.
A more fundamental policy question arises: why should these investments be subsidised at all? Why does the state effectively subsidise the private acquisition of generally static and therefore unproductive real estate assets to enrich those who are already propertied, while letting so many others go without houses at all?
Right now, all kinds of arguments are swirling in the political marketplace over these concessions. According to the orthodoxy, changing any of them – CGT, negative gearing, and superannuation concessions – is political suicide. That is the calculation the government has so far made. And it's the one it already arrived at on the GST hike, dropping that particular hot potato finally this week.
To date, the returns on Malcolm Turnbull's promise of new economic leadership are modest indeed. Any credit due to the new PM for facilitating the GST debate at all, must be tempered by the government's retreat following causally from refusal to provide any supporting arguments or overall framework.
Now crunch time looms. The first unflattering comparisons have begun appearing in sections of the conservative press claiming Turnbull's lack of direction has echoes of Kevin Rudd's popularity paralysis, and even of Malcolm Fraser's "do-nothing" government.
In the absence of the GST river of gold, attention has necessarily switched to the forementioned tax concessions as the only feasible sources of savings from which to fund income tax cuts. Yet the debate is hardly more constructive than it had been on the GST and coalition marginal seat MPs are already showing nerves.
Despite Turnbull's "everything-on-the-table" optimism, the reality is that in election years, even more so than others, reform suggestions get squeezed in the anti-intellectual vice of political partisanship.
When Turnbull and Morrison say they'll consider all proposals, they actually mean, all but Labor's. As a result, a shortfall of revenue to cover existing spending and perhaps pay for future tax cuts, is compounded by a poverty of avenues for repair. If Labor comes up with a good idea, the government feels compelled to deride it – thus narrowing its own room to move.
Bill Shorten's proposed restriction on negative gearing is a case in point. It would apply only to new homes (rather than existing ones), and the CGT discount would be halved from 50 per cent to 25 per cent. Similarly, Labor's proposal for superannuation. This would impose a 15 per cent tax rate on otherwise tax-free super earnings over $75,000 in a year, and would double the tax rate on super contributions for incomes more than $250,000. These are mild changes. For example, one would need a superannuation account of about $1.5 million to draw more than $75,000 in earnings.
Yet Morrison's response to the negative gearing idea has ranged from declaring it would raise insufficient revenue, to being an attack on "mum and dad" investors. Meanwhile, the government now seems to be even edging away from its long-promised commitment to fix bracket creep.
As these arguments fly back and forth, the nightly dangers to kids reduced to couch-surfing or sleeping in parks and doorways, barely rates a mention.
Mark Kenny is Fairfax Media's chief political correspondent.