Federal Politics

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Rare odd couple offers Malcolm Turnbull an historic opportunity

"Well look, I called for a national debate and I'm not going to complain when I get one," quipped Jay Weatherill in response to what was anything but friendly fire from a number of his federal Labor figures.

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South Australian Premier Jay Weatherill makes an impassioned case for raising the GST on ABC's 730 on Monday night. Vision: ABC.

The gently spoken Labor Premier of South Australia would have been excused for returning serve. And to have done so with interest.

Yet an economy of words and a refreshing absence of the preciousness so common in public life these days, said more.

Along with his popular NSW counterpart, Mike Baird, Weatherill is playing a difficult, potentially game-changing role in a risky conversation over tax reform, and the problem of states providing the most costly frontline services while possessing few of the revenue-raising powers needed to fund them.

The urbane duo has emerged from the usual ruck of parochial provincial advocates to argue for structural tax reform nationally, for nothing less than a solution to the bedevilling problem of vertical fiscal imbalance in which states run hospitals and schools but fund them via grants from the Commonwealth which alone has the power to levy income taxes.


Baird, tellingly appearing with Weatherill in a 7.30 interview on Monday night, said their aim was to secure the best health and education services for the citizens of each of their states, and for all Australians.

Coming from two premiers of different political stripe, it sounded a lot like the national interest. Indeed, it sounded like policy over politics - especially inasmuch as each is prepared to contemplate a bigger GST in order to sweeten the deal and make it all add up.

Wisely managing the temperature of the discussion, each left it to the other to chip their respective federal colleagues with Baird taking aim at the likes of Bill Shorten, Stephen Conroy, and Tony Burke for immediately viewing the GST discussion as a chance to win the election. He left it to Weatherill to slap Treasurer Scott Morrison, accusing him of succumbing to dogma for denying the most fundamental aspect of the problem, a shortage of revenue: "We're not collecting enough money in this country to meet the needs of our citizens."

Other premiers have taken the orthodox lower risk approach, happy to acknowledge the problem but less inclined to lose skin, trying to fix it.

Queensland and Victoria propose lifting the Medicare levy - the effect of which would be to push those in the top income tax bracket above 50 cents in the dollar. That is not going to happen. They know it. Western Australia dithers, revelling in its isolation, its secessionist seams showing as it rails against Canberra, indeed against everything east.

But the times call for more and may well suit bravehearts such as Baird and Weatherill. As a new Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull wants to be about ideas, about innovation, about economic growth.

Coming from two premiers of different political stripe, it sounded a lot like the national interest. Indeed, it sounded like policy over politics.

A failure by Canberra to seize this moment, would quickly render those words hollow.

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