He won't admit it, but Turnbull knows Shorten has his number
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He won't admit it, but Turnbull knows Shorten has his number

There can be no doubt that Malcolm Turnbull feels - even if he won't readily admit it - that Bill Shorten has clearly bettered him, both in the last election and now in the Longman byelection.

This has been evident in Turnbull’s responses. In rationalising the electoral outcomes, Turnbull attacked Shorten for “running a Mediscare campaign” in the federal election and for “lying” about health cuts in Longman. But these responses fail to recognise how Shorten was able to do this: how he was left with the opportunity and the financial and manpower capacity (mostly via the unions and the likes of Get Up) to “scare” and “lie” and get away with it.

Malcolm Turnbull addresses the media in Sydney on Sunday.

Malcolm Turnbull addresses the media in Sydney on Sunday.Credit:Brook Mitchell

If Turnbull wants to win the next election, he needs to tackle Shorten's ability to finance such campaigns - and his capacity to sell them to the public.

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The clear message from recent elections here and across Europe and North America is that voters are looking for authenticity and outcomes. They want governments to be honest, to govern with transparency, to meet challenges and solve problems in the national interest.

When it comes to cost of living issues – such as housing, power, childcare, healthcare and education - they seek longer-term, sustainable solutions, rather than just short-term tax and other relief. On the big challenges, such as climate, budget repair and inequality they want genuine leadership.

I have been at a loss to understand why Turnbull has allowed Shorten the opportunity and capacity to run such destructive campaigns. In the early days of the last federal election, Turnbull attacked me over my suggestion that he give Abbott, the genuine “master of the negative”, the job of effectively destroying Shorten. This would have put the Opposition Leader on the back foot and made it difficult, if not impossible, for him to have the time and credibility to run a dishonest scare campaign. But, no, Shorten was left to roam free.

Bill Shorten has been able to get away with running destructive campaigns.

Bill Shorten has been able to get away with running destructive campaigns.Credit:AAP

Abbott would have had plenty to work with. He could have used everything from the Heydon royal commission into trade unions through to Shorten’s record of selling out workers for personal political gain, his pre-selection and election, as well as reported personal foibles and weaknesses.

Turnbull could still significantly curtail Shorten’s capacity to finance such campaigns by championing electoral funding reform. This would be very easy to do and easily sold as a national imperative to clean up all campaign funding.

Sure, proper and complete campaign reform would hurt both sides of politics but the reality is that the ALP and their campaign mates are much better able to exploit the existing campaign funding rules than the Coalition. As a result they are much more effective campaigners on the ground and through social media.

Politicians should be held accountable under misleading and deceptive conduct laws.

Politicians should be held accountable under misleading and deceptive conduct laws.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

Both sides are on the record as supporting genuine reform of campaign funding, so Turnbull should seize the moment and find an effective means to limit political donations to domestic individuals to (say) $1000 and ban all corporate, union, foreign and other institutional donations to the identified political parties and their related parties. If this can’t be made to work, he should (as much as I wouldn’t like it) push for full public funding of elections but with a significant reform of eligibility criteria. It would also be appropriate to place a limit on spending on campaign advertising.

Turnbull should also consider putting politicians under the same honesty requirements as other individuals and corporates – extend the “truth in advertising” laws to politicians and politics and subject politicians and others in the political process to the same disciplines and penalties as those in the corporate sector in relation to misleading and deceptive conduct.

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Finally, to address the electorate’s concern about government being run in the interests of a few powerful, vested interests, often at the expense of the less powerful and our national interest, Turnbull could shift to introduce a national anti-corruption and integrity commission.

Such reforms would open up a new front for Turnbull and generate widespread electoral support, leaving the opposition and other minor parties and independents with little scope to oppose it, except perhaps as to some detail.

Having leveled the playing field along these lines, Turnbull could then, hopefully, move the political contest back to focus more on ideas and policies.

With little capacity to lie, misrepresent or exaggerate, all participants would be driven to a more genuine and substantive debate about health and other policies. The focus of public debate would shift quickly from assertion to evidence.

If Turnbull wishes to stick with his corporate tax cuts he needs to demonstrate that they will result in more investment and jobs, with higher wages, when the evidence mostly is that corporates are more inclined to increase dividend payouts and share buybacks with the extra money.

Turnbull would also need to disprove the Shorten-type assertion that voters prefer more spending on hospitals and schools, rather than corporate tax cuts. He could easily shift this whole debate by embarking on broad-based tax reform that would attack unjustified concessions and those (including multinationals) who seek to avoid tax. The reform would move the system away from income to expenditure/transactions as a tax base, restructuring personal and corporate tax to deliver a simpler and fairer system. Genuine tax and transfer reform could also facilitate more spending on education, training and health.

Sure, Turnbull could bunker down, believe Super Saturday was just confirmation of the status quo and stick with his slogans – but this would be a prescription to lose the next election.

John Hewson is a professor at the Crawford School of Public Policy, ANU, and a former Liberal opposition leader.

John Hewson is a professor at the Crawford School of Public Policy, ANU, and a former Liberal opposition leader.