I really enjoy the blood sport of Australian federal politics but I consider it a benign vice on my part, to be discussed only among consenting adults, mostly fellow Canberrans and people on Twitter.
I confess I have watched the Liberal party implode this week with the zeal normal people would reserve for an AFL grand final or the last rose ceremony on The Bachelor.
For many years now, the only political subject on which my Dad and I can manage a peaceful discussion is Malcolm Turnbull. We both had high hopes for his prime ministership and most of our phone calls begin with Dad inquiring how Turnbull’s political fortunes are faring in Canberra.
‘Is Malcolm OK?’ Dad texted me on Tuesday. I replied that it looked like Turnbull was toast and that Australia appeared to be headed towards a new Prime Minister or an early election or both.
‘Pack of selfish bastards the lot of them’, Dad responded.
Remarkably, Peter Dutton and Tony Abbott have achieved in a few short days what Bill Shorten could not in the past few years: they’ve turned my Dad from a Liberal voter to a swinging voter.
Dad is a small business owner and whenever politics is fractious he worries about how it affects the business and the people he employs; he admires Malcolm Turnbull precisely because he respects his business sense. But Dad’s response is a good reminder that politics is intensely personal. The laws passed by Parliament shape our lives in ways big and small and the stakes are too high for anyone to dismiss politics altogether.
While the black hole of the Liberal leadership swallowed the House of Representatives this week, the Senate was doing its job. At least two of its decisions will have enormous consequences for Australians for years to come: the defeat of large company tax cuts and the decision to keep the Clean Energy Supplement for Newstart recipients.
The defeat of the company tax cuts in the Senate marks an important moment in Australia’s economic debate. Tax cuts in general sail through Parliament without much opposition. Not this time.
In March, newly minted senator for South Australia Tim Storer withstood enormous political pressure and rejected the company tax cuts, making the sensible decision that "$36 billion in taxpayer’s money could be better spent elsewhere". Indeed, Australia Institute research shows there is no correlation between lower company tax rates, employment, or economic growth.
The government bets its political house on the old ‘trickle-down’ economics formula with its company tax cuts package. It lost. The public knows it’s bunkum. The defeat of the large company tax cut is huge: there will be billions more in revenue available in the budget for future governments to invest in the future services and infrastructure Australia needs. The big four banks were headed towards a $39.5 billion windfall over the first decade of the cut before the Senate sensibly put a stop to it.
The Senate was reflecting public sentiment. Last month, candidates who opposed the company tax cuts won all five “Super Saturday” by elections. In the days that followed her re-election, Mayo’s Rebekha Sharkie criticised the company tax cut plan and said her constituents did not support the cuts. Australia Institute polling found that 65 per cent of Mayo residents opposed the cuts. Our polling regularly finds Australians support higher taxes if it means addressing inequality and paying for the services that we all want and need.
Tax, as they say, is the price we pay for a civilised society. It is public spending in areas like infrastructure and education that are key to driving the nation’s productivity and economic prosperity.
When company tax cuts have faltered politically, their supporters blamed the public for being ill-informed. But the public opposed the company tax cuts precisely because they understood them.
Five elections with five victories for candidates opposed to company tax cuts. The public delivered a clear verdict, one that the Senate respected in its vote.
Labor, the Greens and Senators Hinch, Hanson, Georgiou, Griff, Patrick and Storer are to be congratulated for defusing the revenue time-bomb of company tax cuts.
Now, to Newstart. If you can cast your mind all the way back to last Saturday, the Coalition government’s number one priority was to reduce energy bills by creating certainty. What a cruel joke that seems now.
It might come as a shock to you, but at the same time as Tony Abbott publicly worried about the cost of electricity bills, the government he’s part of had legislation on the table to cut the Clean Energy Supplement, designed to help Newstart, aged pensioners and other welfare recipients to meet the cost of their electricity bills.
To put things in perspective. A single person with no kids on Newstart gets about $14,400 a year, including the supplement. In contrast, the Prime Minister – whomever that may be by the time you are reading this – earns about $20,000 a fortnight.
Cutting Newstart for new recipients was a cost-cutting measure – apparently Australia can afford to gift business with a $65 billion tax cut over ten years, but cannot afford to let the newly unemployed keep $8.80 a fortnight for rising energy bills.
The senate has rejected cutting the energy supplement which would have plunged Newstart to about 30 per cent below the poverty line for anyone unlucky enough to find themselves suddenly without a job. Perhaps that’s why Turnbull, staring down the barrel of his own impending unemployment, took the opportunity to dump it, along with the company tax cuts, this week.
So politics matters. Politics will determine the extent to which we’ll crack down on the banks, whether or not you’ll have to pay a co-payment when you visit your GP, whether electricity bills will keep going up along with our emissions, whether coal mines can dump waste into wetlands beside the Great Barrier Reef without penalty, whether your mum can stay in her home as she ages and whether children will keep setting themselves alight on Nauru.
We cannot afford to give up on politics because of our exasperation with the revolving door of leadership.
Scott Morrison is Australia’s new Prime Minister. Only time will tell if his ascension to the leadership will take Australia down the Trump path. Let’s not forget Morrison was the architect of Operation Sovereign Borders, with its cruel boat turn back policy and hundreds of refugees rotting in offshore camps, as well as the politically toxic company tax cuts. Morrison will need to differentiate himself from Turnbull and in the space of a week the Coalition has found itself without a coherent economic policy, climate policy or energy policy.
In contrast, voters have a much clearer understanding of the values and policies of Labor, the Greens and most of the crossbench.
Australians have options. Better than that, we’ve got preferential voting. Which means not only can you vote number one for the party or candidate that represents your values the best, you can use your preferences to discern " … that fine hair’s breadth worth of difference that makes one hopeless dipstick slightly less awful than the other", as keen observer of Texas politics, the late Molly Ivins, once wrote. I take great joy in deciding which odious candidate or party goes last on my ballot paper – sometimes there’s stiff competition for last place.
Ebony Bennett is deputy director of The Australia Institute. Twitter: @ebony_bennett