The week in politics: The return of Batman and the support of an inequitable rort

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A great deal of activity in national politics over the past week – a 16-year-old state government was thrown out of office, and a victory to the Australian Greens in a federal byelection that was to meant deliver their second seat in the house of representatives, didn’t eventuate.

In South Australia, the Labor Party lost five seats and their hold on government, even though they had a swing towards them of 1.5 per cent in the two-party preferred vote. Before conspiracy theorists start saying how outrageously unfair this is, at the 2014 state election, the ALP formed government, even though they only received 47.0 per cent of the two-party preferred vote. Whatever your political perspective, that type of result is not good for the democratic process.

 

In most cases in Australian state and federal elections, this would constitute a landslide loss, so it was only fair that the boundaries were redrawn in South Australia, even if it did essentially hand victory to a Liberal Party that doesn’t seem very well prepared for government, and has put renewable energy on the backburner for a least the next four years.

The redistribution of seats certainly helped the South Australian Liberal Party win the election, but were there any other actors on the scene?

The decision by the Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, and the Minister for the Environment and Energy, Josh Frydenberg, to intervene in state politics from 2016 onwards seems to have paid off. Since the power blackouts throughout South Australia in September 2016, we were barely without a week where the two of them would front the media, blame the blackouts on high levels on renewable energy in the state, and continuously point out energy supply costs as a major problem in the state.

As a political tactic and strategy, it worked in South Australia and we can see the federal government has decided to intervene in Victorian affairs, commencing on 1 January this year, where it brought out megaphone and dog whistle politics to announce there was a massive crime problem with African.

If nothing else, the Turnbull specialises in outrageously over-the-top responses to any political issue of any magnitude. Will it work in Victoria as well and help unseat the Labor Andrews government? We’ll find out in November this year, when the state will hold a general election.

While the Turnbull government has decided to intervene and propagandise in state matters, it decided not to field a candidate in the federal byelection in the inner Melbourne seat of Batman, held after the resignation of the incumbent, David Feeney, who couldn’t provide evidence that he had renounced his British and Irish eligibility for citizenship, rendering him ineligible to sit in Parliament.

The Greens’ Alex Bhathal was meant to win this seat, her sixth attempt at victory, but was defeated by Labor’s Ged Kearney, who secured a 3.4 per cent swing towards her, easily winning the seat with a 54.4 per cent two-party preferred vote, and providing a boost to Labor leader, Bill Shorten, who avoided a third consecutive byelection loss, after losses in New England and Bennelong in December 2016.

A third consecutive byelection loss would have seen the ‘Kill Bill’ strategy back on track in the mainstream media, and more unsourced and anonymous claims about Anthony Albanese launching a leadership challenge. For the time being, at least, those narratives have been put on hold.

After the entrails of both the South Australian and Batman elections were analysed, it was time to move on, and politics resumed its normal transmission.

A carry over from the previous week of politics was the new collection of buzzwords, ‘dividend imputation tax’, a hitherto esoteric and bizarre tax loophole where self-funded retirees can claim a tax refund, even if they didn’t pay the tax in the first place. It’s a system so esoteric that Australia is the only country in the world where it exists.

In his wisdom, Turnbull decided to hold a roundtable meeting with self-funded retirees on the NSW Central Coast, to discuss how Labor’s plan to end refunds from dividend imputation would affect them. Turnbull proceeded to claim Shorten wanted to “rob them”, taking “money out of their pockets”, and an attack on “vulnerable Australians”. It’s not on par with former Liberal Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser’s claim in 1983 that older Australians would be better to keep their money under their beds if Labor won the next election, but it was up there.

What Turnbull failed to mentioned was that most of those at this roundtable meeting were successful and well-heeled former business people and are the ones that most benefit from dividend imputation tax refunds, and the people that least need such a refund.

He also failed to explain that his plan to cut company tax rates will directly reduce the amount these same self-funded retirees will receive, but let’s not complicate the story with solid facts. This argument still has some distance to travel but, in the interest of equity and ending what is effectively is a tax rort, it’s a policy that needs to be implemented, whichever party wins the next federal election.

As per usual, Turnbull moved into barrister mode for most of the week and over-egged his case, rendering his attacks to an almost meaningless level. Just like his attacks on Labor’s negative gearing reforms in the lead up to the 2016 federal election, whenever the electorate finds out more about unfairness within Australia’s taxation system and the amount that escalates to the wealthiest parts of the community, not only are they keen for it to end, but any claims that stretch the point of credulity, are bound to fall upon deaf ears.

Next week, both houses of parliament sit for the final three days before the 2018 Budget announcement in May. Newpoll will be released on late Sunday night, just in time for Monday’s sitting. It should be an interesting week.

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Eddy Jokovich

Eddy Jokovich is a Sydney-based journalist and producer of many books, magazines and handbooks and has worked as a war correspondent, journalist, lecturer in media studies and production.