Labor’s Friday commitment to a bullet train was emblematic. The proposed high-speed rail link from Brisbane to Melbourne, running through Sydney and Canberra, is a potent symbol of progress.
In the years that Australia has been quibbling about whether to build one or not, the Chinese government has built a network of high-speed train lines more than 20,000km long. And Japanese firms are building a high-speed rail network for India.
Europe, Japan, China and India will have modern, fast systems, while Australia, one of the richest nations on earth, clunks along with 19th century rail technology. The airlines aren’t complaining – the Sydney-Melbourne air corridor is one of the three busiest in the world as travellers are denied a useful rail line.
Labor’s Anthony Albanese announced the allocation of $1 billion to begin buying land along the proposed route. It would be, he said, an “economic game-changer for communities along its path, including the Gold Coast, Grafton, Coffs Harbour, Port Macquarie, Newcastle, the Central Coast, Southern Highlands, Canberra, Wagga Wagga and Shepparton”.
The Coalition has its own plan for high-speed rail but on a less ambitious scale. It has committed so far to build a link from Melbourne to Geelong.
“We are engaging in reform,” Bill Shorten told The Sydney Morning Herald this week, “on everything.”
So much so that the senior officials in Australia’s public service who have to anticipate the parties’ agendas foresee a congestion problem with Labor’s mass of promises and programs.
The public service, as it must, has prepared the incoming government briefs for both possibilities – the so-called Blue Book for a Liberal government and Red Book for Labor. It sees big questions looming for both.
For Labor, the question is how will it manage to achieve everything it has promised? There are some 300 policies to be implemented, some with minor change while others are potentially transformative.
Shorten has promised three constitutional referenda, for instance: one on whether Australia should transform itself into a republic, another on whether to give constitutional recognition to Indigenous Australia, and a third on whether the federal Parliament should move from three-year to to four-year terms.
And he’s promised that at least the first two would be held in his first term. “When you think about referendums on a republic or Indigenous recognition, both would require massive effort led by the PM at a time when his government would have a huge agenda of other reforms,” explains a senior official.
“It’d be very difficult,” the official tells me. “How they structure and prioritise everything will be the big question. Think about the history of the republic referendum under John Howard. These are potentially very divisive issues.
“How much political capital does a new PM want to spend on a republic or Indigenous recognition? Or would it be sensible to prioritise a referendum on four-year terms” to perhaps allow itself an extra year to work through its program?
And the big question for the Liberal Party? How it would spend the three years of another term in government. The Coalition has promised the status quo, with tax cuts. The tax cuts are, in effect, merely the “handing back” of taxes collected through the stealth process of “bracket creep”.
When it published its list of legislative priorities last week, it revealed a work program that could be concluded in a few weeks of parliamentary sittings. Apart from the tax cuts, the Morrison government would legislate to implement the budget appropriations it has already announced for initiatives such as a royal commission into disabilities, also supported by Labor.
Other than that, there would be a bill to delay the return of Australians suspected of terrorism, a bill to toughen penalties for trespassing on farms, and a handful of other fairly routine matters.
“The government’s problem,” says the senior official, “would be akin to the elections where governments have won without expecting to win. What do they do to create an agenda?”
In another era, a status-quo government would have promoted itself under the banner of “stability”. Unfortunately for the Coalition, this isn’t really feasible for the Morrison government. It merely recalls the instability of the past six years of Liberal leadership. Besides, the last prime minister to go to an election with the word “stability” embossed on the wall behind him was Malcolm Turnbull.
On the same day that Albanese announced the rail plan, his colleagues Chris Bowen and Jim Chalmers published Labor’s alternative budget, the most comprehensive opposition statement of detailed taxing and spending plans since the Liberals’ John Hewson launched his Fightback manifesto for the 1993 election.
It is chiefly a reconciliation of Labor’s existing commitments. The news is in the overall picture that emerges. Labor’s plan would deliver bigger budget surpluses than the Coalition. This is a calculated shock to the “brand” perception of Labor as reckless money managers.
Scott Morrison plays up this persistent perception with his favoured line: “Labor doesn’t know how to manage money, and that’s why they’re coming after yours.”
The Labor budget would deliver a return to a budget surplus at the same time as the government plan – next year. But Labor’s surplus is projected to be fatter than the government’s in each of the four years of the forward estimates.
In the culminating year 2022-23, the projected surplus would be 1 per cent of GDP, about $23 billion – more than double the size of the Coalition’s planned $9.2 billion for the same year.
How do they do it? By, as Morrison says, coming after your money. Specifically, Labor would do it unapologetically through the controversial tax changes it has announced over recent years.
These include curbing negative gearing for property investors, ending the capital gains tax discount, dumping cash payments of excess dividend imputation credits, increasing taxes on family trusts. And the less controversial change – expanding the govenment’s pursuit of multinational corporations.
The rigour of the calculation of Labor’s bigger surpluses is not in question. Because they’re done by the independent, non-partisan and expert Parliamentary Budget Office.
Instead of challenging Labor’s costings, Morrison fell back on the old brand perceptions, saying Labor’s budget numbers were “fishy”. Treasurer Josh Frydenberg, rather than questioning the costings, instead demanded to know the macro-economic consequences of the changes to tax and spending. This is a fair question, and one which neither this opposition nor any other has ever answered.
The truly big changes in Labor policy are distributional. Labor’s program would shift money from profits on capital to labour. It would transfer wealth from the richer to the rest. It would adjust the balance of benefits from older generations to younger. And not just financial benefits; Labor’s climate change policy seeks to preserve planetary benefits for the people who will still be alive in the second half of the century.
Another indication of the contrast: the leaders got to ask each other a couple of questions at the debate on Wednesday night, and all four of the questions were about Labor policy.
Scott Morrison probed Bill Shorten on his superannuation policy and his negative gearing plan. Shorten challenged Morrison to support Labor’s cancer plan (he did not), and invited the Prime Minister to explain why families didn’t need Labor’s childcare policy.
The leaders’ questions were all Labor-centric because Labor is the moving piece here, the advocate for change. The Coalition agenda is so threadbare that we saw it this week holding a press conference on its border policy to announce that it would be making no changes.
And change is not always a good thing, of course. Morrison takes the smartest course on this – he sensibly reminds voters that Labor may be promising to make things better, but it “always stuffs it up” in the execution.
However, again, after the convulsive six years of Liberal leadership upheaval, the sort of behaviour Morrison himself described as a “Muppet show”, Coalition accusations of incompetence and chaos have lost their force.
In answer to the old election poser – Who do you trust? – the great majority of Australia answers “none of you”. But they do have a choice. If elections are about preserving the status quo, the choice is Liberal. If they are about change with the hope of progressive modernising, it is Labor.
Peter Hartcher is Political Editor and International Editor of The Sydney Morning Herald.