Health, education should be top of the political agenda
Malcolm Turnbull is playing with electoral fire by singling out two of the most important issues to voters.
Scott Morrison brought a bucket and mop to his Monday round of radio interviews. The mess he was cleaning up was the implosion at Friday’s Council of Australian Governments meeting of the government’s plan to hand back to the states income taxing powers.
The Treasurer confidently proclaimed Malcolm Turnbull had “called the states and territories’ bluff”.
For the Prime Minister, the outcome was “a moment of clarity”. What was now crystal clear was the premiers – while calling for more money for their schools and hospitals – were not prepared to accept the responsibility or the chance of raising it themselves through income taxes.
Both men were finally on the same song sheet. Mr Morrison, like the PM, said having rejected that chance “they now have to live within their means”.
The fact that the Treasurer described last week’s embarrassing rejection of Mr Turnbull’s short-lived plan “a bluff” suggests the offer was never serious.
Labor’s Chris Bowen says it was a “moment of black comedy”. The Prime Minister’s office denies it was in bad faith and insists it was a policy hammered out over months.
According to this view, Mr Turnbull only announced it at a sports field because his plan had leaked. Government insiders blame state public servants for this after a recent meeting.
But the messaging from this very messy spectacle is worrying Liberal old heads. What particularly worries them is Mr Turnbull’s statement on Friday that the “full Gonski, whatever that means” is also off the table.
The “full Gonski”, if it means anything, means full implementation of needs-based funding for the nation’s schools and resources necessary to bring all kids up to agreed higher benchmarks.
Opposition Leader Bill Shorten gets it. At the same time he has grabbed onto the Prime Minister’s apparent willingness to withdraw Canberra from funding state schools.
“Labor’s got fully-funded and costed policies to make sure that every child and every school gets every opportunity regardless of whether or not it’s in the government system, the Catholic or Independent system.”
Mr Morrison tried to mop that up too, saying the states made it very clear those matters “don’t need to be finally determined until into the next calendar year”.
Maybe, but that doesn’t explain why absolutely nothing was put on the table.
Labor has committed to the “full Gonski” and will use an increase in tobacco tax to help fund it. The Opposition is still to spell out how it will meet the shortfall it claims the Liberals have left in hospitals.
Mr Turnbull on Sunday sought to ridicule Labor’s historic commitments to health and education made in the Gillard government’s 2013 budget. He said those promises were a “fantasy – the money was never there”.
In a real sense, he is right. In budget forecasts the money is never there. It is based on assumptions. Those assumptions do become more problematic when they go beyond the budget four-year estimates out to a decade.
But they are a statement of commitment.
The Gillard government’s Treasurer Wayne Swan refutes the “fantasy” charge. He points to his budget papers which show a graph for savings out 10 years.
The fact is, these projections are no more or less fanciful than the Turnbull government’s own promise to spend $195 billion over the next decade on defence.
There is no doubt Mr Turnbull is playing with electoral fire by singling out health and education in the way he is.
Tony Abbott knew it, that’s why he promised “no cuts to health and education” the night before the 2013 election. He even went so far as to say he was on a “unity ticket [with Labor] when it comes to funding education”.
The fact that he broke those promises has landed Mr Turnbull where he is today.
It is fanciful to think Australians care more about the blame game than they do about their health and kids’ education.