News National Moonshots and money pits: this is politics in 2016

Moonshots and money pits: this is politics in 2016

Malcolm Turnbull and Bill Shorten
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There has never been a more exciting time to write a column about the year ahead in politics, unless it was last year, or the one before that. Hopefully not.

If 2016 delivers anything, fingers crossed, it’s a refreshing return to the good old days when the only people who got to roll an incumbent PM were the great, big sunburned masses of this great, big sunburned continent.

As much fun as it was following the slow-motion train wreck of Tony Abbott’s prime ministership, after the slow-motion train wreck of Julia Gillard’s prime ministership and Kevin Rudd before her (and after her), it’s probably time to get back into our sensible pants and start thinking about government as something more than a reality show rival to the Kardashian Empire.

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Thus, while we of the Satirists Union look forward to former PM Abbott’s return from exile almost as much as he does, the country as a whole, and the government in particular, could really do with a break.

Tony Abbott
The former PM has a strict policy of no backpedalling.

Perhaps actual exile to the Vatican as Ambassador to George Pell might appeal to the one-time Jesuit and open up the prospect of Malcolm Turnbull finally peeling off the life-like rubber mask of Abbott he’s been forced to wear since taking over, lest he frighten poor Eric Abetz into some crazy-US-rancher-style siege.

Let ‘Turnbull be Turnbull’ be our watchword this year. The internet’s favourite merchant banker has ever so many spiffing ideas for turning John Howard’s share-owning democracy into a startup nation of rockstars, ninjas and gurus doing moonshots, growth hacking and disrupterthons, that it could be almost as entertaining as watching his predecessor have his way with a raw onion.

If only the Opposition would get out of the way. No, not that Opposition. The other one, the one that sits behind him and plots the return of the Onion King.

As for Her Majesty’s loyal Opposition, what might we expect of them?

In the olden days of not so long ago, Bill Shorten would have his back to the wall now, just in case one of his loyal troops tried sticking something sharp and hurty in there. He’s protected by changes to the way Labor now chooses its fall guys, and by nobody else really wanting the worst job in politics.

Bill Shorten’s big year starts … now! Photo: AAP

He could spend the year coming up with new policies, but we in the media will just ignore all his press releases and complain about him not coming up with any new policies.

Assuming the punters do care about such things, and they’re not all quietly drooling into their bibs during the ad breaks for I’m A Celebrity… Get Me Out Of Here, what would they like to see?

A small, ugly minority would probably thrill to a pogrom or two, but they’re unlikely to be satisfied with Turnbull’s quietly maintaining the machinery of refugee persecution but without the riotous theatre of cruelty in its public presentation.

Opponents of offshore processing – or to be more accurate, lack of processing – will likewise be disappointed when their calls for reform come to nothing. Given the crisis in Europe, Australia is unlikely to change its settings. Most people will probably be happy not to think about any of it.

As the budget approaches they will probably start thinking about what’s in it for them, for good or ill, and perhaps this will be the year that the average punter finally rebels at the rather grotesque display of giant corporations paying absurdly small amounts of tax, while corporate lobbyists demand ‘tax reform’ – presumably so that they might legally pay none at all, without having to go to the tiresome trouble of hiding their profits in an Irish post office box.

Scott Morrison, who spent his early days as Treasurer insisting the country had a spending problem, not a revenue problem, has been very quiet of late. It could be that as he tried to balance the books, he too has come to resent the billions of dollars in company profits which mysteriously never turn into company taxes.

Still, it’s a lot harder taking money off Rupert Murdoch than it is mugging a simple pensioner of similar vintage.

The bad old days: Former Treasurer Joe Hockey (remember him?) and Finance Minister Mathias Cormann in 2014.

The various money pits into which Morrison has to shovel ever-diminishing piles of cash – health, welfare and education being the largest – will all be looking for special treatment. Health, a responsibility split with the states, is likely hostage to reform of the GST.

Education reforms await new minister Simon Birmingham pulling a giant rabbit out of a hat, so that the giant rabbit can pull billions of dollars out of its delightfully fluffy arse, to make something happen.

Defence will move from the meaningless excitement of tiny wars far away, to the real challenge of block obsolescence as the platforms bought during the Beazley era approach the end of their operational lives. Submarines and jet fighters are the big ticket items, and both replacement programs are fraught.

Voters don’t think much on these issues until somebody buggers them up, at which point everyone becomes an armchair expert in strategy and military procurement. 2016 feels like one of those years.

It is also, of course, the year of the US presidential election, and as hard as we are on our elected representatives, it’s instructive sometimes to look at the clown circus of American politics to remember that we don’t have it too bad.

John Birmingham is the author of the cult classic He Died With a Felafel in His Hand, the award-winning history of Sydney Leviathan, two Quarterly Essays and works of fiction including the Axis of Time series and The David Hooper Trilogy. He also writes on topics as diverse as biotechnology and national security. He tweets at @JohnBirmingham


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