There’s still a week to go before our nation’s politicians officially go back to work, but the battle lines have already been drawn by Malcolm Turnbull and Bill Shorten.
Taking a leaf from Donald Trump’s playbook, the leaders have each vowed to tackle an issue that is making middle Australia anxious, in an effort to win votes.
The home front
The Prime Minister is reportedly hoping housing affordability is the key to regaining popularity in 2017.
Labor ran hard on the housing issue in the lead-up to last year’s federal election, pitting frustrated millennials finding it hard to rent let alone buy a home against baby boomers with an investment property or two thanks to generous tax concessions available through negative gearing.
It’s no accident that youngsters tend to vote Labor (or Green) while older voters favour the Coalition, so the strategy was relatively low-risk for the opposition.
But instead of conceding this territory as one that he cannot win without angering the Coalition’s base, the PM has a plan for housing affordability that he claims is competitive with Labor’s. That effort reportedly includes sending Treasurer Scott Morrison on a fact-finding mission to the UK and appointing one of the up-and-comers in the Liberal Party’s far right to the role of Assistant Minister to the Treasurer, specifically to tackle housing affordability.
However it appears the thorny issue of negative gearing will not be reformed as part of a package that is said to be part of this year’s federal budget.
Within hours of a proposal to do so being floated in the conservative media on Friday, Mr Turnbull reportedly ruled out the idea saying “the vast majority of people who negative gear … are Australians on middle incomes” with “vastly more teachers and police doing this than high-flying lawyers and tax accountants”.
The PM claimed the solution is to increase the supply of housing, which is a fortunate coincidence given the newly-installed premier of the state with the most unattainable housing, Gladys Berejiklian, has also vowed to make housing affordability a priority.
It will be up to Ms Berejiklian’s government to make Mr Turnbull’s day by opening up more land for housing. So it will be interesting to see whether the PM will provide any more detail on his housing affordability approach when he addresses the National Press Club this week in an attempt to set the agenda for the parliamentary year.
Jobs, jobs, jobs
He will be gazumped, however, by Labor leader Bill Shorten, who will take to the NPC podium the day before the PM. While Mr Turnbull is using housing affordability in an attempt to neutralise one of his opposition’s strengths, Mr Shorten will try to do the same using jobs.
He’s aiming to harvest voters with a Trumpesque call for an Australia-first jobs policy.
While not quite as catchy as Cory Bernardi riffing off Mr Trump to “Make Australia Great Again”, Mr Shorten’s proposed jobs solution is to “buy Australian, build Australian, [and] employ Australians”.
The Opposition Leader started his nationalistic jobs pitch last year, almost as soon as Mr Trump was elected to the US presidency on a swathe of similarly xenophobic policies.
Mr Shorten is not only trying to weaken the Coalition’s traditional claim as being the party that creates jobs; he’s also trying to keep Labor’s blue-collar supporters from abandoning the party for Pauline Hanson’s One Nation.
The problem is …
This is of particular concern in Queensland, where the state Labor government will face the polls within the next 12 months. It will likely emerge once Parliament resumes that neither of these punter-driven plans are flawless.
Mr Turnbull has hobbled himself early by ruling out any changes to negative gearing, while Mr Shorten runs the risk of trashing the vaunted Hawke/Keating era by re-establishing trade and other barriers that the two Labor reformers tore down to modernise Australia’s economy.
The parties are right to try something new, as the year between elections is a lower-risk time that can be used to refresh and consolidate.
However it’s also the time to change leaders if the current one is not panning out.
Paula Matthewson was media adviser to John Howard in the early 1990s and worked for almost 25 years in communication, political and industry advocacy roles. She tweets at @Drag0nista