News National Bill Shorten’s tax gaffe turns up the heat on leadership talk

Bill Shorten’s tax gaffe turns up the heat on leadership talk

bowen negative gearing start
Chris Bowen, with Labor leader Bill Shorten, says negative gearing changes under a Labor government would start from January 1, 2020. Photo: Getty
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One of the most exciting elements of Australian politics is the leadership crisis.

Political opponents love to see the other side in trouble, and so do their supporters who keep editors and journalists happy by clicking every leadership story that emerges.

However, this all-round enthusiasm can sometimes lead to the fabrication of leadership crises, making it challenging for voters to distinguish a faux one from the real deal.

We saw that this week with the troubles being experienced by Labor leader Bill Shorten. Some elements of the media – aided and abetted by Mr Shorten’s detractors – conflated a provocative speech by Anthony Albanese into a full-blown crisis for the Opposition Leader.

Yet it wasn’t a crisis – the speech was more an unsubtle throat-clearing by Mr Albanese to remind Labor colleagues that he was ready and able to take up the leadership baton if Labor crashed and burned in any of the five upcoming byelections.

It wasn’t even the first time Albo had given a speech that contrasted his values and leadership style with that of Mr Shorten.

However, an uncommon misstep from Mr Shorten this week swiftly transformed that faux crisis into a real one for the Labor leader.

It’s unclear what prompted Mr Shorten to unilaterally announce on Tuesday that, if successful at the upcoming federal election, Labor would scrap tax cuts that have already been passed on to businesses with turnovers (not profits) of $10 million to $50 million.

At first, the news didn’t seem to be all that newsworthy. Labor had opposed the corporate tax cuts in Parliament, and there was plenty of talk in the media that this repeal would be the opposition’s position when it decided the time was right to announce it.

So Mr Shorten’s confirmation wasn’t exactly ‘new’ news. And then there was the small size of the affected group – only 20,000 out of Australia’s 940,000 businesses. Surely they couldn’t create a groundswell of dissent against an already expected decision?

But what most interested bystanders didn’t know was that the scrapping of corporate tax cuts was a hot topic of debate within Labor – and it was far from resolved.

The Left faction reportedly wanted to scrap all tax cuts for companies earning over $2 million, while the Right wanted the cut-off to be at the higher end, say $10 million or maybe even $50 million.

Shadow Treasurer Chris Bowen (left) told media on Thursday that the matter of tax cut repeal needed further discussion. Photo: AAP

Mr Shorten’s unexpected announcement was therefore seen as an attempt by the Labor leader to unilaterally decide the matter. This was enough to expose the cracks in what has otherwise appeared to be a united Labor team.

Opposition MPs fell over themselves to anonymously bitch to the media about their leader. One of Albo’s parliamentary supporters, Ross Hart, rang his local radio station to publicly avoid expressing support for Mr Shorten’s announcement.

And then a member of Mr Shorten’s own Right faction, Gai Brodtmann, did the same, going even further by refusing to rule out crossing the floor against the policy.

However the killer comment came on Thursday from the shadow treasurer, Chris Bowen, who coincidentally is from the NSW Right, which fancies itself as the kingmaker of the Australian Labor Party.

Mr Bowen made it clear during his radio interview that the threshold at which corporate tax cuts would be repealed required further discussion by the shadow cabinet, making it clear that Mr Shorten’s ‘decision’ would be revisited.

And so it came to pass on Friday that following a meeting of the shadow cabinet, Mr Shorten fronted the media to announce that he and his colleagues had “decided to amend our position”.

By that Mr Shorten meant he had been spectacularly rolled by the Right, and that his Tuesday announcement had been all but reversed.

All manner of explanations were given for the original announcement and the humiliating backflip. Even if they are all true, it is still clear that Mr Shorten made a misjudgement that brought down the wrath of his own faction upon him.

This is the same faction that disposed of Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard when it assessed them both as political liabilities.

That evaluation has not yet been made of Mr Shorten, but the events of this week have certainly shifted the needle on the leadership crisis dial from ‘harmless grumbles’ to ‘deep concern’.

A bad loss for Labor in any of the five upcoming byelections could move that needle even further to ‘assessing options for change’.

And there will be nothing faux about what happens after that.

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