In his brief parliamentary career to date, and likewise in his previous gig as head of the shoppies’ union, Peter Malinauskas has rarely if ever sunk to the sort of glib, vexatious and just plain wrong claims he tried to peddle in an interview on ABC Radio Adelaide earlier this week.
The Emergency Services Minister, asked about the infamous levy which bears his portfolio’s name, took the opportunity to pot the Liberals’ pledge to reinstate the remissions Treasurer Tom Koutsantonis removed back in 2014.
He didn’t argue that the move was economically unsound, robbing the state budget of a significant, ongoing revenue source.
He didn’t claim the Libs were digging into the budget surplus to buy votes with an overtly populist tax cut.
Either of these, while tenuous, would at least have been arguable.
But Malinauskas, who has forged a reputation as a straight-shooter with a penchant for policy over politicking, instead delved right down to the bottom of the barrel.
“The Opposition have announced they’re going to reinstate those remissions – that has a cost of approximately $90 million and what we can take from that in the absence of any other information is the fact that they are going to cut $90 million out of emergency services,” he confidently asserted.
Now, in some ways you’ve got to feel for Koutsantonis. The ESL is set each year based on what the emergency services budget demands. Unless the Government (ie the taxpayer) is prepared to wear some kind of offset, the quantum of the tax take is not something that can be manipulated for political advantage.
And yet, yesterday’s confirmation that the 2017-18 ESL rate would essentially flatline, while saving the average householder roughly the cost of a small cup of coffee was broadly perceived as a misguided attempt at some pre-election largesse by the beleaguered Labor Government.
It prompted much social media merriment by members of the Opposition, who headed off to online discount stores in search of useless items homeowners could buy with their discount.
But the sympathy only goes so far.
The Government has spent three years peddling a line that is both true and misleading. Namely, as Malinauskas put it on Tuesday, that “every single dollar raised from the ESL gets spent on the community through emergency services”.
The implication is that the effective doubling of household ESL bills is due to some heretofore unrequired funding necessity.
While the Government has never hidden the fact that they have stopped funding a 50 per cent ESL remission from general revenue, they have similarly been happy to let the issue go widely misunderstood in the general community.
Yes, the ESL take has naturally grown in the past few years, largely due to funding requirements prompted by various fire events. But the only reason people are even noticing the extra impost is because of Labor’s decision to effectively double bills by scrapping remissions.
The offset from general revenue used to cover 50 per cent of the total tax take which, at the time, equaled roughly $90 million.
In the next year, the ESL will reap almost $300 million – which means even the Libs’ commitment to reinstate the original $90 million will still not bring bills down to the level they would have been.
But claiming that they will have to cut emergency services to fund their pledge is not merely misleading – it’s just plain wrong.
In 2014, in the political and economic context of a standoff with the feds over scrapped health and education funding that had been previously promised, Koutsantonis gambled on the notion that the initial anger engendered by his ESL hikes would have subsided somewhat come March 2018, but that his $300 million budget surplus would win plaudits for Labor’s economic management credentials.
In effect, of course, the 2016-17 surplus equates almost exactly to the amount Labor would otherwise have doled out in ESL remissions over the previous three years.
But either way, it made no difference whatsoever to the amount of funding that went to the state’s emergency services. They are, and have always been, funded as required – it’s just that now we pay for it directly, where we used to pay for half of it indirectly.
The arguments over whether an ESL is the best mechanism to reap the cash are valid, if a bit pointless – since neither major party is actually advocating scrapping the tax altogether.
But two things are beyond doubt. One, that it is an entirely arbitrary government cash-grab dressed up to disguise and legitimise a hefty recurrent expense that would otherwise be paid from general revenue.
And two, that with or without an ESL, the state’s emergency services will still get their money regardless.
But if there was any chance that Malinauskas’s shameless spin was a moment of madness, it was dispelled yesterday when Koutsantonis deliberately persisted with the same narrative.
Asked whether he endorsed his colleague’s claim that emergency services would lose $90 million a year under the Liberal plan, he replied: “We have to assume that, if they’re not telling us which services they’re going to cut.”
“If you want a return on remissions you need to account for how you’re going to pay for it.”
It’s logical and necessary to scrutinise the Liberals’ costings; after all, it was a tactic that probably won Labor the 2010 election.
It’s no stretch to suggest that the next 10 months represent the most important period in the Liberal Party’s history for half a century
But even the Liberals, with their infamous history of campaign own-goals, wouldn’t be foolhardy enough to fund a $90 million ESL remission by a corresponding cut in emergency services.
The simple, dull fact is, the money will come from the same place it always came from – the broader revenue pot.
And taxpayers will still pay for it – just not all in one hit through an arbitrary tax pegged to the value of their home.
If it weren’t so shameless and unpopular, Koutsantonis’s ESL solution to the Government’s revenue woes would be kinda brilliant. It is, after all, the perfect Labor solution: a big new tax, dressed up for an altruistic cause, that (nominally) hits the rich harder than it does the poor.
But here’s the thing.
The Libs’ commitment to reimposing the remission is actually kinda brilliant too, at least politically.
It’s kept the issue front of mind for three years, and left Labor desperately clutching at straws as Malinauskas did this week.
It’s high time the Libs kicked political goals such as this. It’s no stretch to suggest that the next 10 months represent the most important period in their party’s history for half a century – and possibly ever.
Ludicrously, it seems a stretch that they could even form an outright parliamentary majority – what with the latent threat of a Xenophon raid on a glut of previously safe seats.
But if – with the electoral boundaries substantially redrawn in their favour and Labor desperate and on the nose – they can’t even cobble together a minority government, it’s hard to see how the party could then re-galvanise itself, both at a parliamentary and grassroots level, for another crack.
It would be a demoralised shell, sustained only by the authority bestowed on it by dint of a two-party system.
And it’s not like it’s kicking goals consistently.
Last week, the Libs somehow managed to stuff up the political attack on Labor over Oakden, an achievement that seemed almost inconceivable.
Evidently wanting to be seen to offer solutions, rather than merely critique, the Opposition brassily declared that full-time security guards should be deployed at the disgraced facility to protect patients from the staff.
Not only was the measure predictably and roundly derided by the medical fraternity – including Oakden’s new clinical leader Duncan McKellar and Chief Psychiatrist Aaron Groves – but the latter was also moved to declare himself satisfied with the Government’s response thus far to his bombshell report.
Hence, the Opposition went from having a clearly out-of-her-depth minister Leesa Vlahos on the ropes, to letting her off the hook in one fell swoop (at least until Bruce Lander’s scathing assessment that “nobody seems to want to accept the responsibility” for the mess).
While simultaneously making itself look impetuous and lackadaisical on policy. Quite some feat.
Presumably the impending recruitment of John Olsen to the crucial role of party president for the election lead-up – bizarrely, given the party’s history, with broad cross-factional support – suggests a long-overdue realisation that the Libs can no longer afford any missteps.
Labor may be doing its best to lose next year’s election, but that is no longer enough. If they want to survive, and potentially even thrive in government, the Libs need to wrest it from their grasp.
They’ll have been heartened this week by Labor’s increasingly-desperate spin that they might be slowly managing to do just that.
Tom Richardson is a senior reporter at InDaily.
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