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Bank standoff sets the scene for election fight

Opinion

The bank tax standoff has escalated into a high-stakes game of political brinkmanship that will likely set the tone for the forthcoming state election campaign, writes Tom Richardson.

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For Labor, it’s the best of times and the worst of times.

The centerpiece of its Budget Measures Bill has just been shot down by the Opposition and some aptly-titled crossbenchers in the Upper House.

But in so doing, its political opponents may have played helpfully into the Government’s hands, gifting Labor the narrative on which it plans to fight the 2018 election campaign.

The pre-election budget was, unsurprisingly, full of spending sweeteners, most of which are contained within the budget measures bill.

By chance, the Government has compiled a handy list of said sweeteners, which it is more than happy to provide at quick notice.

It includes payroll tax cuts for small businesses as well as stamp duty concessions, pre-purchase grants and land tax exemptions for people buying apartments off-the-plan.

It also contains what should be considered a far more unpalatable tax slug – and a far more hypocritical one, since it’s one Treasurer Tom Koutsantonis has previously railed against – a four per cent surcharge for foreign buyers of residential properties in SA. But while that may deter investment, it also plays well in some of the swing-seats and ‘only’ raises about $50 million over the forward estimates, compared to the $370 million commanded by the bank tax.

So it has gone largely ignored.

The Liberals are telling Labor if it wants its big bad bank tax so badly, it should argue for it at the election.

“If the next campaign is a debate about Labor’s tax regime, that will be fine by us,” Liberal leader Steven Marshall told InDaily today.

“We’re just standing up for the people of SA – they don’t want higher taxes and only a Liberal Government will deliver lower taxes.”

While the Libs’ bid to rip a key revenue measure from the budget bill is, as Marshall himself concedes, “extraordinary”, it is not without precedent. Within this very term of Government, the Upper House conspired to block the similarly-unpopular car park tax.

On that occasion, Labor blinked, and removed the policy from its budget measures bill.

But that was only months after an election, when the ramifications of a stalemate would drag on indefinitely.

This time round, we are only months before an election, and with only a handful of sitting days left before writs are issued.

The ramifications of holding firm, as Labor says it will, and sending its budget bill back intact to the Upper House to be defeated are different this time. A delay of a few months in enacting most of these measures will make little material difference, but it will allow the Government to go to the election campaigning on the promise of introducing its own budget measures. While arguing that the Liberals are spruiking for the big banks.

It may be a disingenuous line, but it’s one given currency by the crassness of NAB’s decision today to concurrently announce both a super-profit of $6.642 billion and the sacking of 6000 staff nationwide (with a net loss of 4000 positions).

If the Australian Bankers’ Association was hoping to win over the hearts and minds of South Australians with its recent well-funded campaign, its own members clearly didn’t get the memo.

Koutsantonis was quick to pounce on the announcement, with a morning media release demanding Marshall explain “why he is protecting the big banks” – and vowing to send the budget bill “straight back to the Upper House”.

But the Government’s own argument remains flawed, given its own Treasury boss David Reynolds told a parliamentary committee last month that budget goodies such as payroll cuts were already being adjusted “administratively” on the expectation the budget bill would pass.

And he conceded that the Government could, if it wished, continue to implement the policy without passing legislation.

“That would remain a policy choice of any government to continue to do that,” he said.

But that’s administration.

What the Government and Opposition are today debating is nothing but raw politics.

The Government wants a trigger to claim the Libs are blocking its budget bounty. The Libs want to paint Labor as profligate pirates, recklessly shoring up their coffers with other people’s cash.

Labor’s own cause wasn’t helped by its Upper House leader, Kyam Maher, getting somewhat carried away in last night’s debate when musing – albeit with some justification – on the precedent being set by Oppositions isolating measures to oppose in the budget bill.

“Let’s be very clear about what we are considering here,” he said.

“If these amendments get up and this bill is blocked, it sets a precedent that will be acted upon by future Labor oppositions… there is no part of any budget that will be safe from vandalism by a future Labor opposition should this particular amendment get up and this bill be blocked.”

Unsurprisingly, Koutsantonis walked a mile from this assertion on his morning radio rounds, instead insisting it was “perfectly legitimate for a member of parliament to say ‘I don’t support this tax measure’ as long as they then identify areas that they want to cut”.

In other words, it’s a re-badging of the attack line that has served Labor so well in recent elections – that the Liberals need to show how they will pay for their promises.

And Labor will be more than happy to sell its budget sweeteners under the campaign microscope – while condemning the Libs as being in bed with the top end of town.

The game of political brinkmanship – as tedious as it’s been thus far – has reached a decisive impasse. But it’s arguable the Liberals’ political capital would have been better served allowing the budget measures bill to pass and then campaigning on the bank tax’s repeal – as it has with the ESL – than letting Labor run a line that its largesse has been blocked to benefit the banking industry.

Because that’s the kind of fight Labor would love to have.

Tom Richardson is a senior reporter at InDaily.

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