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Richardson: Too many retreats for bold leadership


Labor's bank tax retreat marks the latest in a long line of public policy pursuits that have come to nothing since the 2014 election. Which, writes Tom Richardson, does raise the question as to just what the Weatherill Government has achieved this term.

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When Tom Koutsantonis fronted media yesterday to face the music about his bank tax about-face, he unsurprisingly took the opportunity to stick the boot into the Liberal Opposition for blocking the budget measures bill that contained the contentious measure.

“When politicians say they want someone to have a tax cut, but block it –there’s a Greek word for that behaviour,” the Treasurer began, before one of his interrogators cut him off on another tack, leaving others to ponder what Mediterranean mockery he had in mind.

Finally, one TV reporter addressed the proverbial elephant in the room, pondering sheepishly:“What’s the Greek word?”

“Hypocrite!” Kouts averred.

“What did you think it was?”

“I thought it was going to be something rude,” the journo admitted.

As we wend our dismal path towards the end of this frustrating parliamentary term, voters would be justified in expressing a similar pang of regret about Labor’s legislative agenda – that we had anticipated something other than what it turned out to be.

Not that the bank tax itself was ever any kind of light on the hill for public policy; but then, it was never meant to be.

Labor’s retreat suggests the bank tax wasn’t merely bad policy – but bad strategy

In terms of revenue, it was designed to solve a problem that never existed, given Kouts had already established his budget honeypot early on with his similarly contentious Emergency Services Levy slug. The bank tax was a different beast, more classic wedge politics than fiscal expedience: it was designed as much to distinguish Labor’s ‘battlers’ from the big end of town (with whom the Liberals obligingly threw in their lot) as it was to feather the revenue nest.

As such, Labor’s retreat this week suggests the bank tax wasn’t merely bad policy – but bad strategy to boot.

The implication must be that the party’s pre-poll focus groups were showing much the same thing as the polls commissioned by the Australian Bankers’ Association – that the electorate was more inclined to believe the levy would hurt not just banks and investors, but customers, than it was to obligingly accept the Treasurer’s Robin Hood pretensions.

Perhaps the saddest part of the whole bank tax fallout – the thing that exposes it as nothing but opportunistic politics on all sides – is that Koutsantonis yesterday revealed he’d claw back some of the lost revenue by beefing up another “surcharge” already imposed in his June budget.

Earlier this month, I wrote of the Foreign Investor Surcharge that it should be considered a far more unpalatable tax slug than the bank tax – and a far more hypocritical one, since it’s one the Treasurer railed against in other jurisdictions.

Indeed, he’s previously described it as driven by “xenophobia” and pledged never to introduce it.

Moreover, unlike the bank tax, Koutsantonis actually admits the foreign buyers surcharge is bad for business.

Have a listen to the justification he offered yesterday, before which he’d run the notably Hanson-esque refrain that “a lot of South Australians are being priced out of their own homes, out of their own suburbs, by foreign investors”.

These investors, then, will now “pay a penalty”. For being foreign, that is.

“They’ll pay a penalty and we hope it will have some disin… some impact on it,” Kouts thundered.

What was that? Did it sound as though he was about to say ‘disincentive’? Like the Treasurer started to concede that his budget contained a measure that would deter people who wanted to invest in SA – and then thought better of it?

I reckon so.

In which case, let’s just dwell on that point for a moment longer than the parliament has presumed to. Because the South Australian Treasurer has just proudly told us that his budget will be a disincentive to investment.

And apparently no-one has a problem with this.

Well, of course they don’t. Because this is one of those universal policy dog-whistles that plays out well in the kind of swing seats where politicians would really rather avoid looking like they’re trying to defend Asian investors buying up local land, thanks very much.

Back in July, when Steven Marshall (at length) opted to block the budget measures bill unless Labor excised the excise, the Liberal leader wrote to constituents explaining that “the Liberal Party stands for lower taxes and creating jobs”.

“Labor’s state bank tax will do the opposite; driving employment and investment out of our State,” he continued.

So, in addition to perpetuating the annoying contemporary bureaucratic obsession with superfluous capitalisation, he appears to be saying that all handbrakes on investment are equal, but some are more equal than others.

Anyway, let’s be clear. There aren’t too many people on any side of politics crying into their beer about the demise of the late-lamented bank tax.

But it’s becoming increasingly difficult to understand Labor’s end-game here, as their supposedly principled stand-off over the sanctity of the budget bill joins the long line of dumped public policy projects since Jay Weatherill outlined his “bold”, sock-knocking vision.

Among the headline items, plans to adopt eastern standard time and pursue the establishment of a high-level nuclear dump have both gone the way of the dodo, while mooted “radical” tax reforms were sidelined in favour of some tinkering round the edges which, while broadly welcomed, hardly filled the Premier’s brief of leaving us collectively “gasping”.

Even the much-debated Transforming Health reforms were eventually dumped at the last hurdle, with the Government – having held the line on the need for systemic change for almost four years – suddenly relented to a pre-poll spending spree as the spectre of a backlash in key seats began to hit home.

Popular, yes, but bold? Not so much.

Not bold, but popular. That ought to be the tagline for Labor’s election manifesto.

Labor has not merely lost the courage of its convictions – but the convictions themselves

Weatherill has long held a theory – and it’s one that, in my wistful naivety, I happen to share – that the electorate is hungry for ideas and conviction, rather than partisan opportunism.

The problem is, while he may believe it, he doesn’t seem capable of implementing it.

He’s like Sir Robin in Monty Python’s Holy Grail: when danger rears its ugly head, he’s bravely turned his tail and fled.

Which may well serve him well politically, but it hardly makes for consistent policy or assured administration.

Not that any of this could matter come March: after all, the key ‘jobs’ measure on which Labor has consistently been judged harshly is starting to turn in its favour, with yesterday’s unemployment figures putting the once-basket-case state economy on better trend terms than any other state, save for NSW.

Moreover, the new ABS state accounts figures published today show SA’s gross state product growing by 2.2 per cent in the last financial year, with the highest growth of any state in per capita terms.

If energy security and cost can be neutralised in the next few months, Labor will have removed significant baggage from its electoral saddlebag.

All of which, incidentally, is good news for SA.

But it’s still hard to reflect on the public policy retreats of the past four years and conclude anything other than that Labor has lost not merely the courage of its convictions – but the convictions themselves.

The Treasurer called a press conference yesterday to explain that he was able to deliver his budget largesse administratively, despite having previously insisted he would have no choice but to slug small businesses who had underpaid.

And that he would not only impose but significantly increase a tax that he has previously not only ruled out but ridiculed.

There’s a Greek word for that.

Tom Richardson is a senior reporter at InDaily.

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