Next election shapes as race to be least worst

Opinion | Andrew Probyn Federal Political Editor

It may be more than a year away, maybe much less, but one former Liberal minister is already likening the next Federal election to a beauty contest between a Brussels sprout and a piece of broccoli.

He fears a miserably uninspiring question on who is least worse: Tony Abbott or Bill Shorten.

Neither leader is fully formed in voters’ minds. One because he’s a serial flip-flopper, the other because he lacks cut-through. Popularity is not in question, because neither has it.

Having survived an assault on his leadership in February, Abbott jettisoned great chunks of the 2014 Budget. That went down well with colleagues, who felt the Prime Minister and Treasurer Joe Hockey had condemned them to collective harakiri.

They also welcomed a more politically benign second Budget, happy to have something to sell for once, rather than defend.

But alarmingly for some Liberals, Abbott’s new timidity has him closing off options for his next term of government, should he get one.

The promise to govern for the long term has been replaced by blatant short-termism, where every possible wriggler is cleaned away lest it becomes another barnacle that later needs to be cleaved off.

The Tax White Paper, which admirably began as a process where nothing would be ruled in or ruled out, is now crippled by political caveats enacted by Abbott in retreat.

There will be no major change to the GST, this term or next. There will be no change to negative gearing.

And there will be no change to superannuation, which particularly perturbs sensible people in the coalition who know that the billions of dollars in superannuation concessions to the well-off must be revisited, as the Commission of Audit, Treasury secretary John Fraser and the superannuation sector acknowledge.

Hockey made early noises sympathetic to this view but Abbott moved to shut off debate, ignoring the risk of setting himself up for another broken promise. He opted for the political wedge instead, simply adding superannuation to his Labor rap sheet.

“What the Labor Party wants to do is bring back the carbon tax, start up a super tax, put the people smugglers back in business and if they get a chance, they will whack a mining tax back on as well,” Abbott said recently.

The debate on tax is so insipid the only “reform” being actively talked about is removal of the GST from women’s hygiene products — a move that defies settled orthodoxy about broadening the scope of the tax.

Abbott is positioning the Government very much as if he wants the next election to be a re-run of the 2013 election, which too often looked a re-run of the 2010 election.

On the other side, Shorten is at risk of becoming the incredible shrinking Opposition Leader. He wants the next election to be a referendum on the 2014 Budget, which proved to be a massive stimulus for Labor’s stocks.

But starved of those “unfair” measures, Shorten has neither the platform nor the material to flay the coalition. Labor’s unresolved internal disputes on offshore processing, boat turnbacks and carbon pricing tend to render Shorten as more of commentator than alternative.

When he attempts to be visionary, he lacks detail. His attacks don’t always have a point to them beyond the political. As for stature and gravitas, these are not easily come by, nor are they easily faked.

All of this points to a puny election contest where the contenders would rather we look in the rear vision mirror rather than ahead. A Tiny World competition poised to horribly disappoint. We must hope that in the time left before the election, whenever that is, we have a clearer idea of what both men stand for.

There is more clarity on the direction Australia is taking on gay marriage. It now appears certain that same-sex marriage will be legalised by the Parliament by year’s end. The only question appears to be who will own the decision. Labor wants it to be theirs. Abbott wants it to be Parliament’s.

That it should happen under a socially conservative Prime Minister will be one of those historical curiosities of parliamentary democracy, similar to the incongruity of an unmarried Julia Gillard, Australia’s first female PM, wanting to preserve marriage as being between men and women.

Abbott, who revealed on Sunday he was the only marriage “traditionalist” in his family, has all but surrendered to the changing political atmospherics on gay marriage — and not just since the Irish referendum.

So far, he has handled the subject with respectful sensitivity. He recognises the increased isolation of his view. Gay marriage no longer triggers predictable fault lines. MPs have been out of sync with the community for some years.

Coalition pollster Mark Textor found marriage equality is now supported by three-quarters of the population.

There is nothing to gain in Abbott attempting to resist the tide. But nor does he wish to gift Shorten with the boast of delivering reforms to the Marriage Act. Liberals who support gay marriage are united with Abbott on this front. The PM’s consolation is that there is no shame giving the people what they want.