Alan Kohler: The problem with Australian politics? Both sides agree about everything

Without a hint of irony this week, Opposition Leader Peter Dutton declared that “there’s been a catastrophic failure in the system” because a boatload of desperate people managed to make it to the WA coast.

One boat; 40 people. Meanwhile, more than 20,000 migrants have arrived in Europe by boat so far this year and about 10,000 people a day are walking across the southern border of the United States, inundating Texan towns.

Never mind that the WA arrivals were caught and promptly shipped off to Nauru, never to set foot in Australia, in line with Coalition policy.

But the fact that the two parties agree about border controls must be buried in outrage.

A week ago, Dutton – also with a straight face – accused the Labor government of preparing to end negative gearing, apparently because the Greens and former NSW Liberal premier Dominic Perrottet came out in favour of reform, which meant that the Labor Party was obviously cooking something up in secret.

He said: “Now, we don’t have rental stock in this country without negative gearing. People who want to save for their family, for their kids and grandkids, look at a rental property as core business and this government attacks aspiration.”

A few problems with this:

  • The idea that all rental properties produce a tax-deductible loss for their owners is obviously ludicrous, and wrong 
  • Negative gearing is one of the main reasons housing in Australia has become unaffordable, for kids and grandkids
  • Real estate speculation as “core business” and the basis of aspiration is an economic and social catastrophe
  • The Labor Party is not planning to do it because negative gearing is bipartisan.

That’s the problem with Australian politics – virtually everything is bipartisan; there is no genuine disagreement, only a movie set of it.

Media muster dogs have herded both major parties into the same stockyard on every major issue: Border control, housing, defence, economy, tax, climate change. 

The opposition is forced to cook up differences and wildly exaggerate them, otherwise what’s the point of them?

No cause for complaint

On the matter of border control, both parties do boat turnbacks and offshore processing of anyone who manages to get here, and both declare that anyone who arrives by boat will never get to stay (which means they mostly arrive by plane, which is another story).

It is a very successful world-leading policy, quietly sanctioned by most citizens, despite being condemned by refugee advocates.

The UK has been trying to get some of its “migrants” (as they call them) processed in Rwanda, under Rwandan law, but that policy was declared to be unlawful by the High Court last November because that country was unsafe.

Constant boat arrivals from north Africa prompted Italians to vote for a far-right government, which has since launched a crackdown on migrants, mainly involving long-term onshore detention.

And Americans are tearing their hair out about the Hondurans, Nicaraguans, Guatemalans, El Salvadorans and Venezuelans queueing up in camps on the Mexican border before crossing into the United States in their tens of thousands, overwhelming any possibility of sensibly processing their claims to be refugees.

As a result, they are likely to vote for an unpredictable narcissist facing 91 criminal charges who claims to be able to protect the border.

Australia’s tough bipartisan approach to refugees works because despite the confected hysteria, the numbers are tiny, even when they’re big, and they are easy to deal with – that is, they can easily fit on Nauru and Manus Island. In the US and Europe there are simply too many migrants to fly them somewhere else to be processed under another country’s laws.

And that’s simply because Australia can’t be approached on foot, as in the US, and the sea journey is longer and more perilous than across the Mediterranean Sea, so fewer people try it.

Furious agreement

Negative gearing, and housing affordability more broadly, is also bipartisan. It wasn’t so at the 2016 and 2019 elections, obviously, but it is now after Labor was humiliated by the appalling, otherwise unelectable, Scott Morrison in 2019. There are dissidents in Labor, but the government’s policy for improving affordability, like the Coalition’s, is only to boost supply, or rather appear to, and not even try to restrain tax-driven demand.

In fact, the Labor policy actually boosts demand through the Help to Buy scheme, although that will make little aggregate difference because only 10,000 people a year will qualify. Like most housing policies, it is an announcement. 

Defence is bipartisan because both parties habitually over-promise and under-deliver, while loudly accusing each other of doing so; grand announcements of acquisitions are made which invariably blow out in both time and money.

The biggest defence policy in recent times – AUKUS – is entirely, cringingly, bipartisan, even though there are plenty of reasonable grounds for opposing it. 

The Coalition’s stage-three tax cuts were bipartisan policy until Labor changed them so they weren’t quite so beneficial to the wealthy, and for five minutes the two parties were at odds, until Peter Dutton realised that he was sitting on a branch sawing, on the wrong side of the saw, and jumped back into line.

And as for the economy, their bipartisanship is accidental, and ironic: Labor talks about spending but runs a budget surplus; the Coalition talks about austerity and runs deficits.

During the pandemic the Coalition government was able to do some of the greatest fiscal stimulus in history because it had to worry about having a reputation for debt and deficits, thanks to years of successful marketing of its non-existent fiscal credentials.

The splurge was epic, debt-funded and, of course, bipartisan – as is the return to surplus.

Labor has achieved it with furtive tax increases through bracket creep, while at the same time talking up the spending it’s doing to help Australians through a cost-of-living crisis caused by rising house prices, interest rates and the lack of competition in the supermarket business.

And climate change? Surely they differ on that. Not really. Labor simply repurposed the Coalition’s safeguard mechanism and while the two parties used to have different emissions reduction targets, the Liberals have joined the “Net zero by 2050” club.

The main difference now is that the Coalition is pushing nuclear energy, but that’s not a real policy: A Dutton government won’t be building nuclear plants and nor will any private operator.

And like any duopoly – such as supermarkets – that ensures prices/policies never deviate much, Australia’s major political parties are also in furious agreement about the need to keep out competition.

As discussed here in October, bipartisan campaign finance reforms are designed to block independents from further gains in the Lower House, and preferably make sure there are fewer of them, so their angry, bipartisan duopoly is preserved.

Alan Kohler writes twice a week for The New Daily. He is finance presenter on the ABC News and also writes for Intelligent Investor

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