Narcissism as far as the eye can see

ON LINE opinion – Australia’s e-journal of social and political debate
Posted Wednesday, 6 April 2016

Tony Abbott is the Liberal Party’s Mark Latham. Having lived through the Latham train wreck of plagiarised policies and unnecessarily aggressive shirt fronting of Prime Minister Howard I did not think I’d see his like again in Australian politics. But I was wrong.

Abbott continues to outdo Latham at every turn. His machismo narcissistic defence of all that happened on his watch defies belief. He wears, as a badge of honour, his failure to get the bulk of Hockey’s “End of entitlement” 2014 Budget through the Senate. He seems totally oblivious to the fact that Julia Gillard managed to negotiate most of her budgets through the parliament even when she had no absolute majority in either House. Abbott’s reasoning seems to run along the lines that his failure trumps Gillard’s success.

Narcissism is very much alive and well in recent Australian politics. One had only to watch Kevin Rudd’s two stints at the helm to understand that he thought he was the smartest kid on the block and that everyone else had little to offer. He is so full of himself that he now thinks he is the best person to be the next Secretary General of the United Nations.

And then there is Malcolm Turnbull, a man of urbane wit and charm, who promised so much when he challenged Abbott for the leadership of the Liberal Party: an economic explanation of the economic situation facing Australia, a blueprint for the way forward, an informed conversation in place of three word sloganeering and all that just for a start. He wanted us to believe that there was no more exciting time to be living in Australia – that there would be invention and innovation.

Admittedly he did not say it but the majority of voters considered, given his past record, he was likely to introduce climate change policies that would hopefully help avert raising the world’s temperature by 2 degrees. Many thought he would usher in more humane asylum seeker policies and resolve the marriage equality debate without an $160 million plebiscite. I was even foolish enough to believe that he would soften Abbott’s confrontational policies towards the building unions.

Most people listening to what Turnbull was saying, in the run-up to the challenge, believed that he thought equity and fairness should be the basis on which to build a budget. That he would walk away from cutting services and payments to the less affluent whilst simultaneously pandering to the big end of town.

At first, when he kept sticking to the Abbott policies, my friends kept saying to me – give him time, he’s only been in the job a month, he’s got to placate those Abbott Neanderthals he’s dispatched to the back bench….

But, there were worrying signs in both the Ministries Turnbull created. Mal Brough, as Minister for State being investigated by the federal police was not a good look and then there was Jamie Briggs who thought he could tough it out because he really did not get it that a young bureaucrat was not flattered by his advances.

But most worrying of all was Arfur (as in Arfur Daly) Sinodinos who could at one and the same time have management duties at Australian Water Holdings, be treasurer of the Liberal Party in New South Wales, and not know that Australian Water Holdings was donating large sums to the NSW Liberal Party. He did not know that Australian Water Holdings was 30 per cent owned by the Obeid family whilst he was in senior management positions with the company.

Arfur was a long time Chief of Staff of John Howard, and the most recent duties he has in the Turnbull Government is as Cabinet Secretary. In recent days, the NSW Electoral Commission has been making some rather untoward comments about Sinodinos’ relationship with the Free Enterprise Foundation, a slush fund set up by people associated with the Liberal Party, to channel money anonymously to the Liberal Party. The Electoral Commission has suggested that a large number of donations to the Free Enterprise Foundation have come from property developers and other people who are prevented by law from making donations to political parties in NSW. Arfur Sinodinos has also been investigated by the NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption which has yet to report.

Unremarkably the Labor Party is of the opinion that Sinodinos should step aside while the NSW Electoral Commission and the Independent Commission Against Corruption matters are ongoing. But on current form it looks as if he will stay until the stench becomes unbearable.

All the while the Labor Party has been getting its policies out there and for the large part has had clean air. Even the quarantining of existing negative gearing on old houses and limiting negative gearing to new premises, due to come into effect in 2017, did not hit much turbulence. This was mainly due to some government ministers saying it would cause house prices to plummet whilst other minsters claimed it would cause house prices to skyrocket. The Libs weren’t helped by a BIS Shrapnel Report on negative gearing that Treasurer Morrison leapt upon as an attack on Labor’s negative gearing policies. Unfortunately for Morrison it turned out that the BIS Shrapnel report had been modelled on entirely different assumptions to Labor ‘s proposal.

Morrison has enough on his plate. The Budget has been brought forward a week so that there will be time to debate the legislation meant to ensure supply in the event of Turnbull calling a double dissolution. Rumours are rife that Turnbull and Morrison are at loggerheads on a number of economic matters, their differences on increasing the GST and superannuation tax concession cuts in recent weeks have added to mutterings. Morrison seems hell bent on providing tax cuts to business whilst others want tax cuts to compensate for those entering higher tax brackets due to bracket creep. All Liberals seem to agree that there have to be cuts in benefits and services to the less affluent. All of this seems remarkably reminiscent of the 2014 Budget.

Turnbull is determined that the trigger for a double dissolution shall be the refusal to reintroduce John Howard’s Star Chamber, the Australian Building and Construction Commission. It will be “an agency with draconian powers denying the right to silence or a lawyer of choice to anyone it deems worthy of investigation, it in fact has no powers of criminal investigation and acts in the civil jurisdiction but with the ability to impose massive fines for behaviour it deems unacceptable.”

During the last week in March Turnbull announced he was intending to allow the States a certain percentage of income tax to help them pay the $80 billion in cuts to the health and education budgets forecast to be slashed by Abbott later this decade. Turnbull is even promising that in the long term he will allow them to raise or lower the rate of state tax in their state. Like a pompous headmaster lecturing spendthrift students he added that if the states raise their own revenue rather than relying on the Commonwealth credit card they will be more responsible in their spending on health and education. Such a lecture totally ignores the fact that the states did not create the $80 billion shortfall – it was Abbott and Hockey who created the hole.

Returning to pre World War II tax arrangements might look like excitement and innovation to some people, cutting services and funding to the less affluent might sound like a good idea to those rich enough to live at Point Piper, further decreasing the bargaining power of workers and unions might appeal to the super rich as a good idea; but if Malcolm Turnbull thinks these actions are the epitome of equity and fairness then he may be far more narcissistic than either Latham or Abbott.