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Michelle Grattan: Doing things by the book, and finding an exit strategy that's fair for all

Opinion

While Scott Morrison and most other politicians are trying to be their best selves during the coronavirus crisis, Malcolm Turnbull’s book is crashing in, chockers with reminders of how the Liberals behaved during their many coups, writes Michelle Grattan

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The book’s not out until Monday but details emerged on Thursday, including Turnbull’s juicy claim Morrison had “needed to be managed carefully and always counselled intensely about the need for confidentiality. As Mathias [Cormann] said, ‘We have a treasurer problem’ and the problem was one of trust.

The book will entrench old enmities, and provide some character insights.

But it won’t leave scratches on Morrison, so far has politics, and the community, moved on.

Scott Morrison and Malcolm Turnbull walk through the House of Representatives

Malcolm Turnbull’s book is full of juicy claims about working life with Scott Morrison. (Photo: ABC News: Matt Roberts)

Is it time to talk about an exit strategy?

This week showed Australia continuing to make strong progress in containing COVID-19 — although the Government refuses to embrace an “elimination” strategy, which the Prime Minister believes would be too costly to livelihoods.

Morrison’s attention is on the road out of the crisis — that is, unwinding the irksome but necessary restrictions we’re living under. In this he has a keen eye to the economic imperative.

This exit won’t be quick, although probably sooner than thought only a couple of weeks ago. It’s suggested we’re looking at a month before there’ll be a serious review.

Three police officers walk along Cottesloe Beach in uniform with beachgoers nearby on the sand.

Coronavirus restrictions are here to stay for at least another four weeks. (Photo: ABC News: West Matteeussen)

As a precursor, we need greater testing and tracing capabilities (the latter with the help of a controversial new app that raises privacy issues) and enhanced ability to deal with local hotspot outbreaks.

Morrison is sensitive to the restrictions trying people’s patience; equally, it would be folly to risk a second wave of infection by acting too early.

Morrison fights for his views to be heard

Morrison’s own patience was tried this week by that new and much-praised political creature, the national Cabinet. He desperately wants more children back at school, not least as an economic lever, enabling more parents to return to work.

In media appearances before Thursday’s meeting, he ran his arguments forcefully, and made a special video appealing to teachers.

A close up of Joseph as he writes words like 'happy, sad, content, angry'.

Children continue to be home-schooled. (Photo: ABC News: Sarah Collard)

But the states and territories are still going their various ways — while accommodating children who need to be on site — and there won’t be the large-scale quick return the PM would prefer.

Morrison hid his disappointment. The states had the responsibility for the (government) schools, he pointed out.

What should parents do? Listen to their premiers, he said, avoiding clenched teeth.

Untangling the economics won’t be easy

One flag on the exit road is a proposed parliamentary week in May, way ahead of the scheduled August date. This would be a normal sitting, unlike the single-day sessions devoted to passing relief packages.

Beyond easing the first lot of restrictions, though, will be other rounds in the “exit” debate, and how they run will be important for the next election, due early 2022.

While the higher welfare payments expire later this year, and free child care also has a time limit, it is hard to see the pre-COVID-19 status quo restored in these areas without injustices and enormous political fights.

Then there’s the longer-term question: how and when does the country pay for the huge government spending — more than $200 billion allocated so far — needed to get through this disaster?

Intergenerational fairness up in lights

This debate will be about economics and politics, and it will put up in lights the issue of intergenerational fairness.

In its impact, COVID-19 targets the elderly; most (though not all) younger people have a mild illness.

This fact has affected the debate about how the pandemic has been handled — some argue the health of the old shouldn’t have received priority over the health of the economy.

The age differential will also influence the discussion about the legacy debt Australia faces (on the upside, at a time when money has never been so cheap to borrow).

Bob Breunig, head of the Tax and Transfer Policy Institute at the Australian National University, points to multiple reasons why the young bear a heavy economic burden in this crisis.

Many are in casual jobs, and in sectors worst harmed, such as hospitality. Also, people beginning their careers during a downturn take longer to “catch up” financially with those who commenced in good times.

And younger people will be the taxpayers of the future as the country deals with the debt.

A line stretches back as far as the eye can see outside Centrelink.

Coronavirus has left many out of work. (Photo: ABC News: Chris Taylor)

Breunig advocates a sweeping agenda of tax reform, the bottom line of which would harmonise taxes on assets (and include the family home), and switch the tax mix towards indirect taxes, notably with a rise in the GST and the introduction of a broad-based land tax.

The present system “taxes active people heavily, it doesn’t tax inactive people so heavily”, he says.

The former are younger; the latter older. He argues his changes would provide economic stimulus, as well as being fairer to the young.

Breunig admits when it comes to tax “I’m a dreamer”, and won’t be expecting decision-makers to warm to his radical agenda (although there is interest in tax reform by some states).

Policy that is pro-growth

Intergenerational fairness does play to the argument that an early start should be made to paying off the debt.

It can be put in terms of a social bargain.

The lives of the present older generation are being protected — as they should be. The quid pro quo should be, that generation makes its contribution to dealing with the resulting deficit and debt.

But of course there would be vigorous push back to that proposition from some of those who’d be paying, and they have electoral clout.

The Government is looking to growth as an elixir.

Morrison said on Thursday: “On the other side of this virus and leading on the way out we are going to have to have economic policy measures that are going to have to be very pro-growth, that is going to enable businesses to employ people, that is going to enable businesses to invest and businesses to move forward”.

Easier said that done.

Wasn’t the Government committed to “pro-growth” policies before the crisis? Didn’t Morrison go to the last election promoting growth? Yet growth, pre-virus, was disappointingly low.

But it’s risky political territory ahead

Politically, the Government will be in risky territory as it moves towards the next election, hemming in its capacity for tough policy choices.

In the bowels of the Liberal Party, they’re likely already speculating on how the Government will be placed for a 2022 campaign.

Assuming Morrison continues to navigate COVID-19 skilfully, will he face a grateful electorate? Not if Labor’s experience after the global financial crisis is any guide.

The economy will be still struggling to get back on its feet.

A lot of people, and notably young people, will be battling in an extremely difficult job market. Many will have had their education disrupted. There will be complaints about benefits that have been withdrawn or reduced.

Morrison says the Budget, to be delivered in October, will have a plan to deal with debt and deficit.

The big question will be, how far they’ll be kicked down the road.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license.

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