Dutton Needs His Own Version Of Fightback

Written by:
15 February 2024
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Originally Appeared In

This article was originally published in Australian Financial Review on or about 15 February 2024 and was written by the author in their capacity as a contributor for that publication. 

It has been republished on the IPA website with permission. The views expressed are those of the author alone.


As the Coalition tries to work out a way forward on tax, the focus should be on how it won some of the big policy debates of the past.


For a political party that usually does its best to avoid the so-called “culture wars”, the Liberal Party has done well from them.

When Peter Dutton followed his instincts and opposed the Voice to parliament he was fighting against the Canberra press gallery, elite opinion, big business, and even members of his own shadow cabinet. Dutton was vindicated as he secured a massive moral and political victory against the Labor government and personally against Anthony Albanese. The eulogies for the prime minister were starting to be written, and the jostling to replace him had begun.

The Coalition now has to be careful that its Voice success was not as good as it gets for the Coalition.

Opposition MPs who were at first surprised by what appeared to be the PM’s political ineptitude during the Voice debate seemed to assume such hopelessness from the government would last until the PM was replaced. After Albanese’s apparently successful – at least in the short-term – reconfiguration of the stage three tax cuts, few Coalition MPs still think that.

Economics is meant to be the Coalition’s bread and butter, but in the three weeks since the PM broke his “my word is my bond” promise, it’s Labor, the Greens and even the teals who have made the running on tax reform. Admittedly, it’s still early in the latest iteration of the seemingly never-ending debate about tax reform. (The old quip about education reform applies equally to discussion about tax in Australia – “It’s long, boring, and in the end, everybody dies.”)

When the ALP proposes changes to negative gearing and capital gains tax (as they almost inevitably will), the opposition will need a better response than “the PM broke his promise”. If and when the treasurer Jim Chalmers says it’s OK to negatively gear two investment properties, but not 10, the Coalition will need an answer. As long as the opposition was committed to the stage three tax cuts, it didn’t have to do any original thinking.

Albanese got the public’s attitude to the Voice wrong. He doesn’t appear to be making that mistake on tax.

The Liberals’ last genuinely innovative economic policy was Malcolm Turnbull’s suggestion in 2016 that state governments levy their own income tax. It survived as a proposal for about 72 hours.

As Peter Dutton and his MPs try to work out a way forward on tax, they should look to how the Coalition won some of the big policy debates of the past (while they haven’t won as many as the ALP, they’ve nevertheless won a few). The Coalition defeated the Voice because it offered a compelling alternative narrative, namely Australians should not be divided by race. In 1998, at the core of John Howard and Peter Costello’s argument for a GST was that its introduction would make the tax system fairer.

And as strange as it might sound, Fightback! might have been an electoral failure, but it was a policy success. Itset the terms of the policy debate in Australia for the next decade. When it was launched in November 1991, the unemployment rate was 9.6 per cent (seasonally adjusted, it was 10.5 per cent). Fightback! was about jobs, and its tagline was “The way to rebuild and reward Australia”.

This isn’t to suggest the shadow treasurer, Angus Taylor, write a 345-page economic policy (that was the length of only the taxation and expenditure part of Fightback) for the Coalition to release before the next election. But it is an acknowledgment that the Coalition is best (as are all political parties) when it has a narrative and a plan.

The challenge for the Coalition is that its traditional pitch of smaller government and lower taxes doesn’t match the electorate’s expectations. Albanese got the public’s attitude to the Voice wrong. He doesn’t appear to be making that mistake on tax.

The truth is that at both the federal and state levels, Labor has adjusted better and more quickly to a post-COVID world than have the Liberals.

Australians appear to be not uncomfortable with larger government and higher taxes. In particular, Australians seem to welcome ever-higher taxes on “the rich”. That might change one day, but at the moment that’s a sad reality. It’s a reality Labor is embracing – and which the Coalition will have to come to terms with.

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This article was original published in The Australian Financial Review and was written by the author in their capacity as a contributor for that publication. It has been republished on the IPA website with permission. The views expressed are those of the author alone.

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