Leader's word is no longer law

19th April 2017 12:40 PM
Mungo Mac Callum. Photo Doug Eaton / The Northern Star Mungo Mac Callum. Photo Doug Eaton / The Northern Star Doug Eaton

THE most depressing aspect of the very public stoush between cabinet ministers and their claques over house-hunters to access their superannuation for deposits is that it has happened at all.

Malcolm Turnbull made his opinion clear as far ago as 2015 - a thoroughly bad idea, no ifs and no buts - forget it. Of course he was not yet prime minister, and the issue was not considered a vital one - just one of the recurrent thought bubbles the libertarian right puts up when it has nothing more exciting to propose.

But now Turnbull is the leader, and unlike so many of the fervent positions he has been forced to recant to get the job, (perhaps the lunatic fringe forgot to include it in its reactionary manifesto) he appears to be holding on to it: even on part of his passage to India he made it clear that he had not changed his mind - at least, not yet.

It should have been killed off before it even got into the headlines, and if not then, definitely last week after a day-long session of the Expenditure Review Committee - the pre-budget razor gang. And the fact that it wasn't shows just how precarious Turnbull's dwindling authority has become.

Under normal circumstances the leader's word would have been law: the prime minister may tell his colleagues that he is simply primus inter pares among his cabinet, a chairman to mediate the disputes, but in practice it is rare indeed for arguments of this kind to break into the media.

It can happen; the passionate campaign by Paul Keating to impose an consumption tax - the then treasurer's beloved option C - bubbled along for several days, but in the end his Prime Minister, Bob Hawke, kyboshed it, and that was that. Hawke was genuinely attracted to the idea, but in the end it was too electorally fraught.

So Keating backed down, and in the end campaigned equally passionately against what became the GST. But Scott Morrison is quite prepared to break the unwritten rule. He wants - indeed, he desperately needs - a win to give at least some substance to what has become the key budget issue of housing policy.

Morrison's quandary is that he is hopelessly circumscribed by the commonwealth's ability to intervene in the area. Having dismissed the biggest lever available to Canberra, negative gearing, on the grounds that Labor thought of it first, and with the other serious tool, capital gains tax, teetering in the balance because the right hates the idea losing that perk even more than it likes the idea of dismantling superannuation accounts, Morrison is reduced to the prospect of tinkering at the edges, a policy which even he admits is all but pointless.

He is already warning of failure, warning the public that there is no magic bullet, and the process of reform, if it comes at all, will take years - certainly well beyond the next budget. Having discouraged prospective house buyers as far as possible, he goes on to talk about the joys of renting.

This, of course, is hardly compatible with encouraging a premature grab at super; renting is always risky, a lease-to-lease proposition, and it becomes downright perilous when age catches up and retirement looms. When the job ends, the income from super and the pension is generally all that's left to pay the landlord. If it has been spent on a concrete purchase of accommodation, well and good; but if it has just been blown on a deposit with no real prospect of being able to pay off both the interest and the capital, it can be disastrous.

The libertarians do not see that as a worry: as far as they are concerned, people are entitled to use their own money however they like, and if they stuff up, tough titty. After all, superannuation is no more than institutionalised theft - a bit like taxation, really.

But of course it is a bit more complicated than that. Super is supposed to be form of compulsory saving, which means that if it is spent prematurely, not only do the savings dissipate, but the interest on them ceases to exist. Even if super remains untouched for the full period in which it accumulates, it is still mostly considered inadequate for a comfortable to retirement, which is why Keating, who set up the system, has tirelessly argued that the rate should be increased from the current figure of 9.5% to 12%.

However, the current government has deferred any increase until 2025, which will be too late for yet another generation of pensioners - who will, as a result, need topping up from government coffers. This is no doubt one of Turnbull's objections to Morrison's pleas, and it is one which every serious economist supports.

But that means nothing to the ideological right, which is now shamelessly defying Turnbull on every level. Naturally Tony Abbott is front and centre of the rebellion, with most of the usual suspects on the backbench. But what matters is that ministers, both senior and junior, have joined the push, among them Barnaby Joyce and Matt Canavan of the Nationals and even blow-ins such as Michael Sukkar among the Liberals.

It has has been revealed by the astonishing report that the prime minister has turned to Peter Dutton for support: he has ordered his Treasurer to talk to his Minister for Immigration and Border Protection, who has absolutely nothing to

do with housing policy and, it can be argued, very little to do with anything these days apart from naked ambition.

Pathetic, if not farcical. Or perhaps, once again, simply depressing.