Labor and the Liberal Party both have problems beginning with the number 50.
And in both instances, the number has more to do with political messaging than anything else.
The ALP’s commitment towards 50 per cent renewable energy by 2030 was unveiled by Bill Shorten in July 2015 as a demonstration of Labor’s commitment to climate change.
At the time, it was an important strategic beachhead against a Coalition government led by Tony Abbott, who had not only dumped Labor’s carbon pricing mechanism, but favoured retreat on the renewable energy target, or RET.
On the other side, the Government’s $50 billion company tax cut plan, announced in last year’s May budget, was Malcolm Turnbull’s policy remedy to the developing perception he was leading a Government without a story to tell.
It gave the Prime Minister an agenda on which to launch an excruciatingly long eight-week election campaign a short time later.
And it answered the nagging need to provide virtuous nutrition for that elusive ingredient, known in political circles as the “vision thing”, in the same way Labor pitched for virtue through an ambitious renewable energy roll-out.
This first fortnight of parliamentary sittings for 2017 has strained both sides on their “50” campaigns.
Mr Shorten’s interview on ABC radio’s AM program this week advertised Labor’s policy agony. The Labor leader was asked four times by Sabra Lane to reveal the cost of Labor’s 50 per cent renewable energy target.
The questions went unanswered except for an appeal, rather predictably, to virtue.
“We think the cost of not acting is far greater,” he told Lane.
The interview confirmed, in the Government’s view, that Labor’s renewable energy policy was more gesture politics — a view that even some in Labor share.
The status of the policy — whether it is a goal, objective, ambition, aspiration or firm target — became dangerously ambiguous in the face of a hostile Coalition campaign on power prices.
Mark Butler, Labor’s climate change and energy spokesman, provided much-needed clarity on Thursday when he explained that the existing renewable energy target — 23.5 per cent by 2020 — would not be extended beyond 2020, having “done its work”.
In its place, he said Labor would enact an emission intensity scheme that was aligned with an emission reduction target, “which will require, in my very clear view, that about half of our electricity by 2030 will be zero emissions”.
Though the shift in language was subtle, Labor’s retreat was confirmed. There would be no 50 per cent RET for 2030, as some had assumed, but a market-based mechanism which would, in Mr Butler’s opinion, see about half of Australia’s power supply being zero emission.
The Government must deal with its own problem with 50
The Government’s strategic win over Labor on the RET has aided its framing of the political contest as a cost-of-living tussle (“There’s nothing more hip pocket than electricity prices,” one Cabinet minister said this week).
But as it chugs towards the May budget, determined to show how in touch it is with kitchen table issues, complete with a new focus on housing affordability, the Government must deal with its own problem with 50.
The tax cut plan, though a useful joust against Labor, has a very uncertain future.
Its passage through the Senate appears highly unlikely.
Mr Shorten’s populist campaign against the 10-year plan to bring the corporate tax rate to 25 per cent has shattered the necessary atmospherics for such a plan.
But a negotiated, less ambitious compromise, focusing on redefining small business to those with turnovers of $10 million or less, looks possible.
Pauline Hanson, whose One Nation party has four crossbench votes, now qualifies her support for the $50 billion tax to “within reason”, telling 7.30 this week there were better ways of getting more people into work.
“I think that rather than just the company tax, if we can turn around the states’ attitude to get rid of the payroll tax, that would be more beneficial and people will create employment there,” she said.
The Government is now considering its options: does it retain the plan and further expose itself to Labor’s populist campaign, or does it shelve the bigger ambition for now in order to get other things done?
It’s a question of pragmatism that has come into sharper relief by the decision made by the executive to formally abandon $13 billion of so-called “zombie” savings that have no hope of passing the Senate in its current form.
Suspending implementation of the tax plan would offset some of the zombie savings being removed from the budget.
But it would give Labor a victory it might not want to bear.
It’s a calculation in 50:50 balance.
17 February 2017 | 1:24 am
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