Andrew Carswell: Why Peter Dutton should be focusing on cost of living instead of boats & borders

Andrew Carswell
The Nightly
4 Min Read
A reluctance to prosecute the Government’s failure on cost of living is a mistake. Pictured: Peter Dutton.
A reluctance to prosecute the Government’s failure on cost of living is a mistake. Pictured: Peter Dutton. Credit: Joel Carrett/AAPIMAGE

Sure, they were briefly outmanoeuvred.

The redesign of the tax cuts that allowed the Prime Minister to temporarily snatch the political ascendency from the Opposition left the Coalition flat-footed; surprised by a Government that had shown no ability to be politically astute.

But long after the dust had settled from the barbs of broken promises, long after the gnashing of teeth subsided, you could be forgiven for thinking the Opposition’s economic narrative remained gun shy.

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There appears a reluctance to properly prosecute the Albanese Government’s failure on cost of living, lest they inadvertently remind the public of their beloved tax cuts. Likewise, any litigation of the Government’s ownership of stagnant productivity and investment, and stifling small business costs appears meek.

That’s a problem when economic management is your chief equity, on the eve of a winnable by-election, in a seat where the struggle from rising cost of living is not only tangible, it is everything. Why be coy talking about it now, when hip pocket pain is crystallising into visceral anger?

The Albanese Government’s inept performance on border security has given the Opposition another bunny to chase, providing Peter Dutton with a relieving pivot from his tax cut woes. It is one he has relished and executed with precision. This is his safe zone. And no one has greater authority or authenticity in this space.

Here, the transfer of mojo, from one leader to the other, has been breathtaking in speed.

Andrew Carswell.
Andrew Carswell. Credit: Suplied

From a PM full of confidence from landing his tax backflip, dishing out the clever quips at the despatch box, egged on by a posse of sycophants, to the return of the agitated politician last seen wandering aimlessly through the dust of the Voice defeat, lashing out at criticism.

From an Opposition Leader, a deer in the headlights, unable to react decisively to the tax backflip, to a commander in chief cutting his enemy down with every bullet.

There will be the usual group-think within the Coalition to settle here. To extract the maximum pain from a Government that is clearly all at sea about on-water matters.

But the economy has primacy.

Boats and borders, while initially gifting the Coalition a reprieve, are now becoming a distraction. And as polls confirmed on Monday, they are failing to move the dial.

There is an inherent blind spot in the Coalition that consistently views boat arrivals and border security as a feted hero arriving to save the day; a means to win back suburban mums and dads who care greatly about such issues.

And they do care, as JWS Research noted last week. But it’s still only seventh on the list of topics Australians say the Government should focus on, when cost of living sits top.

If you’re not talking cost of living, you’re not really talking.

A reluctance to prosecute the Government’s failure on cost of living because you’re terrified of denigrating popular tax cuts, is a mistake. Equally, a reluctance to prosecute the Government on cost of living because you’re onto a winner with border security, would be a misjudgment. The two can be powerful allies; a two-punch combination that proves incompetence is spreading and becoming a distinguishing feature of the Government.

On broader economic measures, it is not reluctance, but more confliction.

Because of the Opposition’s populist criticism of big business “not being on your side”, there has been a reticence to properly prosecute the Government’s policy failures that are increasing the cost of doing business in Australia.

It is hard for a party to fight what are devastating industrial relations changes when you’re calling for a boycott of Woolworths.

It is hard to call for better investment conditions and productivity-enhancing measures when you’re belittling businesses for their social conscience and their climate and energy policies.

When the economy is teetering on the edge of recession, when Australia has some of the highest operating costs in the world, bashing business for political gain is a strange tactic.

It hardly advertises your economic management credentials to the public.

There is a war to be waged. The economy has to be fought for.

Even on tax, the Coalition has ammunition.

In Redbridge’s February polling, 67 per cent agreed or didn’t disagree when asked if they felt they couldn’t trust an Albanese Government in the future if it backflipped on tax, while only 29 per cent disagreed with the notion that tax cuts would make “very little difference to low and middle income earners”.

Trust is clearly a weapon that should be deployed with ruthless intent by Peter Dutton. On multiple fronts. Because it is becoming apparent that you can’t trust Labor not to break a promise, you can’t trust Labor to alleviate the cost of living, and you can’t trust Labor on boats and border security.

Marrying the three together is paramount.

While the border and boats saga has revived the Coalition’s mood, it must quickly increase its now narrow ascendancy on economic management if it is to ever eat into Labor’s stubborn electoral lead.

Not being afraid to talk about cost of living and the economy is a start.

Andrew Carswell is a political strategist and former adviser to the Morrison government.

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