UK Prime Minister Liz Truss’ remarkable decision to scrap her own tax cuts offers an incredible opportunity for the Albanese government. After weeks of outrage from voters, her own backbench and even the financial markets that once trumpeted the benefits of tax cuts, common sense and economic sense combined to deliver a timely, if humiliating, backflip.
Here in Australia, the politics of a newly elected Labor government scrapping Scott Morrison’s 2018 tax plan are much easier. While it’s true that Anthony Albanese made a promise to stick with the Coalition’s tax plan, it’s also true that promise was made before energy prices, inflation and interest rates soared, and before real wages fell faster than at any time on record.
With the budget stuck in deficit and public services groaning under the weight of public expectations, there could not be a worse time to implement Scott Morrison’s scheduled $250 billion worth of tax cuts, half of which would go to those earning more than $180,000 per year. Once upon a time, it would have been conservatives raging against such reckless spending, but once upon a time conservatives took things like cabinet government seriously as well.
Speaking at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) at the weekend, former Liberal Senator Amanda Stoker argued against conservatives focusing on the economy: “We will not and we cannot win hearts and minds for the cause of freedom just by talking about dollars and cents. To keep running campaigns that only offer a one-dimensional ‘it’s the economy, stupid’ will condemn us to opposition for a very long time.”
But despite the determination of so many conservatives to vacate the political high ground of “economic management”, it’s not inevitable the Albanese government will fill the remaining political vacuum. Indeed, since winning office in May, Labor has gone out of its way to make clear that keeping election promises was more important than managing the budget or the economy. Hopefully, Liz Truss’ humiliating change of heart makes it easier for the Albanese government to do what’s right for the Australian economy.
Even back in 2018, before COVID, the war in Ukraine, and even before Morrison rolled Malcolm Turnbull as PM, the stage three tax cuts made no economic sense. They were always unfunded and unfair, but at least back then the promise of future growth provided an ostensible fig leaf of fiscal rectitude. Since then, the economy has gone through its biggest postwar recession, real wages have fallen faster than ever and the cost of living has surged for those on the lowest incomes.
Australian voters know we need to develop an economic plan for a post-COVID world, not to blindly implement pre-COVID promises. Widely reported research polling from Monday commissioned by the Australia Institute found that 61 per cent of voters believe that the Albanese government should adapt economic policy to meet changing economic circumstances, even if that means breaking an election promise. Even 56 per cent of Coalition voters want the government to prioritise economic management over keeping old promises. Even more surprising, the polling shows that the high-income earners, who will receive the lion’s share of the stage three tax cuts, are those most likely to support their abolition.
Breaking election promises should not be done lightly, but keeping them should not be done blindly. While it is true that Albanese took a commitment to this year’s election to stick with the stage three tax cuts, it is also true that the role of prime minister is to do what is right for Australia, not just what was promised.
The global financial market’s panicked reaction to Britain’s tax cuts, their subsequent abandonment and a lack of any real enthusiasm for the stage three tax cuts here, even among high-income earners who receive them, has provided the Albanese government with a get-out-of-jail-free card. Furthermore, if the government is bold enough to ditch Morrison’s 2018 tax plan, then Labor can take a truly nation-building agenda to the 2025 election.
Intriguingly, on the weekend Treasurer Jim Chalmers made clear he was up for a conversation with the public about revenue, stating: “I think people are up for a broader conversation, whether it’s savings, trimming spending, whether it’s the best optimal tax arrangements, whether it’s how we grow the economy the right way – I think Australians are up for a real conversation about that.”
Real conversations are normally balanced between talking and listening. Labor has spent four months telling voters they plan to keep stage three, but despite their best efforts, they haven’t even convinced the high-income earners that tax cuts for the rich are a good idea. In 2022, the overwhelming majority of Australians want to fund better health and education for all, not bigger tax cuts for the luckiest few.
While Truss was right to scrap her poorly conceived tax cuts, conservatives were wrong to spend decades cutting taxes and spending. Scrapping the Stage 3 tax cuts provides Labor with a unique opportunity to not just build trust by being honest, but to radically reshape Australian voters’ understanding of what it is to be a responsible economic manager. While Chalmers is unlikely to scrap the tax cuts in the October mini budget, he will almost certainly make sure the conversation about why he should scrap them soon continues.
Dr. Richard Denniss is Executive Director of the Australia Institute think tank.