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If the 2022 contest is between a bulldozer and a builder, it makes sense that the final act of the election be staged on a residential housing construction site.
Back when Scott Morrison was being written off erroneously as a dead prime minister walking at the same point of the campaign in 2019, he used the official launch to unveil a new homeowner deposit scheme to help first-home buying couples get “their first leg on the first rung of the ladder”.
Learning from that, Anthony Albanese focused on housing this time, using his campaign launch a couple of weeks ago to unveil a shared equity scheme for homeownership modelled on initiatives in some states. The new Labor scheme would build on Morrison’s scheme from 2019.
As his final throw of the dice in this election, Morrison tracked back to homeownership, dusting off a well-ventilated but previously perpetually stalled proposal for people to use their superannuation to help with the purchase of their first home.
Just for the record, Malcolm Turnbull once blasted this concept as “thoroughly bad” and “the craziest idea I’ve heard” and no less an eminence than Mathias Cormann noted several years ago this would “increase demand for housing and … would actually drive up house prices by more”.
But here we are.
Morrison has whipped this out, not because it is good policy (although I suspect the “it’s your money” marketing pitch is simple enough to resonate with Australians who are only half listening) – but because he wants a fight, a politically productive one that might move soft votes into the Liberal column at the decisive point.
Morrison lost the key definitional fight of last week – the one about wages. Advocating a real wage cut for Australia’s lowest paid workers wasn’t exactly an election-winning line. So as the prelude to Sunday’s super shazam, Morrison moved to change the conversation.
On Friday, the devil you know casually rebranded himself Morrison 2.0. The prime minister told voters I know a good number of you dislike me, but the pandemic made me look stubborn and impatient when I’m actually cuddly and task oriented, and if you give me another three years I promise I’ll infuriate you less.
While Morrison set about proving once again he is prepared to do whatever it takes to win, Peter Dutton suddenly disclosed the presence of a Chinese surveillance ship off the coastline just in case anyone planning to vote over the next few days was interested in that information.
Sunday was the next instalment of the Coalition’s soft vote courtship. The Liberals certainly know how to craft cut-through messages and they run a formidable campaign machine, so the atmospherics of Sunday were as slick as you might expect.
Incumbency is the structural advantage Morrison possesses and he used it. In terms of narrative, Morrison used his official campaign launch to remind Australians they liked him once – back during the opening 12 months of the pandemic, when the official objective was building the “bridge” to the other side of the crisis. The bridge was back in force on Sunday; a totem of beneficent incumbency.
Then Morrison moved to pick his fight with Labor about people using their superannuation savings to help fund a first home, while also widening access to super tax concessions for any asset rich older Australians currently contemplating downsizing.
Labor, trying to remain aerodynamic seven days from polling day, could cop the second of these ideas, but not the first. Paul Keating was out of the blocks within the hour, monstering Morrison’s plan.
The shadow housing minister, Jason Clare, said using super savings for home purchasing would be yet another demand-side stimulus when the main problem fuelling the lack of affordability was a lack of housing supply. He noted stimulating demand further would only accelerate house price inflation. Clare also pointed out that the cohort of Australians currently priced out of the housing market didn’t have super balances substantial enough to put together a deposit.
Now the truth is neither side of politics is proffering a serious solution to Australia’s housing affordability problem at this election. A serious solution would involve two things – a substantial supply side intervention, and adjusting the tax concessions that benefit investors and allow them to outbid would-be owner-occupiers.
Labor tried on the tax concessions back in 2019, and voters thumped them. Notwithstanding the problem that voters resoundingly rejected at the last election one of the solutions that might actually make a substantive difference, substantive solutions to this problem are what Australians actually need.
Rather than endlessly supercharging demand while nibbling delicately at supply, voters need Australia’s political class to engage in serious policy thought about how to balance the interests of the current rights holders, Australia’s property owners, with the rights of others to afford the security and dignity of a roof over their heads.
Last week I listened to a story on the ABC’s AM program about families in Bundaberg – families with decent jobs – having to live in tents and cars because there’s no affordable housing stock available to them.
This doesn’t really sound like an Australia I want to live in, an Australia where I have a roof over my head for no reason other than I was able to buy my first home in the mid-1990s. I have a safe place to live that I can call my own, but a lot of other people who work hard and have kids to feed and educate and keep safe are contemplating pitching a tent for shelter.
But, hey guys, Morrison has his election fight.
Aren’t we all lucky? Aren’t we lucky that’s the priority: what’s needed to get the Coalition campaign closer to victory over this coming week.
Morrison told voters on Sunday he was seeking a second term because he was “just warming up”.
Actually, if Morrison wins this coming Saturday (and it’s entirely possible he will) it will be the Coalition’s fourth term, not its second – and after three terms in office, the country is standing still on most of the problems that Australia faced back at the time Tony Abbott took office.
There’s a reason why that’s happened. The reason is political product differentiation too often becomes the priority rather than the pursuit of policy substance in the national interest.