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In Neville Wran, Turnbull has a leadership model to win the tax debate

Neville Wran, New South Wales premier from 1976 to 1986, was Australia’s first modern leader, building and using ‘political capital’. AAP/Tracey Nearmy

Let me put it this way.

That was how Neville Wran invariably dealt with an awkward question before reframing the argument to his satisfaction and delivering the television grab that would advance his case on the network news that night.

Wran, New South Wales premier from 1976 to 1986, was Australia’s first modern leader. He built as well as used “political capital”.

Certainly Wran had an ego, but he had none of Gough Whitlam’s obvious arrogance, Malcolm Fraser’s imperiousness, Bob Hawke’s boastfulness or John Howard’s earnestness. Wran is clearly the model for Malcolm Turnbull’s prime ministership – or, at least, the way Turnbull presents his leadership.

Turnbull and Wran

As a young reporter, Turnbull watched Wran in the 1970s and later became his business partner in a highly successful merchant bank. Upon Wran’s death, Turnbull remarked that Wran was his “best friend”.

Turnbull says he wants political discourse to be a conversation, rather than politicians simply hurling burning oil at each other from the battlements. But he intends it to be a conversation on his terms, with the voters listening to what he has to say.

Undoubtedly, polling will play a role in shaping what the voters are interested in and just what they will cop. However, it remains a conversation that Turnbull intends to control rather than some free-form undergraduate debate.

Like Wran and Hawke before him, Turnbull is in the unusual position of being able to build his political stocks, rather than beginning with a positive balance in the bank that then begins to dwindle. This has led to his government’s decision to finally get serious about tax reform.

The tax debate

As Assistant Treasurer Kelly O’Dwyer and Cabinet Secretary Arthur Sinodinos made clear, changes to the level and reach of the GST are well and truly in the mix to be taken to the next election.

Sinodinos has been involved in every major push for tax reform since Paul Keating’s ill-fated “option C” in the mid-1980s. As chief-of-staff, Sinodinos was instrumental in Howard’s campaign for the introduction of a consumption tax.

Such was the size of the bucket of money being offered to the states in the late 1990s that no premier – Labor or Liberal – was going to stand in its way. That single act made the task of selling a tax rise to the voters that much easier. Opposition from one of the big states would not only have stopped the momentum, it would probably have cost Howard government.

Now, an updated version of the Howard formula is in the works: an increase in the GST rate and/or extend its reach to fresh food, health and education.

As with Howard, compensation would be offered to the lower paid, but the rich would be soaked – not just by tighter means-testing of superannuation benefits, for example, but also for child care.

For a prime minister in good standing, this is marketable. There is no doubt that there is a sense among rank-and-file voters that the well-off are getting away with it. So, hitting people earning A$200,000 or more per year to pay extra for child care would not cost Turnbull a vote – and probably win him a few as well.

This is especially true with an opposition leader like Bill Shorten, who still struggles to cut through. As the government was laying the ground for serious tax reform, what was Shorten talking about? Lowering the voting age to 16.

The clamour for such a shift is inaudible and the idea is reminiscent of the laughable centrepiece of Kim Beazley’s response to Howard’s GST plan – increasing the sales tax on four-wheel drives, the so-called “Toorak tractors”. Voters saw it for the fraud it was. Labor’s bid to make Howard a one-term prime minister suffered thereafter.

Turnbull’s tax initiative is bold, and Shorten has to get beyond the trivial if Labor is to have any hope at the next election.

Tax reform will still be a hard sell, even for a prime minister of Turnbull’s standing and imagination. But remember this: Wran turned a one-seat victory months after Whitlam had been turfed out of office into 12 years of Labor ascendancy in NSW.

Have no doubt, Turnbull will have watched how he did it.

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