The Inside Word

The Two Elephants in the Room

A lot can change over the Christmas break, on top of the long road back to full productivity for what is traditionally a “slow” January, until post the Australia Day long weekend. It’s time off well-deserved for Australians working hard all year, or even if it’s just a celebratory mood that lingers for those who return to work early before the real work starts in earnest for everyone.

This couldn’t be more real than for the federal government leadership contemplating some big issues over the break, ready for when we are all paying attention. The elephant in the room that just can’t be escaped is how expensive life has become for everyone, at every level of income for PAYG earners. The lifestyle that people enjoy is often reflective of their earning capacity, and no doubt it’s feeling a little hot in the kitchen for many families across that spectrum. Let alone the ongoing natural disasters from the east to the west still knocking people down.

No need to overemphasise the point, but the cost of rents has gone up massively and so too the cost of mortgages, the cost of running a car or three, depending on your family circumstances, with fuel prices, insurance, and repairs ever-increasing. Grocery shopping needs to be more carefully planned as it seems the trolley is getting lighter as prices get heavier. There is a lot happening in this space, and as long as employment numbers remain strong, most people are coping, even if only just.

So, as we wake to a new year in full swing, all of these matters will absolutely be front and centre for voters at the ballot box on multiple levels. This thought piece can’t continue without the other elephant in the room being called out. It’s not every day you can fit two in the same room, let alone have them side-by-side. The expectation of the Stage III tax cuts looms large, with the government taking a big gamble and risk that the unexpected changes to give more people larger tax cuts will be forgiven, paid for by those higher-wage earners getting less. The logic makes sense, but the price for government may be disproportionately high.

This high-risk strategy will be critical to how the Federal Government and Prime Minister Albanese are perceived after the disaster of the Voice Referendum and how these impressions play out more broadly in the lead-up to the next election.

There is a lot riding on the decision to alter the package and argue more for some and less for others. Courage is hard to find on tax reform, as the mere mention of this subject matter can spiral a government out of office or an opposition into submission, hence the lack of progress in this critical policy space. The question that the government, in fact, any would-be government, must answer is when to find that courage and how to prosecute a fair and reasonable incremental policy that can be sold to the Australian people with enough integrity that is sustainable. Easier said than done, obviously, but something that Australians desperately need.

We currently have a very interesting recipe in opportunities for people to vent their frustrations through the upcoming by-election in the federal Victorian seat of Dunkley on Saturday, March 2, local government elections on March 16, and two Queensland state by-elections on the same day. That’s a lot of opportunity for voters to send a message.

No one is expecting the state seat of Inala, held by former premier Annastacia Palaszczuk, to go anywhere other than Labor, but swings matter. The recently vacated Labor state seat of Ipswich West will be in a similar position as Inala, but again swings and messages from the voters count.

While the majority of local councils run non-endorsed political party candidates, this is not the case in Brisbane, where clear lines of delineation exist between the current LNP Lord Mayor and would-be replacements in Labor and the Greens, making further inroads. All of this campaigning and jostling for position will be fought on many of the same issues that dominate federal politics. You just can’t escape cost-of-living issues, local, state, or federal.

These opportunities for the electors of Australia at various levels to express their views on matters that are hurting them will be a test for Labor federally. I have no doubt the by-election in Dunkley will be monitored closely and the by-elections in Queensland analysed. There is a possibility that with all this venting, it clears the air for a federal election, which could be held as late as September 2025.

We certainly live in interesting times, and none more so than what is shaping up politically for 2024, a busy election year indeed.

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