A terrible rift has opened up within the Coalition: some ministers are accusing Bill Shorten of being an East German socialist while others are just as adamant that he is the Cuban variety. But listen not to what the Turnbull government says; watch what it does. While the Prime Minister seeks to distract the public by accusing Shorten of socialism he is demonstrating socialist tendencies on a regular basis.
Socialists like to impose heavy tax burdens, right? Well the Turnbull government's own budget papers confirm it as the second-highest taxing government in Australia's history, much higher than the Abbott, Rudd and Gillard governments but still behind the Howard era when rivers of gold flowed from the first China boom.
Socialists don't like big banks. Who does? But the Turnbull government short-circuited Shorten's proposed bank royal commission by anticipating its likely outcome – a tax especially for banks. Such a tax could have been justified on the basis of the implicit government guarantee against failure of the big banks, but that was not the Turnbull government's rationale. Rather, it introduced a new tax on the banks because they were making lots of money and were considered fair game.
Now the Turnbull government is trying to design private energy markets. Shorten's colleagues in the previous Labor government supported a market-based emissions trading scheme as the best way of reducing carbon emissions, while Abbott's opposition preferred a centrally planned direct action policy.
In a spirit of compromise to end the climate wars, Shorten as Opposition Leader moved to an emissions-intensity scheme. But this looked too much like a market for the Coalition's party room so the Prime Minister dropped the idea within 24 hours of his resources minister floating it.
In a further attempt at compromise, Shorten has shifted again, to the clean energy target recommended by chief scientist, Alan Finkel. But since it is technologically blind, failing to guarantee the construction of a new coal-fired power station, even the clean energy target is under Coalition party-room suspicion of possessing market features.
To satisfy the Coalition's appetite for central planning, the government has been entertaining the idea of taxpayer subsidies to keep the 44 year-old Liddell coal-fired power station open beyond its scheduled closure date of 2022. The market is deciding against building new coal-fired power stations and extending the life of existing, ageing plants, in favour of renewables and gas. But this won't do for National Party socialists, who resolved over the weekend to support coal over renewables.
The Prime Minister has turned his anti-market wrath on Shorten for being a minister in a government that allowed the development of an export market for gas from eastern Australia, describing the previous Labor government's failure to introduce export controls on gas as "left-wing ideology" and "idiocy". Whether or not this was an error on the Gillard government's part, it takes an enormous stretch of language to describe a failure to regulate an export industry as "left-wing ideology".
Shorten, as a minister in the previous Labor government, also recently earned the Prime Minister's ire for overseeing the use of 457 visas for foreign workers. Describing Shorten as "the Olympic champion of 457 work visas", the Prime Minister scrapped them altogether.
It all started when the Turnbull government introduced an effects test into the section of the competition act dealing with the misuse of market power. In championing an effects test, the Nationals' stated aim was to protect small businesses from competition from larger businesses. Prime Minister Turnbull delivered for them.
Some of the government's policy positions might be sound; others most definitely are not. But warning about East German and Cuban reds under the beds if Shorten were to become prime minister, while at the same time announcing policies that would make Che Guevara blush, reminds us just how far we have departed from the days of Hawke, Keating and Howard. Those leaders were willing to espouse a political philosophy and, for the most part, remain true to it, making the policy framework reasonably predictable. But these days, in the immortal words of Graham Richardson, the government seems willing to do whatever it takes to stay in power, even if it is at the expense of the Liberal Party's traditional free-market philosophy.