PRIME Minister Malcolm and Opposition Leader Bill Shorten have gone head-to-head at Windsor RSL on day six of the nation’s longest Federal Election campaign.
But neither candidate was able to fully satisfy one audience member’s demand for a solution to the most pressing concern of many Australians: the spiralling cost of housing.
Hosted by Sky News’ political editor David Speers, the “people’s forum” on Friday night pitted the Government’s jobs-and-growth campaign against Labor’s promise to take on the big end of town and put funding into public health and education.
Both leaders were forced to answer tough questions from the audience of 100 undecided voters in the marginal seat of Macquarie, canvassing housing affordability, superannuation, health and schools funding, and balancing the budget.
The scandal-plagued banking sector was a vexed issue, with Mr Turnbull oscillating between chastising and defending the banks.
He managed to slip in a surprise announcement that the Government was pulling the plug on its plan to slash bulk-billing incentives for pathology and diagnostic imaging, which would have forced cancer and diabetes patients to pay for tests from July 1. But there was no magic wand to make Australians’ housing angst disappear.
Mum Julie asked why young families were not allowed to dip into their superannuation to buy their first homes.
“Children need a home,” she said. “Twenty years from now, if these people haven’t gotten into the housing market, they’re not going to be able to afford rent … I just want to know, who’s going to help?”
Mr Turnbull answered that, of the tens of thousands of Western Sydney renters living nearby, “every single one of them will see their rent increased if Bill becomes Prime Minister”, referring to Labor’s policy to phase out negative gearing.
“The purpose of superannuation is to enable people to save money so that they can support themselves in greater dignity in retirement,” Mr Turnbull said.
But Julie was not allayed, arguing that allowing working Australians to put a roof over their families’ heads should be key.
She said parents of young children needed housing first and foremost, and needed access to their cash at this crucial time of their lives.
“I really think that you should sit down and talk about it,” she said.
Both leaders refused to contemplate the proposal, with Mr Shorten arguing that Labor’s changes to negative gearing were the solution.
“But you are right — it is a joke,” he said, before laying into the Government’s tax cuts for middle-to-high income earners.
He dismissed real estate industry claims that negative gearing reforms would push up rents, saying their business model “relies on taxpayer subsidies”.
Mr Turnbull countered that Labor’s plan was “a reckless experiment with the biggest asset class in Australia”.
Asked what he was going to do about the scandal-plagued banking sector, Mr Turnbull started out by referencing his tough-talking appearance at a Westpac birthday event last month.
“I gave the banks a bit of a lecture about some important changes they need to make,” he said.
But he went on to slam Mr Shorten’s call to “put the banks in the dock”, helpfully explaining to the audience that the term referred to the area of a courtroom where an accused criminal is made to stand.
Host David Speers pointed out that many Australians held a view that the banks were far from “squeaky clean”.
“How many scandals does it take before a Liberal government will say: ‘Well, actually, you need more than a telling off; you need a Royal Commission’?” Mr Shorten crowed.
“When it comes to credit cards, why are the banks keeping interest rates at 12 per cent or higher?”
“We need to be very careful what we wish for here,” countered Mr Turnbull, who described ASIC, which the Government has armed with an extra $120 million to police the sector, as having “all the powers of a Royal Commission, and much more”.
When audience member Brian called on political leaders to force the banks to pass on Reserve Bank interest rate cuts, Mr Turnbull replied that the banks had cut rates.
In fact, while three of the big four banks have done so, most lenders have dragged their feet in even alerting customers as to whether they will pass on the 25 basis point rates cut announced more than a week ago.
CHILDCARE AND EDUCATION
Young mum Sam said she would earn just $2 an hour if she went back to work, after deducting tax and the $45,000 a year she would have to spend on childcare.
“Is there anything you can do to help?” she asked.
Mr Shorten said that while Labor was yet to unveil its final childcare policy, “we understand that childcare affordability is giant handbrake on people being able to return to work.”
He revealed that Labor would match the Government’s pledge to put more funding into the childcare rebates that currently did not even “begin to match” the cost to families.
But, he said, his party would target the benefits to people earning between $60,000 and $80,000, “because we think that’s where the greatest pressure on childcare costs are.”
Mr Turnbull — who, as a proud grandfather, deemed childcare a cause close to his heart — talked up the Government’s proposed new combined childcare rebate and benefit.
Low income earners would be able to claim up to 85 per cent of fees, with the amount of the refund “tapering down as incomes become higher”.
“What we want to do is make sure you get more support, particularly families on lower and lower-middle incomes, because female participation is critically important for the economy,” he said.
The leaders clashed over education policy, with Mr Shorten slamming Liberal cuts, and Mr Turnbull countering that the Government was focused on “outcomes, not spending”.
Mr Turnbull said early testing and intervention for children who were struggling in the classroom would turn Australia’s flagging academic performance around.
“I want my grandchildren to have a great education and achieve all their dreams,” he said.
However Mr Shorten retorted: “Anyone who tells you that money doesn’t matter in education is selling you a pig in a poke,” meaning a deal that usually leads to buyer’s remorse.
Audience member Michael asked the leaders about their privatisation policies, with Mr Shorten promising his party would never sell of Australia Post, and Mr Turnbull guaranteeing it would remain in public hands for the upcoming term.
Challenged over plans to privatise Australian Hearing Services, he said the focus was on ensuring the best services were available for the community.
“If we can do a better job for Australians with hearing disabilities, with part of those services being delivered by the private sector, we would,” Mr Turnbull said.
Both leaders came under fire for the longstanding national debt built up by both their parties.
Mr Turnbull was forced to defend the Government’s cuts to arts funding, which Mr Shorten said had left the creative community reeling — and promised to reverse.
He said the Government was “totally committed to funding the arts”, but wanted to see the money go further.
Despite endearing himself to some audience members by making repeated reference to his grandchildren, Mr Turnbull appears to have lost this heat.
Mr Shorten was leading the way with 42 per cent of the audience vote at 8.45pm, against Mr Turnbull’s 29 per cent; 29 per cent remained undecided.