Bill Shorten, The Peoples’ Poet, On Tax Havens And Class Warfare


Bill Shorten is plunging in the polls. Mathew Kenneally wonders if life might not be a little more comfortable for him in the Cayman Islands.

Going Malcolm Turnbull over the Caymans was a plan that made sense. Arranging “Cayman Islands”, “million dollar buy in” and “tax-haven” in a sentence and then aiming it at a politician is usually effective. Unless Bill Shorten is organizing the sentence.

Malcolm Turnbull was unsurprisingly well prepared for this obvious attack – his response was a spirited defense of capitalism, that went viral.

By the end of a 48-hour assault Bill Shorten had to explain, “No one is saying…anything illegal has occurred. We have no facts to say that and that is not what is being said”.

The Liberals retorted that Bill Shorten had sat on the board of super funds that invested in the Cayman Islands.

To which Bill replied: “Is the Liberal Party of Australia really expecting us to say Malcolm Turnbull buying into a million dollar investment fund in the Cayman Islands is the same as you and millions of other Australians who pay your ordinary superannuation every day?”.

The answer is no. While Mr. Shorten regularly surprises us with his turn of phrase, nobody was expecting him to say that. As Malcolm Turnbull admitted, he’s abnormally rich. The Liberals are suggesting that investing super in the Caymans is a thing Australians do, including union super funds. It’s capitalism, and you’re implicated.

Sam Dastyari then called on Malcolm Turnbull to divest from the Cayman Islands. The only Australians that would benefit from this would be Opposition MPs, who could claim a “victory”. Rather than making points, Labor seeks to score them.

That suggestion that Turnbull is “out of touch” is a bit rich emanating from the ALP front bench. The Opposition leader earns $360,990, and shadow ministers $243,912, comfortably in the top 2 percent of Australian income earners. Not to mention the generous pensions, perks, and post-politics opportunities like, say, sitting on the boards of super funds.

Unlike Tony Burke, a leader of the Cayman Islands charge, most Australians will never fly their family to the Northern Territory, business class, on the taxpayer’s dime. Most will never enjoy a driver, or receive a lifetime pension.

I don’t begrudge our politicians these benefits. Long hours. Talk Radio. Christopher Pyne. Canberra winter. They earn it.

But when you are in the top 2 per cent calling out someone for being in the top 0.1 per cent without making a large point, it looks a little envious.

Labor MPs last week were driven to work, from taxpayer funded accommodation, to debate who is more “out of touch”. They might as well be having the debate on a catamaran in the Whitsundays. Malcolm’s got the presidential suite, but Bill and Tony are still on the yacht.

Bill: I represented cleaners! Malcolm: I take the train and instagram! Bill: I own my own hard-hat! Malcolm: I’m a self-made man! Bill: I made self-made men! Tony Burke: it was within entitlements to fly my family business class to join us on this yacht! Bill: I represented the workers that built the yacht!

There is a point to be made about tax and investments. Tim Lyons made it in the Guardian “the wealthier you are, the more elaborate the schemes you end up involved in and the more they are worth to you”.

Josh Bornstein also made it in a piece on class warfare, revealing that when he became partner in a law firm, “I was referred to an accountant who suggested that paying tax for someone in my position was a life choice.”

Our taxation system is progressive up to a point. Once you get really rich you can, at least, partly opt out.

Labor did not make this point, instead they clarified what they were not saying, and speculated on what the Liberals might want them to say.

You can understand the sloppiness. For the last two years, Labor has had little match practice ‘opposition-ing’. It seems like a dream that Tony Abbott was PM, knighting Princes, bragging about his muscular Christianity, and backing the speaker’s helicopter rides for a full fortnight. You’d forgive the Australian cricket team sloppiness if it spent two years exclusively facing off against Bangladesh.

Turnbull is a tougher assignment. Disciplined, moderate, and charming. He is not obsessed with the political fault lines defined in student politics. The differences between him and Shorten are not readily apparent. The ALP’s lines no longer write themselves.

There may be an opportunity for the ALP to prosecute the case for a more transparent and fairer taxation system, but they will need a better strategy than drawing attention to the PM’s wealth to make it.

Mathew Kenneally is a stand up comedian who moonlights as a lawyer. He's a regular new Matilda columnist and is the co-author with Toby Halligan of the satirical blog Diary Leaks. He is also the co-founder of the topical comedy room Political Asylum.