Bill Shorten has said if the Coalition ditches its proposed big business tax cuts Malcolm Turnbull “should go with them”, as reports suggest government ministers are urging a rethink in the face of a clean sweep of defeats in Saturday’s byelections.
In two interviews on Monday, the opposition leader also declared victory over internal critics, suggesting the possibility he could be replaced before the federal election is “certainly not going to be spoken about now”.
Coalition ministers have attempted to spin Saturday’s byelections as a status quo result in which four Labor MPs and Centre Alliance’s Rebekha Sharkie retained their seats but a 4% swing against the Liberal National party and 10% drop in primary votes in the Queensland seat of Longman are a major cause for concern.
On Monday Tony Abbott warned there are “no votes” in company tax cuts, capitalising on the poor byelection result by demanding that Turnbull pull Australia out of the Paris climate agreement, which the Abbott government signed, and reduce immigration to give Coalition supporters something to “fight for”.
On Sunday, Turnbull said the government will “humbly” re-examine its policies, leaving himself wiggle room on company tax by suggesting the tax rate must be “competitive” but not recommitting to cut the rate for businesses earning more than $50m a year.
The finance minister, Mathias Cormann, said the Coalition still intends to put the company tax package to a vote in the next parliamentary sitting. Asked on ABC radio’s AM program if it will take the policy to the next election – now expected to be held in May 2019 – Cormann replied the government was “absolutely committed” to the plan.
Shorten told ABC News Breakfast the message from the byelections is that voters want “better hospitals not bigger banks” and supported Labor’s plans for higher spending on health, education and higher wages.
Shorten suggested that Coalition ministers “are starting to panic” on the company tax cut plan but warned a push to drop them amounted to a plan to “bring them in later after an election if [they] get re-elected”.
“If Mr Turnbull drops his corporate tax cuts for the big end of town, he should go with them,” he said.
Shorten said the tax cuts were “his signature economic policy – the reason why he was prime minister, [and the basis of] the last two budgets”.
“If he hasn’t got the intestinal fortitude to support his own economic values, what he really believes, then he shouldn’t hang around either.”
Asked about leadership talk before the byelections – which were stoked by Anthony Albanese setting out an alternative manifesto and reversing his position on asylum seeker boat turnbacks – Shorten said he “didn’t believe the talk before the byelections but it’s certainly not going to be spoken about now”.
“I’m confident that Labor is united.”
Shorten told Sky News that Turnbull had “ratcheted up the rhetoric on these byelections” by framing it as a contest between the leaders and is now pretending there is “nothing to see here”.
Abbott told 2GB it was a “fair point” that leaders should not set tests they cannot pass, likening it to Turnbull’s decision to nominate 30 losing Newspolls as a trigger for ousting him as prime minister.
He noted the Liberal-National primary vote in Longman had fallen from 45% in 2013 to 29% in the byelection, adding that candidate Trevor Ruthenberg could not be blamed because he had “worked hard” to recapture the seat.
Abbott said there were “no votes in company tax cuts”, although he accepts the economic case for them.
“There’s no point saying let’s have tax cuts in six years’ time. If they’re worth doing they’re worth doing now,” he said. “I understand why there is this unhappiness.”
Abbott said “you can be very confident I’ll be there as long as I humanly can” to talk about issues of concern to voters but insisted: “I don’t want to change the leader I want to change the policy”.
The Coalition’s leader of the house, Christopher Pyne, told Radio National the government should not “overreact to a quite predictable result”.
He said the large swing in Longman was “about the average you’d expect in a byelection” and accused the media of “ignoring” the result in Braddon, where Labor’s Justine Keay retained her seat with no significant swing.
Pyne said that Georgina Downer – who has said she will renominate to contest Mayo at the next federal election – had done well to hold the 36% Liberal primary vote in the seat, despite Sharkie gaining a 10% swing on primary votes and defeating her 55% to 45%.
Pyne pointed to the results of Monday’s Newspoll, which found Labor is still only narrowly ahead of the Coalition, 51% to 49% in two-party preferred terms, while Shorten still trails Turnbull in terms of popularity.