Final leaders’ debate: Shorten slams climate inaction as Morrison focuses on tax | Australia news

Scott Morrison and Bill Shorten pitched competing visions for Australia in the decade ahead, as the two leaders faced off in the final debate of the election campaign.

With just 10 days to go before the 18 May poll, which Labor is favoured to win, Morrison and Shorten locked horns on a range of policy areas, mostly focused on Labor’s tax reform agenda.

Outlining his vision for Australia in 10 years’ time, Morrison focused on jobs and infrastructure spending, while Shorten nominated climate change, equality and the pursuit of a “modern Australia”.

“I want us to be a nation which is more equal and, in becoming more equal, what we’ll actually deliver is a more prosperous and wealthy nation for my kids and, indeed, their kids after that,” Shorten told the National Press Club debate.

Morrison said “there will be 2.5 million more Australians employed in this country with jobs”, and committed the government to record spending on health and education.

In a fiery debate over Labor’s plan to end dividend imputation, Morrison said the government would not follow Paul Keating’s political tactic adopted in 1993 against John Hewson on the GST, saying the Coalition would never support the hit on retirees.

“I think it is a heinous tax on Australians who have worked hard all of their lives,” Morrison said.

Shorten defended his changes to franking credits, saying the tax concession had blown out to now be worth $6bn a year, which was not sustainable.

“It is not a refund, it’s a gift,” Shorten said. “It’s not illegal. It’s not immoral. It’s the law. But it’s not sustainable.”

Labor’s franking credit changes, which will raise $57bn over a decade, are being stridently opposed by the Coalition, while crossbench parties have pledged to block the reform in the Senate even if Labor forms government after the 18 May election.

When asked about how their spending priorities might change in the event of a global economic downturn, both leaders committed to maintaining a budget surplus.

“We won’t have to [go into deficit] because of the reform decisions which we’re presenting to the Australian people at this election,” Shorten said.

Morrison used the question to criticise Labor’s tax agenda, saying economic growth would not happen with the “dead weight” of new taxes.

“Higher taxes will slow the economy down and ensure Australians are not in the strongest possible position to face the challenges ahead,” Morrison said.

On climate change, Shorten said that carbon pollution had gone up while the Coalition was in power, and said the “biggest single problem” driving up electricity prices was uncertainty over energy policy.

“Whatever they are doing, it ain’t working,” Shorten said, describing global warming as a “gigantic” problem.

Morrison said he believed the government could accommodate both the economy and the environment, and insisted the Coalition was on track to meet its emission reduction targets.

“The question here at this election is not should we be taking action on climate change, that is agreed. The question here is what is a responsible approach to take,” Morrison said after demanding Shorten reveal the cost of his emissions reduction plan.

In his rebuttal, Shorten said it was a “crooked charlatan’s argument’’ to ask about the cost of action without looking at the consequences of inaction.

“The reality is that if the Liberal party and the National party were united, then Malcolm Turnbull would still be PM because they’d have a policy on climate change,” he said. “So I think some of the fault lines in the government are real.”

The two leaders also traded barbs over childcare reform after Shorten asked Morrison if the Coalition would support Labor’s package to make childcare cheaper for almost a million families.

Morrison said families were up to $1,300 better off as a result of the government’s childcare changes, with costs coming down in the past 12 months.

“When I see a problem I like to fix it,” he said. “I think Australians have got to the point where they’ve grown tired of politicians who come and say give me all your money and I’ll solve all your problems.”

However, Morrison did say he was prepared to look at Labor’s $2.3bn cancer package “in the context of the next budget” if the Coalition remained in government, but said details were thin.

The two leaders both criticised the revolving door of leadership that has plagued politics over the past decade, stressing the change to leadership rules on both sides.

“They are fed up with politics as usual,” Shorten said.

Morrison dismissed suggestions he would struggle to deal with the factional extremes of the party, saying he would lead from the centre.

“I will lead, as I always have, from the middle,’’ he said.

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