OPINION: The critical question no politician has a definite answer to

NO ANSWER?: "Neither side will acknowledge that even if they take measures to address the crisis, there is no guarantee the measures will work" - Jacqueline Maley
NO ANSWER?: "Neither side will acknowledge that even if they take measures to address the crisis, there is no guarantee the measures will work" - Jacqueline Maley

THIS year, the pre-budget debate has settled upon a real chewed cud of an idea, a policy that has been kicking around in conservative circles for years – to allow young people to access their superannuation 30 or 40 years before retirement, to use as a housing deposit.

This putative policy was leaked ahead of Treasurer Scott Morrison’s talk on Monday to the Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute, the strictly-choreographed “pre-budget speech”, which is Sco-Mo’s version of that part of the tango where the dancer stomps about with a rose between her teeth.

This superannuation-raiding idea has been laughed out of town by every economist and political commentator this week, and firmly rejected by frontbenchers including Christopher Pyne and the actual Prime Minister.

Of course, it is the sort of idea that brings a rush of personal-responsibility pleasure to pure liberals: it’s your money, so why shouldn’t you use it when you want, and for the purpose you choose?

In the 2014 budget, in which then-prime minister Tony Abbott and his then-treasurer Joe Hockey scared the population witless by proposing Hunger Games-style welfare waiting periods, health and education budget cuts and a Medicare co-payment that voters came to regard as just one notch above baby-hunting in terms of outrageousness.

Is it that this government remains so traumatised by the experience of the 2014 budget, which contained all those nasty surprises, that it prefers to float its worst ideas before the budget?

That way it can test public opinion and scurry away if necessary, without getting locked into any policies that may have an outsize political effect next polling day.

Perhaps it is simply that anti-Turnbull forces within the party are using the super-raiding policy idea as a stick with which to beat the Prime Minister.

It's also possible the government, having ruled out changes to negative gearing, doesn't have any actual good ideas on housing affordability, but it needs very badly to look like it’s doing something.

I recall a conversation I had with a senior Turnbull staffer before last election. I asked what policies they would put forward on housing affordability? Nothing, came the response. It's not something government should get into.

The Turnbull government was late to respond to what has become one of the most dominant voter anxieties, and it is difficult to escape the conclusion it's because its members are, at worst, out of touch or, at best, reluctant to do anything to affect soaring house prices, because their voter base largely comprises financially secure home-owners.

The Labor opposition has led the debate on this issue, but it will not admit that “housing affordability” is a euphemism for bringing down home values, at least in real terms, relative to incomes.

Witness Opposition Leader Bill Shorten's squirminess when questioned along these lines.

“If we reduce negative gearing in the future, we’ll help reduce some of the over-inflated prices that we're seeing,” he said vaguely.

Neither side will acknowledge that even if they take the toughest, and most politically courageous measures to address the housing affordability crisis, there is no guarantee the measures will work.

And so we keep dancing.