The view from Billinudgel

Vision or mirage?
Bill Shorten’s budget reply is pie in the sky

Last week’s budget was a policy hole in the air. There was neither economic coherence nor vision – nothing more than a big-taxing, big-spending extravaganza which will be, and should be, forgotten as soon as is decently possible.

Once the lucky beneficiaries of the taxpayers’ largesse put away their credit cards and return to the grim normality the numbers predict, the hoopla will subside with a dull thud. Still, it has, in its miserable way, achieved its purpose: a quick lurch in the opinion polls that Tony Abbott can spin, at least to his party room, as a win. And really, there is no more to be said.

Bill Shorten’s reply, on the other hand, certainly had vision – heaps of vision, amounting, indeed, to a splendid mirage. For once the sneerers in the Australian got it right: the age-old question “Where’s the money coming from?” is apposite.

Shorten has not even attempted to cost his ambitious agenda. His oft-repeated formula of a crackdown on multinationals and the superannuation lurks and perks of the super wealthy is welcome as far as it goes, but it will bring in just $21 billion over a full ten years – worth having, but not to enough to touch the sides of the program Shorten has already foreshadowed, let alone whatever else he might plan in the decade ahead. Instead, he simply muses about the benefits of increased productivity, which may or may not eventuate, but in any case will take years to develop.

And when it comes to the big item, the move to gazump Abbott on tax for small business, his recipe is simply derisory: let’s all sit down together and try and work something out. This is not just a silly copout; it is delusory, even impertinent. Governments are elected to govern, not to attend group hugs proposed by the opposition. They may, from time to time, pinch opposition policies, but they do it on their own terms and in their own time.

Politics, as Shorten is fond of saying, is a contest – ideally a contest of ideas, sometimes a nude mud wrestle, but always a contest. The idea that the prime minister and his ministers will simply agree to bow down to what is basically no more than a thought bubble from their opponents is not even worth considering. It may appeal to those who want believe that the world would be a better place if everyone could only agree on everything, but that’s not how it works. The best that can be said of Shorten’s outrageous suggestion is to give him points for audacity: no hide, no Christmas box.

In a way that is a pity, because much of his speech was worthwhile; in particular, the emphasis on education in all its forms follows logically from the proud record of his Labor predecessors, most recently Kim Beazley, Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard. Of course implementing it would be expensive, but with a bit of diligence it could be achievable. As things are, Shorten is offering little more than pie in the sky.

Still, at least he is talking about pie. With Abbott, it is just sky – supposedly a patch of blue, but no more than five minutes of electoral sunshine before the storm clouds will inevitably regather.

Mungo MacCallum

Mungo MacCallum is a political journalist and commentator. His books include Run Johnny Run, Poll Dancing, and Punch and Judy. Visit his blog, The View from Billinudgel.

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