Politics

The view from Billinudgel

The Coalition’s sudden budget backflip
Extending energy assistance to Newstart recipients is cynical in more ways than one

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There was at least one moment of relief after the election spiel masquerading as a budget: the decision not to extend the energy supplement payment to those receiving the Newstart Allowance was reversed in less than 12 hours.

The original decision was not an oversight – it was gratuitous cruelty. And the reversal was not an act of principle and compassion, it was simply needed to get the numbers to pass.

Still, we must be grateful for small mercies. Of course what is needed is a permanent and substantial raise in the pittance provided, and there is no sign of that. And in a sense this has been the essence of last week’s exercise: a cynical stopgap measure designed to provide a pre-election fillip with no pretence to any vision beyond the poll.

The energy supplement is not just mean and tricky; it is devoid of policy, and is an admission of total defeat. When Scott Morrison stumbled into office, his focus on energy policy was to bring down power prices – indeed it was not just the focus, it was the only thing that mattered. He re-christened his new minister, Angus Taylor, the Minister for Bringing Down Energy Bills.

But after all the bluster and ballyhoo, the threats and ultimatums against the power companies, and the chatter of the since-abandoned big stick, almost nothing has been achieved: energy bills remain stubbornly high. So, on to plan B: a one-off cash bribe in the vain hope that the government is seen to be actually doing something.

Not very much, admittedly: $75 is hardly munificent. Back in 2003, when Peter Costello offered the average voter a tax cut of around $5 a week, his family and community services minister, Amanda Vanstone, derided it as less than the cost of a sandwich and a milkshake. Averaged out over a year, ScoMo’s largesse rounds out at about $1.50 a week – not even the price of a Mars Bar. Very few will be dancing in the streets.

And the real cynicism is that the sweetener is not even directed at the power bills: it is to be paid directly in cash. Now, some may actually use the loot to help with their power bills, or perhaps their rent, or the many cost-of-living pressures to which they are subjected.

But there is no compulsion to use the money towards power bills – those receiving it are perfectly entitled to spend it on whatever is their fancy. This is the basic advertiser’s ploy – scatter money at the mob; it doesn’t matter what they do with it, as long as they can be lured to the marketeer’s bait. Well. some of them might be, but you can bet they will not be convinced that Scott Morrison and Josh Frydenberg have suddenly morphed into compassionate care bears.

It is worth noting that, apart from the last-minute decision to provide energy assistance payments to those on Newstart, there was very little in the Coalition’s budget for those really struggling. It will be interesting if desperation forces them to another flip.

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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