The Politics    Thursday, July 28, 2022

Don’t mention the economy

By Rachel Withers

Image of shadow treasurer Angus Taylor in the House of Representatives today. Image © Mick Tsikas / AAP Images

Shadow treasurer Angus Taylor in the House of Representatives today. Image © Mick Tsikas / AAP Images

Why is the Opposition so reluctant to talk about the nation’s fiscal predicament?

Today’s economic statement from Treasurer Jim Chalmers was, as the headlines forewarned, grim. Inflation is set to keep rising, and is now expected to peak at 7.75 per cent, before hopefully falling to 3.5 per cent by the end of 2023 (but it’s still expected to sit above 5 by the middle of next year). The past year’s GDP growth has been revised down, from 4.25 to 3.75 per cent, with this year’s looking worse as well. Inflation is expected to go on hurting real wages, with real increases not expected until 2023–24, and things are expected to get worse before they get better. In other words, things are bad. So why doesn’t the Coalition want to talk about it? The first words from the Opposition’s mouth following the treasurer’s statement were a complaint about its content, which the Coalition claimed was political rather than ministerial (the Speaker partially agreed). Shadow treasurer Angus Taylor had appeared on RN Breakfast this morning to talk about the statement, complaining about what he perceived as its lack of a plan. But as host Patricia Karvelas asked, if inflation was the number-one issue of the day, why was it not the number-one question in Question Time yesterday?

It was a great question. Unfortunately, it didn’t stop the Coalition from continuing with its petty, irreverent enquiries in Question Time today. The first Opposition question was a complaint about Labor’s move to end the cashless debit card (which is only being removed for some communities), with the Opposition leader saying it was being done to “please an inner-city woke audience”. The second and third questions were, like most of yesterday’s, about the CFMEU. (There was no small irony in Nationals senator Bridget McKenzie earlier ranting on the ABC about Labor being more focused on their “union masters” than on dealing with inflation. It’s the Coalition that is utterly obsessed with the unions, to the exclusion of all else.) It quickly became apparent that the Opposition was not about to change its tune and start asking real questions about the inflationary pressure squeezing the nation, which it professes to care so much about in public-facing interviews. 

It’s little wonder the Opposition doesn’t want to talk about it. The Coalition knows there is no point attacking the government for the current economic circumstances, knowing full well that that would only give Labor an opportunity to start talking about the mess it has “inherited”. (This is the only circumstance in which Labor is allowed to use that word, which falls totally flat when used as an excuse for keeping terrible Coalition policies in place.) When Taylor did eventually ask a question about the economy, 43 minutes into Question Time, Chalmers ripped into him. “This is the equivalent of the arsonist whinging about the firefighters taking too long,” the treasurer said. “Those asking us about inflation when their record is almost a decade now of making all of the problems in our economy worse rather than better.”

Manager of Opposition business Paul Fletcher had some fair complaints to make about the practice of using questions to simply attack the other side. To be fair to Labor, the former prime minister regularly used his pulpit to lay into the Opposition, despite the fact that Labor had been out of power for nine years. And it’s understandable that the new government wants a go, especially when it really has inherited quite a mess. It’s not particularly helpful, however. The nation is well aware that this is a mess of the Coalition’s making, with a large dollop of “international circumstances” thrown in. But most people would no doubt like to hear a little more about what Labor intends to do about it, and a little less about the past decade. (We won’t hold our breath, of course, for corresponding good behaviour from the new Opposition.) Perhaps Labor could be the party to start looking forward, as the new Speaker cautioned at the end of Chalmers’ speech today, and leave the sniping to the backwards-looking party that came before.

If Chalmers’ grim speech is anything to go by, already-struggling Australians are now staring down the barrel of worsening economic conditions, and relief is a long way off. The last thing they need, as new Greens MP Max Chandler-Mather put it, is “incredibly well paid politicians … sitting in a room yelling insults at each other”. We’d rather they were talking about the economy.

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Rachel Withers

Rachel Withers is the contributing editor of The Politics.

@rachelrwithers

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