Tuesday, May 11, 2021

Today by Nick Feik

Budget spinner
Beware the over-promising of a treasurer uncomfortably positioned

Image of Treasurer Josh Frydenberg with Finance Minister Simon Birmingham. Image via Twitter

Treasurer Josh Frydenberg with Finance Minister Simon Birmingham. Image via Twitter

The budget pantomime has been in full swing for a well over a week now, so we already know most of what the treasurer will announce tonight. Rachel Withers will have a full report on the budget in a special edition this evening, but for now we can flag some things to look out for. The treasurer has already dropped to The Australian that better-than-projected jobs figures will slash the forecast budget deficit from $213.7 billion to $161 billion. But what are the projections behind such figures? Is this bottom line based on a feasible growth rate? These projections will also have other critical assumptions baked into them, such as the timing of the re-opening of international borders. This in turn will depend on vaccine rollouts – both in Australia and abroad. If recent history is anything to go by, Australians should be extremely sceptical of any promises made by the Morrison government about its ability to deliver the vaccine en masse and on time. Treasurers have a long history of over-promising on budget night, and then under-delivering subsequently. It was Frydenberg, after all, who declared in 2019: “The budget is back in the black and Australia is back on track. For the first time in 12 years our nation is again paying its own way.” It wasn’t then, and it still isn’t now. (Not that surpluses are by any means the sole measure by which to judge economic management.)

This isn’t to blame the treasurer for unforeseen events such as the coronavirus pandemic, only to caution wariness when it comes to accepting the overblown positivity of a treasurer on budget night. The triumphalism of a government declaring itself a strong economic manager, while trying to give the impression of spending billions in every direction, is not to be taken seriously.

Clearly Australia has survived the past year in better shape than most countries, but this is in large part due to the strong early stands taken by the state premiers against the wishes of the prime minister (who, you may recall, wanted us to learn to live with the virus, and was still announcing he wanted to open borders for the sake of the economy up until a few weeks ago). 

Morrison and Frydenberg have picked up some of the signals from the electorate about the need to prop up social services, such as aged care and childcare. They have also announced “new” infrastructure spending, extended the JobTrainer scheme, and out of political necessity thrown some money in the direction of mental health as well as women’s safety and economic security. 

On the other hand, most of these spending announcements represent only a fraction of what is required, according to experts. The childcare subsidy won’t kick in until 2022 (after the next election, in other words), the aged-care spending is less than half of what is reasonably required, and the infrastructure announcement is pure nothing: it doesn’t represent an increase in spending, is not tied to any significant new projects, and arrives after years of Coalition under-spending on infrastructure. 

Lest there be too much emphasis on this as a budget whose generosity is necessitated by the pandemic, let’s also bear in mind what is missing – or is, in fact, exactly the same as previous budgets. The government is holding onto its tax cuts for the wealthiest, and has promised various new subsidies to the fossil-fuel industries, but has so far allocated almost nothing to climate-change mitigation, to renewables, to the university and arts sectors (which have been haemorrhaging this year), to social housing, to Newstart (which is still insufficient to adequately live on), to public education, to scientific research, to the ABC and SBS, or to restoring the funding of the public institutions that conserve national culture. (The major national galleries, archives, libraries and museums, for example, have been promised a small stopgap increase in funding, but this merely reverses a fraction of what’s been cut in recent years, and the total amount promised to all of them is dwarfed by the $500 million promised to one institution: the Australian War Memorial.)

Frydenberg knew that the ideology of his beloved Thatcher and Reagan would be untenable this year, but it remains to be seen whether tonight’s budget is a temporary postponement of austerity measures, or a grudging acceptance that the “tough love” of that brand of neoliberalism is great in theory but terrible in practice. He is currently perched uncomfortably in between, both in rhetorical and practical terms.

“It’s not real…”

Acting Victorian Premier James Merlino is dubious about touted federal budget spending promises.

“We have found that some individuals have not met the JobKeeper residency requirements and were not eligible to receive JobKeeper payments.”

The tax office is trying to recover JobKeeper payments from migrant workers who were not eligible because of their visa status. One man was asked to repay nearly $30,000 after the ATO encouraged him to submit an application.

The terror arrests you missed
Australia’s security agencies have introduced new terminology to talk about the threats we face, but they are carefully avoiding the term “right wing”. Today, Lydia Khalil on what’s behind this change and why the language we use to describe a threat matters.

The extra money delivered to Australia from the sky-high iron-ore price, mostly courtesy of China.

“The proposed merger of Crown with Star will renew the focus on broader reforms for the casino industry in Australia, recommended by commissioner Patricia Bergin SC. These included a new a new independent casino authority in NSW, banning junkets and enhanced requirements for suitability.”

The potential merger of Crown Resorts and Star Entertainment will increase the pressure on state governments, casino regulators and casino operators to permanently end the use of junket companies that bring international gamblers to Australia.

The list

“What Lockwood manages to do singularly well is synthesise the voice of the internet. Her sentences are laden with the absurdity and sanctimoniousness, the irony and horniness, of online discourse. It is as if she has trained herself on thousands of hours of internet language, like an AI bot, to become the modern tone incarnate. To internalise the voice of the internet comes at a cost. Lockwood, who has been prominent online most of her adult life, has spoken of her mind being overwhelmed, ‘poisoned’ even, by the medium’s polyphonic scream.”

“In 2019, the CCP released an app, Xuéxí qiángguó 学习强国, which can mean either ‘study and strengthen the nation’ or ‘study Xi and strengthen the nation’. A gamified, digital Little Red Book, political study session and pocket dang’an (personal file) in one, the app lets users earn points while mastering Xi Jinping Thought. The CCP required its members and many government workers to spend time on the app every day, with real-world consequences depending on how well they applied themselves.”

“When the South Australian coroner resumed hearing evidence as part of the inquest into the death in custody of Wayne Fella Morrison last week, it had been five years since his death and two since the court last sat. Latoya Rule, his sibling, says their family has been living under a microscope since the 29-year-old Wiradjuri, Kokatha and Wirangu man died while being held on remand … In that time, they say, their family’s mourning has been put on hold. Their public statements have been monitored for anything that may disrupt the process and there have been no real answers – and no real accountability.”

Nick Feik

Nick Feik is the editor of The Monthly.



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