Monday, April 1, 2019

Today by Paddy Manning

Surplus of cynicism
Tomorrow’s budget is especially politicised


At the risk of getting ahead of ourselves, it is likely that Treasurer Josh Frydenberg’s first budget will be more about winning the 2022 election than it is about winning the election due in May. Despite the recent fillip for the Coalition in New South Wales, the grim reality remains that the federal government is odds-on to be defeated when it faces the people in a matter of weeks. Tomorrow’s budget surplus for 2019–20 has been well flagged, and confirmation of it is not going to change the political dynamic. Nonetheless, balancing the books is a creditable achievement, and this pre-election budget will create a handy claim to fame for when the election after next comes around – especially if it stands in contrast to a series of Labor budgets beset by the economic downturn expected over the next three years.

Unfortunately, the surplus to be unveiled tomorrow is at least partly built on the back of a cruel crackdown on welfare – from income management to robodebt and ParentsNext – and the refusal to raise Newstart. It also comes from underspending on the National Disability Insurance Scheme, although, as The Australian Financial Review’s Phillip Coorey reports [$], the government has scrambled to allocate an extra $3.5 billion in payments over the next four years to address criticisms that tomorrow’s surplus was largely due to money that was not spent on the disabled.

Apart from restoring a surplus, there is bound to be plenty of cynical politicking wrapped up in Treasurer Frydenberg’s budget papers, which must also burnish his leadership credentials for the inevitable contest post-election. The one-off Energy Assistance Payments for four million people, announced on the weekend and to be paid this financial year, were immediately dubbed a “cash splash”, and were a tacit recognition that efforts to substantially reduce power bills before the election have come to little.

The $1 billion regional infrastructure spend flagged [$] this morning will help sandbag the Nationals, who are on the nose. Meanwhile, The Sydney Morning Herald reported that up to four in five “congestion-busting” projects supported by the urban congestion fund, which is to be topped up by $1 billion tomorrow, are in marginal seats. Fuelling further cynicism, there is an air of unreality to the budget. As Ross Gittins points out, the earlier-than-usual budget “will be more like an election policy speech … since none of its measures will have been legislated, let alone put into effect. Unless the Coalition wins, it’s a budget we’ll never hear of again.”

Also undercutting any joy at the return to surplus are the darkening economic skies. Whether or not an Australian recession is looming (and Alan Kohler had this excellent piece [$] on the weekend, in which he argued that jittery bond markets were wrong about that), it’s clear that the economy is slowing down and the commodity price recovery that has buoyed the budget in the last two years cannot be relied upon any longer. Today’s news that Woolworths will shut 30 Big W stores does not bode well for jobs growth, let alone wages growth. This only underlines that giving away a short-term revenue hike through permanent tax cuts, which are likely to be confirmed tomorrow and supported by the Opposition, is unwise bordering on reckless. The mooted tax cuts favour higher-income earners, and will therefore worsen inequality, ACOSS argues. It is what The Australia Institute’s chief economist Richard Denniss calls the “right-wing ratchet”: tax cuts in the good times, spending cuts in the bad times.

Tomorrow’s budget is all the government has got left to campaign on. The Christchurch tragedy has stopped anyone in the Coalition who wanted to play the race card. The government’s “re-Rudd” scare campaign against the Labor Party’s climate-change policies, and today’s effort to brand them as a carbon tax, are impossible to take seriously. Firstly, we have heard it all too many times, and climate change itself is staring us in the face and is much scarier than some trumped-up partisan wonkery that nobody believes. And secondly, half of the ALP’s policy platform is directly lifted from the Coalition, from the National Energy Guarantee to the safeguards mechanism for big polluters. Does the government still want to argue about this stuff? Please, give us a break. 


“We think that once the Coalition finally gets over its ideological opposition to climate change policy – which it must at some point in the future – there needs to be foundation for bipartisanship in the major parties. Across the world when you look at democracies that are taking real action on climate change, they’re always doing it on a foundation of bipartisanship. That’s what’s lacking here in Australia.”

Mark Butler, shadow minister for climate change and energy, talking about Labor’s climate policy launch on RN Breakfast this morning.


“To even suggest that Martin Bryant, whose proven weapons handling experience was limited to a single shot Webley Osprey air rifle could have caused this carnage is absurd … [Port Arthur] bears the distinctive trademark of a planned ‘psyop’ [designed to] psychologically manipulate the belief mechanisms of … a nation for geopolitical or military reasons.”

From conspiracy theorist Joe Vialls’ Deadly Deception at Port Arthur, believed to be the book cited by Pauline Hanson last week.

The Number

The average wealth of the 250 richest Australians, as revealed in The Weekend Australian’s inaugural rich list.

The Policy

“Ignoring climate change is simply not an answer. Labor is committed to reducing Australia’s pollution by 45 per cent on 2005 levels by 2030 and net zero pollution by 2050. We are also committed to 50 per cent renewable energy in our electricity mix by 2030.”

The list

“‘Back in those days, they were entitled to think of paedophilia as simply a sin you could repent of,‘ Cardinal George Pell told The Australian in 2012. As I watched the live broadcast of Judge Peter Kidd’s powerful address on March 13 ... Pell’s comment kept ringing in my head. I had always associated Pell’s remarks with special pleading for the church’s inaction, turning a blind eye and moving on notorious paedophile priests such as Gerald Ridsdale. Now, after Pell’s conviction, his words suddenly had a whole new meaning. Had he been speaking about himself?” 


“On the eve of the crucial budget, the trailing Coalition government finally had a shred of hope: New South Wales. The fairly comfortable re-election of Gladys Berejiklian, following nail-biting opinion polls, gave the federal Coalition the hope that perhaps its own leader – a fellow Cornstalk, no less – could pull off the same trick: a last-minute swing, delivering an improbable victory. But for many reasons, the contrast is greater than the hope.”


“Qualitative pollster Tony Mitchelmore, of research company Visibility, said voters were increasingly wise to tricky strategising. ‘They’re less engaged in politics than ever before but they’re not idiots,’ Mitchelmore said. ‘They’ve got emotional IQ.’ He said political leaders need to show voters more respect and not become the story themselves, as Michael Daley became spectacularly in NSW.” 

Paddy Manning

Paddy Manning is contributing editor (politics) at The Monthly and has worked for the ABC, Fairfax, Crikey and The Australian. He is also the author of three books, including a recently updated unauthorised biography of Malcolm Turnbull, Born To Rule?


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