Budget bubble pops
The federal election can’t come soon enough
Opposition Leader Bill Shorten’s sixth budget reply speech was not his best performance – for mine, that was in February, when he took the “born-to-rule” federal government apart. Last night he had something important to say: a cancer diagnosis is a financial catastrophe for many families, and $2.3 billion is a worthy investment in Medicare, which over the years has been feeling less and less like the universal guarantee of free health care that it was meant to be. Shorten is not the messiah, he’s just the alternative prime minister. He has made much of the fact that he does not feel the need to be the smartest person in the room. He does not need to deliver soaring oratory or be a laugh-a-minute. By now, Australia actually has rather low expectations of its prime ministers. Shorten just needs to offer competence, integrity and stability, and to do in government exactly what he has said he will.
Shorten’s speech offered an olive branch to Liberal supporters, noting that anyone earning between $48,000 and $126,000 would get the same tax refund under Labor, “no matter who you vote for in May”. That’s in contrast to the government, which, by failing to put its budgeted low-income tax cuts through parliament, and tying them to a controversial rewrite of the tax scales, has made its whole package conditional on winning the election.
The spirit of bipartisanship was also evident in Shorten’s commitment that “if we are elected, I will invite the then Opposition leader to be involved in nominating directors to Infrastructure Australia, so we take the politics out and we make generational decisions in infrastructure for once and for all time”. That is significant given the politicisation of infrastructure and rampant pork-barrelling, which has resulted in a string of controversies under the Abbott–Turnbull–Morrison governments, from Melbourne’s East West Link to Perth’s Freight Link to Sydney’s WestConnex, and Inland Rail. The tantalising question is, once we decide to start taking politics out of vexed policy debates – the RBA, the Future Fund, the Climate Change Authority, etc. – where do we stop?
Reaction to budget week has been underwhelmed. Michelle Grattan describes the political impact of the Frydenberg budget as “tepid”. Meanwhile, in Crikey Bernard Keane writes [$] that the government is now fighting on Labor’s preferred ground of fairness – health, education and low-income earners – adding that where “the government has a shopping list, Labor has a philosophy”.
The prime minister will visit the governor-general any moment now to dissolve parliament and declare an election in May. What a benighted institution the 45th parliament has been – marred by government division and a botched leadership coup; struck by the rolling eligibility crisis and never-ending byelections; cursed by Pauline Hanson and her traitorous band; sinking into the mire of corruption against a background of Brexit and Trump and rabid polarisation. The 44th parliament was nearly as bad, and the 43rd before that. Both parties have now adopted rules that prevent the mid-term knifing of a prime minister, and so hopefully a line has been ruled under the most dysfunctional decade of federal politics in most of our lifetimes.
This is why outgoing member for Indi Cathy McGowan’s valedictory speech yesterday was perhaps more significant than either of the budget speeches. She spoke to the rise of a new politics that may be less partisan and more constructive. McGowan extended heartfelt thanks to three crossbench colleagues: Adam Bandt, Andrew Wilkie and Rebekha Sharkie. McGowan said: “We have all worked together – long nights, big days – and together we’ve reflected the diversity of Australia. We’ve worked with great respect and generosity together ... Clearly, our work is not yet done. In giving you my blessing: may you grow and multiply; may you all win your seats with increased margins; and may you continue to be the voice of reason, the voice of the marginalised and the voice of the forgotten.”
Another highlight was McGowan’s impassioned plea to young Australians, who had nagged her to run in the first place, to get involved in politics and force a generational change: “I say to the young people of regional Australia, to the young people of Australia, on behalf of this parliament: we love you. We want you to be part of our democracy ... We know you do creative, innovative and amazing things. But we want to see you in government. My call to the young people of rural and regional Australia, of all Australia, is: don’t get mad; get elected.” Hear, hear. Let’s hope that if nothing else changes in the coming election, the average age of MPs drops a little, or a lot.
“A Shorten Labor Government will deliver the biggest cancer care package in Australian history, with a $2.3 billion investment to dramatically slash out-of-pocket costs for cancer patients … This will mean millions of free scans, millions of free consultations and cheaper medicines for cancer patients.”
“Rarely do I see the work of a debut Australian filmmaker and think: ‘Yes, this person will go on to make a rich body of work.’ Gabrielle Brady’s first feature documentary, The Island of Hungry Ghosts (2018), elicited that thought: it is a film fertile in ideas, symbolism and visual metaphor; it speaks profoundly to some essential quality of being alive in Australia right now, and points to a future of filmmaking for its creator. Brady stakes her action in a distant field of terror: Christmas Island.”
“Over noodle soup in Cabramatta one time, I remember her telling me how her formal dance training began when she was nine years old, in a community centre for kids in her neighbourhood. ‘I would poke my head up to the window, try to memorise the movements in my head and then I’d run off to hide and practise it on my own,’ she said. ‘I swear, once every session the dance teacher would come out and ask if I wanted to join in and I’d be like, ‘Nah. No. No way.’ But I was so keen that Mum had to enrol me.’”
“I would like to say that I enjoyed the humble decency of The Australian Club without endorsing any of the politics that saturate the carpets, the rich furnishings, the numinous light, the fresh bathroom towels; without, above all, endorsing the defining and unifying rule of such clubs: the exclusion of women. But can I? Am I permitted to say that the hospitality of The Australian Club was of a rare goodness, while partitioning off the anachronism, the chauvinism, what seems to me the sheer absurdity of the gender bar?”
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?
Opposition Leader Bill Shorten’s sixth budget reply speech was not his best performance – for mine, that was in February, when he took the “born-to-rule” federal government apart. Last night he had something important to say: a cancer diagnosis is a financial catastrophe for many families, and $2.3 billion is a worthy investment in Medicare, which over the years has been feeling less and less like the universal guarantee of free health care that it was meant to be. Shorten is not the messiah, he’s just the alternative prime minister. He has made much of the fact that he does not feel the need to be the smartest person in the room. He does not need to deliver soaring oratory or be a laugh-a-minute. By now, Australia actually has...