The treasurer’s economic statement had neither detail nor vision
Treasurer Josh Frydenberg’s statement to parliament on the “sobering” economic impact of COVID-19 – given in place of the postponed federal budget – was a fizzer in which he passed over key figures and recycled the same talking points used last week. Its most interesting feature was an unfortunate coughing fit he suffered in the middle of it. In the recovery from the pandemic, said Frydenberg, the Coalition would be guided by its old values and principles: “encouraging personal responsibility, maximising personal choice, rewarding effort and risk taking, whilst ensuring a safety net which is underpinned by a sense of decency and fairness. Unleashing the power of dynamic, innovative and open markets must be central to the recovery, with the private sector leading job creation, not government.” Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese said much the same thing yesterday. “The pandemic has shown that Labor’s values of fairness, security and the power of government to change lives were the right values in a crisis,” Albanese said. “They are also the right values for the recovery.” This means that federal politics is reverting to blue-versus-red tribalism, and the gloves will soon come off.
A key difference of opinion is over the design of the JobKeeper program – the single largest component of the government’s fiscal stimulus at $130 billion – and the treasurer is copping it from all sides. From his own side, there are reported concerns about the staggering cost, as well as compliance, with backbenchers raising questions about it in this morning’s joint Coalition party-room meeting. Liberal backbencher Jason Falinski has called for the payment to be axed “as soon as possible” – perhaps once kids get back to school. Shadow treasurer Jim Chalmers used his reply to Frydenberg’s statement to castigate the government about estimates that JobKeeper could end up under budget by roughly $20 billion, describing it as a “stunning admission of failure”, adding, “This is not a saving to be celebrated”. During question time, the Opposition asked what year unemployment would get back to pre-coronavirus levels, or when gross debt would peak. The PM and treasurer dead-batted both of them. And when Labor’s Stephen Jones asked Frydenberg how many people were getting more than their normal wage under JobKeeper, Frydenberg took it on notice, but defended the flat $1500 per fortnight payment: “It was a very Australian way to do it – we didn’t want to see a situation where if you earned more, that you would get a greater payment.”
Returning to politics as usual might be a good thing. The stakes are high and rising as Australia heads towards its biggest-ever budget deficit, record debt and a level of unemployment not seen for a generation or more. As The New Daily commentator Michael Pascoe points out, the fresh joblessness figures we get this week will be artificially low because of JobKeeper spending, and the real level is probably comparable with that in the US. On top of that, a deteriorating relationship with our biggest trading partner, China, which today banned imports from four Australian red-meat abattoirs, after yesterday announcing an 80 per cent tariff on barley. Trade Minister Simon Birmingham has denied China’s trade moves are connected to Australia’s push for an independent international inquiry into the origins of the coronavirus, but there does appear to be a real possibility of a full-blown trade war if the relationship is mismanaged.
We need a parliamentary opposition that is firing. Anthony Albanese was upbeat on RN Breakfast this morning, following up on his fifth “vision statement” yesterday. Both major parties pay lip service to building back better, but so far only Labor has begun to paint a picture: a national housing stimulus plan, full employment, decentralisation via high-speed rail and trains built here using “green” Australian steel, a clean energy revolution. That’s the kind of vision that can lift a country out of a recession.
As former Age journalist Tom Arup tweeted this afternoon, quickly threading together all the organisations supporting a connection between the economic recovery and sustainability/climate, it’s the kind of vision that pretty much the entire world is calling for, including the World Bank and the IMF, the International Labour Organization and the International Energy Agency, major corporations and investors, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, mayors of major cities… the list goes on.
“The most repeated statement we hear is ‘We must listen to the experts’. Well, the experts are telling me in no uncertain terms (and not for the first time I might add): ‘continuing with the present workload is seriously detrimental to your health’.”
“In many respects, you were the voice of middle Australia. You were the person who would stand up for the battler, the person who would articulate what millions of people were thinking but couldn’t quite bring themselves to say.”
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“Misuse of COVID app data will constitute a criminal offence. If the responsible person is subject to the Privacy Act because of the Bill or under the ordinary operation of the Privacy Act, individuals will also be able to make a complaint to the Information Commissioner under the Privacy Act. COVID app data will remain continually protected through encryption and the Bill makes it an offence to decrypt COVID app data stored on a communication device.”
“That’s 30 to 40 people who’ve lost work, tallied up in as many seconds. And that’s just for one gig at an 800-capacity venue. Multiplied by the thousands of cancelled gigs across the country – some smaller, some much bigger – the sum is very grim. Of the live music sector, Brown puts it simply: ‘The arse has fallen out.’”
“Coming-of-age stories are often focused on what the protagonists acquire: knowledge, experience and wisdom. But these 12 half-hour episodes – a format that here feels vividly compressed, akin to a potent memory – pay attention to the negative spaces that never dissipate … Burdens aren’t banished, they’re just pushed down until they rear up again.”
“NSW Health had not requested the most up-to-date figures before it made its decision, and it seems nobody thought to do so. Its assessment had been based on figures more than 18 hours old, in an environment where the main concern was a fast-spreading virus.”
Paddy Manning is contributing editor (politics) at The Monthly and has worked for the ABC, Fairfax, Crikey and The Australian. He is the author of Inside the Greens and the unauthorised biography of Malcolm Turnbull, Born To Rule?
Treasurer Josh Frydenberg’s statement to parliament on the “sobering” economic impact of COVID-19 – given in place of the postponed federal budget – was a fizzer in which he passed over key figures and recycled the same talking points used last week. Its most interesting feature was an unfortunate coughing fit he suffered in the middle of it. In the recovery from the pandemic, said Frydenberg, the Coalition would be guided by its old values and principles: “encouraging personal responsibility, maximising personal choice, rewarding effort and risk taking, whilst ensuring a safety net which is underpinned by a sense of decency and fairness. Unleashing the power of dynamic, innovative and open markets must be central to the...
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