The Politics    Wednesday, May 12, 2021

Whose budget is this anyway?

By Rachel Withers

Composite image of Treasurer Josh Frydenberg (image via Twitter) and shadow treasurer Jim Chalmers (image via Twitter)

Treasurer Josh Frydenberg (image via Twitter) and shadow treasurer Jim Chalmers (image via Twitter)

Could the treasurer and shadow treasurer be in agreement?

The budget-week battles continue, with the government and Opposition wrestling for control over the narrative of last night’s big-spending, surplus-eschewing, deficit-heavy economic plan. Treasurer Josh Frydenberg this morning continued to defend the debt and the allocation of funding as he resumed his steady stream of TV interviews (though an Extinction Rebellion protest against the lack of climate action meant both he and the PM were forced to do live crosses from inside parliament to the media standing outside), while shadow treasurer Jim Chalmers was also keeping busy, attacking both the debt and the distribution of funding. But there’s one point on which the treasurer and shadow treasurer are in firm agreement: this is still a “Liberal budget”. Unfortunately for them, no one else seems to be buying it. 

The government has spent a good portion of the day defending itself from accusations it has delivered a “Labor lite” budget, or at the very least a hypocritical one, after years spent slamming Labor for its huge debts and deficits during the global financial crisis. Many fiscal conservatives are furious about the cost blowouts and major new spending, arguing that the current unemployment levels do not justify the projected deficit of 5 per cent of GDP, while the Institute of Public Affairs has slammed the projected debt levels, with director of research Daniel Wild calling it “a budget that Labor would have been proud to have delivered”. (Many other conservatives, however, seem more than happy to accept the huge deficits that they once decried Labor for.)

Frydenberg has repeatedly intoned that the circumstances are different to when Labor blew out the budget, and that Labor would be doing it worse. “The size of the economic shock from COVID dwarfs that that we saw during the GFC,” he told RN Breakfast. Prime Minister Scott Morrison was also pressed on the lack of forecast surplus in his media interviews, telling Nine’s Today that “this wasn’t a choice”; rather, it was something that had to be done, invoking the advice of Liberal hero John Howard. Frydenberg also faced questions on the budget’s very un-Liberal philosophy following his National Press Club address, insisting there was still plenty for the Liberal true believers. “This is a Liberal budget,” the treasurer declared.

Those words came as a huge relief to Labor’s shadow treasurer, in the unenviable position of attacking a budget that everyone seems to agree looks more like a Labor one than a Liberal one. Chalmers leapt on the words over on the ABC. “It’s important we start with something important that Josh Frydenberg said in his speech that we agree with 100 per cent,” he said. “It’s a Liberal budget,” adding that only a Liberal budget could reach $1 trillion in debt and $100 million in spending and still see real wages falling. There was a “big difference” between Labor and Liberal when it comes to the budget, he added, with a Labor recovery unwilling to leave working people behind.

The Opposition is keen to insist this is still a Liberal government, even if it is spending like a Labor one, with its criticism of the funding splurge – which is exactly what economists say is needed – ringing somewhat hollow. Labor cannot reasonably attack the level of debt (though that hasn’t stopped it trying on the debt fearmongering role). Instead, it must find ways to differentiate itself by arguing the spending is being poorly allocated – in many cases on rorts and politically motivated grants, as shadow finance minister Katy Gallagher pointed out in this morning’s press conference.

None of this criticism seems to bother Morrison, who would prefer us to believe his budget goes above politics. “The only opposition I’m focused on at the moment is the pandemic,” he told Sunrise, when asked about Gallagher’s claims. “I’ll let others focus on the politics.” “I couldn’t care less about the politics,” he repeated on Today, when pressed on his government’s philosophical shift. That’s another line no one is buying. Whether or not they like the budget, most commentators can agree on one thing: this budget is most certainly about politics.

“There seems to be this assumption that women are having children on their own, and we are the only ones who should have allocated the $1.7 billion of childcare.”

Independent MP Zali Steggall points to the budget’s flawed presumption that childcare is a women’s issue, rather than a whole-of-society one.

“It is extraordinary that I am left to prove my innocence, based on petty allegations trumped-up to be criminal in nature.”

Disgraced Liberal MP Andrew Laming – whom the government yesterday voted to keep in a committee chair role despite his earlier promise that he would stand down – has used an email to branch members to re-attack the women he is alleged to have harassed online.

Josh Frydenberg’s big-spending budget
Treasurer Josh Frydenberg has handed down what is expected to be the government’s last budget before the next federal election. Today, chief political correspondent for ‘The Saturday Paper’ Karen Middleton on what’s in the budget, and what it says about the government’s political priorities.

The amount of money allocated over the next four years to fund “decisions taken but not yet announced”, with $3.8 billion for 2021–22 alone, amid speculation it will be used on election campaign sweeteners.

“The budget also contains $464.7m of spending on the immigration detention network, including an extension of the use of the Christmas Island detention centre until June 2022 and ‘hardening’ it to prevent riots.”

The government has put aside millions to expand Australia’s immigration detention centres, while allocating nothing to federal quarantine facilities.

The list

“If Australia was a fair-go country for First Peoples, Yuin nation elder Keith Nye, 64, might be a multi-millionaire looking forward to a comfortable retirement after decades of fishing for abalone in his traditional waters on the New South Wales South Coast. Instead, Nye is impoverished and looking down the barrel of a second jail term for trafficking them.”

“Watching the movie Wake in Fright nearly 40 years after its release – 1971 – brought back one good memory for me of life in the Bush. Canvas water bags. Nothing like the taste of water from those bags: sweet and earthy. One hangs on the back of a door in the shambles of a mining shack occupied by Doc Tydon, the movie’s supposed villain. Not that anyone in the movie drinks water. Heaven forbid. Instead they neck beer and, in the case of Doc Tydon, glug down whiskey in the legendary quantities typical of men on a weekend bender in the Outback … Cracking a few cold ones with your mates – legacy, birthright, entitlement.”

“Documents seen exclusively by The Saturday Paper reveal the extent to which the Morrison government is not only sidelining experts in the development of respectful relationships education but actively undermining it. They suggest the Morrison government is bullying into silence the country’s leading umbrella body for the prevention of violence against women, Our Watch.”

Rachel Withers

Rachel Withers is the contributing editor of The Politics.


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