The Politics    Thursday, March 12, 2015

Super zombie

By Russell Marks

Joe Hockey’s revival of an idea that died 22 years ago shows the government’s thinking about the budget hasn’t changed

Economist John Quiggin describes a species of “zombie economics” – “dead ideas” that “still walk among us”. After its demise along with John Hewson’s failed Fightback! policy document at the 1993 election, few expected the idea Treasurer Joe Hockey floated this week – that first home buyers could “dip into” their superannuation to raise a deposit – to ever be revived. Yet revived it was, albeit as a thought bubble rather than actual government policy. Tony Abbott described it as a “perfectly good and sensible” idea, and even put his hand up as having suggested it to Hewson when Abbott was the then Liberal leader’s adviser in 1991.

Perhaps predictably, Paul Keating, who as prime minister ushered in the policy of compulsory superannuation in 1992, rejected the idea in an op-ed in the Fairfax press this week. Less predictable, from a partisan perspective, was former Howard government treasurer Peter Costello’s opposition. It is difficult to find a supporter of the idea outside the government’s inner circle. Even Malcolm Turnbull has called it a “thoroughly bad idea”.

There are problems with the operation of Australia’s superannuation guarantee, the most obvious of which is the generous tax concessions associated with employee contributions that overwhelmingly favour the already-wealthy and yet cost the budget up to $30 billion every year. But Hockey’s thought bubble would only further redistribute wealth from poor to rich: those on lower incomes would end up with less superannuation savings and more private debt, while existing home-owners would benefit from higher house prices at the expense of renters. In other words, two months out from their second budget, Hockey and Abbott have not learnt from the political failure of their first.

In other news:

“Lifestyle choices”: Indigenous Affairs minister Nigel Scullion has described Tony Abbott’s repeated use of the term “lifestyle choice” to describe the homelands movement as a “mistake” (Guardian Australia) but says WA Premier Colin Barnett’s failure to consult with communities over plans to close 150 of them is even more damaging (ABC News). Meanwhile Fairfax reports that ministers “have closed ranks around the prime minister”.

Comments by Amy McQuire at New Matilda (“If you ‘choose’ to live on the lands that hold your stories, and which sustained your ancestors for 60,000 years, then you’re on your own”), Joe Morrison in Fairfax (“remote communities aren’t a utopian lifestyle choice but they are good for our people”) and Paul Daley at Guardian Australia (“‘Lifestyle choices’ is Abbott's third and final strike on Indigenous affairs”).

Seeking refuge: Daniel Flitton reports in Fairfax: “Official correspondence obtained by Fairfax shows Australia had already rejected the far more substantive ruling of the 18-member UN Human Rights Committee on indefinite detention before Mr Abbott’s criticism this week of the independent special rapporteur on torture.”

Max Chalmers reports at New Matilda: “Allegations that Save The Children staff working on Nauru encouraged asylum seekers to self-harm to get off the island have been further undermined, after a key former Department of Immigration employee denied ever coming into contact with evidence supporting such claims.”

Sarah Whyte reports in Fairfax: “The fleet of brightly coloured wooden Vietnamese fishing boats that the Australian government will use to turn back asylum seekers are unseaworthy and ethically wrong to use, marine sources in Darwin say.”

East West Link: Josh Gordon reports in Fairfax: “Tony Abbott has pleaded with the state government to build the East West Link, claiming any move to dump the contract for the controversial road would hurt Australia's international reputation as a safe place to invest.”

Private education: Jane Norman reports at ABC News: “Training providers will be banned from offering ‘miraculously’ short diploma courses, and from offering students incentives to sign up, under new legislation to be introduced by the federal government.”

Homeopathy review: Rebecca Trigger reports at ABC News: “Homeopathy is no more effective in treating health conditions than placebos, a study by the National Health and Medical Research Council has found.”

Hockey defamation trial: AAP report at Guardian Australia: “A Fairfax article that began ‘No one is saying Joe Hockey is corrupt’ was an attempt to portray the treasurer as exactly that, Hockey’s barrister told the federal court.”

Budget 2015: Greg Jericho’s analysis at The Drum: “The RBA has revealed low interest rates aren’t having the impact they used to, and yet the government isn’t willing to push the fiscal stimulus accelerator. This should make for an interesting May budget.”

Russell Marks

Russell Marks is a lawyer and an adjunct research fellow at La Trobe University. He is the author of Crime and Punishment: Offenders and Victims in a Broken Justice System (Black Inc., 2015). 

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