The Politics    Tuesday, April 14, 2015


By Sean Kelly

It took Peter Costello 12 years to build a reputation. It was destroyed in one day.

Peter Costello’s claim to “legendary treasurer” status rests on three pillars.

The first is that he inherited a huge budget “black hole” from Labor in 1996 and fixed it. The second is that he managed money well, delivering surplus after surplus. The third is that by delivering cuts he ensured taxes were kept low during the 12 years he played a significant role in the Coalition government.

This morning, Costello published a column for the News Ltd tabloids, attacking the Liberal Party’s budget strategy of raising taxes, not cutting them. He wrote that the government’s economic slogan – Lower, simpler, fairer – “is looking like some kind of morbid joke”. (He also attacked every other party for wanting to raise taxes.)

Who knows why Costello decided to attack his own party so flagrantly? He might have wanted to make a contribution to public debate. He might have wanted to remind people of his reputation as the low-taxing treasurer who spun straw into gold, Rumpelstiltskin-style. Ex-politicians do a lot of this: polishing their legacies so the public won’t forget them.

Well, in the parlance of modern media, you won’t believe what happened next.

The prime minister came out to say that Costello had inherited a smaller deficit than the current government had. Strike one.

Treasurer Joe Hockey said he wished he had a job as easy as Costello’s: “If I had the same revenue as he had, then I’d be getting $25 billion extra each year to spend on things.” It’s not that hard to manage money when it’s being thrown at you. Strike two.

The assistant treasurer, Josh Frydenberg, pointed out that tax was high under Costello, at 23.6% of GDP. (The previous Labor government averaged under 22%, though the exact figure seems debated. It’s about 22% now according to Frydenberg.) So Costello didn’t deliver low taxes either. Strike three.

And with that, almost the whole of Costello’s hoped-for legacy was demolished by his own party.

Still, at least Costello hung onto his job for more than a decade. I stumbled across the Wikipedia page for the 2015 Australian federal budget today, which includes this gem: “Treasurer Joe Hockey, assuming he holds his office, is expected to present the budget to the House of Representatives in May 2015”.

Tony Abbott has confirmed 330 Australian troops will be deployed to Iraq to help train Iraqi soldiers.

A fascinating study in the Australian finds that sending your kid to a public or private school makes no difference. Yes, kids at private schools do better – but not when you take into account other factors, like birth weight and the education of the parents. Remove those things and there’s no difference. The journalist, Rick Morton, optimistically writes that the research “will have a significant impact on the debate in Australia about disadvantage in schools”. Personally, I doubt it will have much impact at all. Here’s hoping I’m wrong.

A leaked mental health report finds that suicide support services need a major overhaul, and recommends redirecting over $1 billion in funding from acute hospital care to community-based mental health services.

The push for constitutional recognition of Indigenous people seems to have hit rough waters. There are calls for immediate action to get the campaign back on track. Bill Shorten blames Tony Abbott.

The International Whaling Commission found Japan provided “inadequate” justification for killing minke whales

The ABC has put up a useful summary of what we know about Budget 2015 so far.

Peter Brent has an interesting if nerdy discussion of the merits of optional preferential voting versus compulsory preferential voting. I disagree with him – for one thing he argues that forcing people to make choices they don’t want to is a bad thing, which ignores the fact that it’s kind of the point of a compulsory voting system – but it’s a good read. For nerds.

State news: in NSW, No Land Tax candidate Peter Jones may be about to win an upper house seat – and then challenge his own election win. Also, leadership destabilisation in the Northern Territory Labor Party.

A history of the hot take.

And in crocodile news, Clive Palmer apologised to a man bitten by a crocodile on one of his golf courses, then, in what can only be interpreted as a peace offering to the angry crocodiles, removed crocodile from the golf course menu. Let’s see if it works. 

Sean Kelly

Sean Kelly is a columnist for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, and was an adviser to Labor prime ministers Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd.


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