AN ADDICTION TO DOLING OUT HANDOUTS and politics by wilful deceit appears to motivate Clive Palmer’s latest demands for an election; claiming the Abbott government’s budget has “crashed” — a development aided and partly engineered by himself — Palmer seeks a mini-budget or a double dissolution. The political tide, which has ebbed for the Liberals in recent months, is showing signs of turning. Palmer should be careful what he wishes for.
There is something grotesque – to the point of obscene — about an opportunistic political figurehead, whose political existence is built exclusively on protest votes from those who feel disenfranchised from the major parties, engaging in and fuelling a high-stakes game of Russian roulette with the financial welfare of this country.
The scope of this obscenity is amplified by the fact the figurehead in question is not only a billionaire business identity, but who uses his success in business to justify the grubby and fundamentally dishonest political game he has elected to play.
I was reading The Age last night and saw (as many readers will have by now) an article in which Clive Palmer lashes out at the Abbott government over its “failed” May federal budget, and demands either the “(implementation of) a mini-budget” or a double dissolution election.
The hypocrisy beggars belief. Happily, however, circumstance may be starting to conspire to whack Palmer — and, by extension, his obvious objective of forcing the Coalition from office.
As readers know, Clive Palmer and his eponymous party have been having a whale of a time wreaking havoc on the budget and otherwise causing as much collateral damage as they can to the Abbott government.
The carbon tax was only repealed after an embarrassingly abortive vote (based on the conveniently expedient pretext of Palmer seeing to the detail of his demands), whilst some $9 billion in savings from the budget were obliterated; Palmer’s position — that he would back the repeal of the mining tax on the proviso the so-called “Schoolkids Bonus” and the Low Income Superannuation Contribution were retained — means that these expenditure items cannot be abolished despite explicit Coalition commitments before the election to do so, and this in turn probably means the mining tax can’t be axed either (involuntarily breaking another explicit election promise).
There have, of course, been other budget savings measures either rejected by the Senate — some of which Palmer has had a hand in scuttling, and some he hasn’t — whilst still more are either yet to face the Senate blowtorch or have been withdrawn by the government on account of the sheer parliamentary pointlessness of pursuing them.
Where the rub lies in Palmer’s latest outburst isn’t in the damage what he is doing will inflict on the budget bottom line, as outrageous as that is for someone claiming to act responsibly; rather, it derives from the self-flagellating twaddle and selectively omissive bullshit (yes, bullshit) he offers up as a half-baked rationalisation of what he is doing.
Palmer’s observation that “(he’s) been in business for years” is used to make a series of statements that if correct, are only half correct, but which in the main seem calculated to deliberately mislead people about the state of the budget and to paint his party in a responsible light. I would simply observe that there is nothing “responsible” about the Palmer United Party.
He has accused Treasurer Joe Hockey of lying, insofar as the suggestion Australia could lose its AAA credit rating is concerned; of course, this is not going to happen tomorrow or even next week: the latest review of the rating, maintained by all three major ratings agencies, was relatively recent.
Yet Standard and Poors rather pointedly observed that whilst Australia’s debt position remained low by international standards, the country has had the fastest rate of growth in government debt of any OECD country, and that this would have to be watched over the medium to longer term. If that isn’t the gentlest of red flags, I don’t know what is.
In this context, Palmer’s observation that there were $17 billion in spending commitments attached to the mining tax is telling. Rather than trying to make a virtue out of his willingness to wave through $7 billion in cuts to outlays, the true story behind his remarks is that there is $10 billion in spending that he wants retained.
That $10 billion, in turn, didn’t even exist a few years ago; it was pure electoral bribery on the part of the Gillard government, and the tax itself raises next to nothing to pay for it. In other words, Palmer would like to posture as the cuddly uncle responsible for perpetuating gratuitous but unaffordable taxpayer handouts, but he refuses to accept the responsibility for the cost in doing so.
Palmer is right to point out that the Abbott government is seeking to realise some $30-$40bn in budget savings in an overall economy of $1.5tn.
Yet what he fails to state is that there is already $350bn in government debt, mostly as a result of budget deficits created and pursued by Labor; and that over the ten-year forward scope taken by the government’s Commission of Audit, those savings, if unrealised, would add a further $400bn to that debt load.
At $750bn in debt, that’s 50% of GDP, and even that is predicated on there being no downturn in economic activity or growth. At 50% debt to GDP (at risk of monotonously restating the bleeding obvious), Australia would be nipping at the heels of the basket case economies in Europe that Labor, and the likes of Clive Palmer, have solemnly and misleadingly assured the public could never happen.
A solid rise in unemployment, for example, would inflict the double whammy of reduced tax revenues and increased welfare spending on the federal budget, and if that happens $750bn of debt would probably be a conservative estimate.
That is one highly realistic scenario; there are plenty of others. So let’s hear no more of cynical opportunists like Palmer trying to downplay the extent of any consequences of their determination to play Santa Claus with taxpayer money borrowed from overseas and saddling the country with an increasingly unserviceable debt load. (It’s a forlorn hope, I grant you).
Having said all of that, Palmer’s demands for either a mini-budget or a double dissolution would appear to represent a curious, and poorly judged, development.
Based on the behaviour of the Senate over a budget that seeks to redress the criminally negligent impact of six years of Labor mismanagement, there is no reason to either believe or expect that a mini-budget would be treated any differently to the budget proper, which Labor, the Greens and Palmer have been happily tearing apart in the upper house.
An alternative program of abolishing the NDIS, raising the GST to 15%, slashing income and company taxes to reflect the change in the tax mix and increasing the rate at which pensions and benefits are paid as an offsetting measure would be simpler, more sensible, and more straightforward than the myriad of small measures contained in the present budget to give form to Hockey’s desire that “everyone pitch in” and that the pain of fixing the budget be shared around the community.
Yet even were such a program put forward — either in a mini-budget as Palmer wants, or in the next federal budget proper — the same forces shredding the current budget before parliament would just as certainly shred that too.
And given the only ways to fix the budget are to raise taxes, cut spending or a mixture of the two, it goes without saying that Palmer isn’t exactly a repository of ideas on how this objective might be achieved — even if he is happy to portray himself as an expert on everything else, and to hold himself up as the arbiter of what is acceptable in terms of the budget, and what is not.
The casualty is responsible government, accountable to the electorate: the Abbott government is already being crucified over a budget that it hasn’t even be able to legislate, and increasingly seems unlikely to be able to legislate. Perversely, the ejection of the Coalition from office over laws it hasn’t even enacted is the very real prospective result.
And were that to eventuate, no government would bother trying to fix the nation’s books: the end result of what Palmer and his ilk are doing is to entrench the mentality that fixing the budget equals losing elections, and anyone with an outstretched hand is being given the imprimatur to place their own expediency above the welfare of the country by those — like Palmer — who should and indeed do know better.
Even so, there are signs that the smug arrogance that underpins demands for new elections from Palmer, and others opposed to the government, might yet be misplaced.
We have discussed the incremental resurgence the government has experienced in reputable opinion polling since about a month after the budget was delivered, and specifically that whilst Coalition support remains well below the level it sat at in last year’s election, most of the support it had lost had transferred to minor parties like Palmer’s — not to Labor.
In the aftermath of the shooting down of MH17, apparently by forces backed and supported by Russia, the public approval ratings for Prime Minister Tony Abbott have edged sharply higher, as the reality begins to hit people that the very big potential problem the Western world might encounter with Russia may very well prove horribly real, and not be the stuff of conspiracy theorists on the Right after all.
To date, the effect of this increase in Abbott’s approval appears to have had minimal flow-on effects to the Coalition’s vote. But with the situation surrounding Russia fluid, ongoing, and likely to be topical for some time, there is ample scope for voters to begin to flock back to the Liberal Party over national security concerns — and especially if the government’s handling of them remains as impressive as it has been to date.
Should that occur, the votes currently sitting with Palmer’s opportunistic but irresponsibly loathsome protest vehicle can reasonably be expected to return to the Coalition, where they will no longer be able to be directed to the ALP as preferences to force the vindictive change of government Palmer seeks.
And if we get that far, and the situation between the West and Russia remains as it is or even deteriorates, Abbott may well give Palmer the election he wants: and at that point, if the Coalition is re-elected and Palmer is wiped out — which is not unrealistic, at any stretch — perhaps the mining baron might reflect that a better storyline might have been to act responsibly, instead of making merry with other people’s money in his own political interest.