THE MERITS of the government’s reform of Medicare rebates aside, the decision by Labor “leader” Bill Shorten — bolstered by most of the Senate crossbench — to disallow the changes is predictable, irresponsible, and fuels the abhorrent truth that winning office at any cost means more to Shorten than whatever dubious “principle” he prates of. Shorten is typecast by his antics. They pose a dagger over any government he might some day “lead.”
Regular readers of this column know that where the Abbott government’s efforts with the federal budget have been concerned to date, I have been highly critical — at times, scathingly so — and that I have called repeatedly for Treasurer Joe Hockey to be replaced as part of the government’s “reset” heading into a new year after a torrid 2014.
There is some irony, therefore, that just as Prime Minister Tony Abbott and his colleagues embark on a much more tangible and substantial attempt to prosecute their case for difficult measures, opposition “leader” Bill Shorten should present himself as a bulwark against “damage” being done to Medicare.
Like so many aspects of governance that were mishandled during the six years of Labor government Medicare has become unsustainable, with its cost to the taxpayer spiralling from $8 billion per annum a decade ago to $20 billion today — an impost set to balloon to $34 billion in ten years’ time if nothing is done to to redress it.
But Shorten — who stoutly refuses to concede there is any problem with the federal budget at all in the wake of the last Labor government, despite $350 billion in debt that wasn’t on the books when the Howard government left office, and $50 billion deficits lined up as far as the eye can see over the next decade — will have none of it.
The Liberals, he and his colleagues say, are simply being the ideologically driven nasty bastards Labor has always warned of; there’s no “budget emergency,” despite a growing procession of economists, finance journalists and senior Treasury bureaucrats arguing the public case that such a crisis indeed exists — no, the Liberals, to listen to Shorten, simply want to make people pay more. Because they can. Because that’s what politics enables them to do. Re-elect the Liberals, Shorten is saying, and costs to the average Australian will rocket, with nothing to show for it.
I think people know I have been fairly busy this week — this is the first article I have published since the weekend, and it’s Thursday already — so I need to be brief again this morning; I am not going to rehash to intricate specifics of this issue when I give people credit for being across it in the first place. But there are a few observations I would make.
The first involves the government: now exhibiting signs it is going to make the detailed case for tough budget decisions that it should have been making all year last year, Abbott’s team needs to be doing a lot more of it; the hard details in this case of the funding requirements for Medicare should be seared into the collective conscience of voters in the way, say, Paul Keating might once have driven home the case for some of the unpopular but necessary measures he instituted as Treasurer in the 1980s.
Conspicuously unnoticed in this regard is Hockey, with new assistant Treasurer Josh Frydenberg seemingly everywhere on the airwaves since his appointment, and Abbott himself now intervening to help sell the arguments in the way Howard did at times when Prime Minister. As the steward of the budget and of the government’s economic fortunes, Hockey should be all over this debate. The fact he is not, visibly, is telling — and not least at a time when he not only needs to raise his game, but to be seen by the public to be doing so.
But this aside, the short-term sugar hit Labor might experience from Shorten’s dishonest and opportunistic approach will leave a nasty headache when it wears off.
A majority of the Senate crossbench, more often than not, is prepared to throw in its lot with Labor when it comes to attempts to tear this government down: the
Communist Party Greens almost invariably, and newly liberated ex-Palmer Senator Jacqui Lambie too; Clive Palmer and the remnants of his brigade (including Ricky Muir) less so, although I have pointed out many times that “deals” with Palmer usually involve hits to the budget bottom line of billions of dollars at a time that represent an unacceptable price for his “support” at a time the national debt pile is spiralling by a billion dollars per week; the rest of the crossbench takes a more case-by-case approach, which doesn’t help the government at a time such a solid contingent of Senators votes to either defeat or sabotage its money measures on an unjustifiably consistent basis.
On Shorten’s watch, Labor won’t even vote to legislate several billion dollars in savings it took to last year’s election itself, which speaks volumes for the fact the only beneficiary of its politics is itself, much less the people it expects to vote for it.
It’s hardly a revelation to say so, but Shorten’s strategy is clearly to win an election at any cost: far from concern for Medicare or compassion for anyone affected by hard changes designed to effect urgent repair of the government’s budget position, Shorten is selling out the very people he claims to stand for.
Allowing Medicare to spiral into complete unsustainability, for example — and beyond the point where restructuring it to put it on a sounder footing is possible — might play well to the ignorant and the scared, and it might win some votes now. But later, it will simply mean the kind of cuts to government services that will be needed are far worse than anything this government is doing.
Shorten Labor denies there is a “budget emergency” and at times has even had the nerve to explicitly deny that the Rudd and Gillard governments presided over any increase to the national debt pile at all.
Meanwhile, the haemorrhage of red ink from the Commonwealth’s coffers continues unabated at the rate of $50 billion per annum. How many $50 billion deficits will it take for Australia to catch the debt-addled basket case countries in Europe up? With a decade of this kind of thing already as good as locked in as a result of the Senate’s obstruction of the government, half a trillion dollars is set to be added to the already 25% of GDP in debt this country is. With that as a backdrop, the distance to reach real trouble if nothing is done is terrifyingly short indeed.
But Shorten will have none of it. Cuts to Medicare rebates (and anything else that might save the budget money) is simply, according to his public conversation with voters, the Liberals being nasty.
It is perhaps telling that despite being implored by Abbott to put alternatives on the table, Labor and its cohorts continue to fail to do so — a point noted in both of the articles I have linked to today, and which Shorten himself is on record as having specifically refused to do.
Yet in many ways, he can’t produce alternatives for the simple reason that doing so would bring the entire edifice of wildly dishonest pronouncements about the state of the country crashing down.
The only “new” policy Shorten has announced in relation to Medicare to date is to end the private health insurance rebate — a policy that would cripple, at a stroke, the ability of the public health system as it is flooded by a mass exodus from the private health system.
It is unsurprising in recent months that he — and his shadow Cabinet — have stopped talking about this policy, quietly allowing it to disappear from view. But if this is Shorten’s idea of “policies that will benefit Medicare,” Australians are entitled to dread whatever next is presented by the ALP under the auspices of health policy.
Far more concerned with the ALP’s own fortunes than he ever will be about what the government delivers for people in areas like Medicare, Shorten has put his party in a position whereby to acknowledge the problem is to destroy Labor’s entire vacuous claim to office which, simply stated, is that there’s no problem here — despite knowing full well that this is false.
Shorten rattles on about unfairness and cruelty, yet the unfairest and cruellest aspect of all of this is the hit being inflicted on those voters whose services will have to be slashed in 10, 20, 30 years’ time to pay for the largesse Labor presided over in government, and now refuses to allow the Abbott government to bring to a halt.
He is boxed in by his own rhetoric, and should he ever — God forbid — become Prime Minister, Shorten will be forced to confront the irresponsible way he got there: namely, by refusing to allow Abbott to fix the mess Labor bequeathed on the first place, mostly by denying the mess exists, Shorten would have nowhere to turn.
Actually, he would have one option to play with: tax rises.
Big, big tax rises, covering anything and everything in sight; with the option of cutting spending removed — perhaps forever, in electoral terms — the only lever a Labor government would have at its disposal in such a circumstance is to tax the living daylights out of anything that moves, and anything that doesn’t.
Not that this is an alien concept for the ALP, mind. Then again, its failure to construct a functional tax in mining and resources ought to alarm even those who think Labor’s tax and spend approach represents a proper alternative — not that there are many of those in any case.
My point is that some sections of the community may variously be angry, alarmed, frightened or even disgusted by measures being taken by the Abbott government — in this case in relation to Medicare — as it seeks to fix up the country’s books.
Those people should give some thought to the prospect of the colossal tax rises that must surely follow the election of another Labor government: the only alternative to what Abbott is trying to achieve.
Of course, Labor could simply do no more than continue to borrow and spend if restored to office, with any consideration of the revenue side of the budget dispensed with altogether.
And if that sounds far-fetched or ridiculous, it’s not much of a jump for a Labor Party that is already pretending the country is in rude economic health. If it later decides to shun the opprobrium of big tax hikes to cover its largesse, then what I am suggesting won’t be far-fetched at all.
Australians are well justified in being afraid. Shorten is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. He cannot be trusted. And the government, which is now much more visible in making the case for its reforms, needs to also find a way to ram that reality down the throats of the voters Shorten expects to blithely make him Prime Minister.
Labor’s behaviour can mean only massive tax rises in government, or the complete disintegration of things like Medicare in the absence of the money to pay for them. There is no compassion in anything Shorten is doing. He now must be held to account for the consequences of his words.