JUST HOURS from now, Wayne Swan will deliver his sixth and last budget: a document innocent of credibility, it will consolidate callous spending cuts, dishonest rhetoric, unaffordable promises, and blatant adversarial politics. The budget — and its author — should be dismissed with contempt.
If “this is as good as it gets” — as Paul Keating once declared famously of one of his budgets — then I’d hate to see what things would look like if the excrement had really hit the fan.
The greatest shame about tonight’s budget is that it will be 12 months before the next is delivered; certainly, Prime Minister-in-waiting Tony Abbott and his putative Treasurer, Joe Hockey, will have some kind of emergency budget late this year, but the real thing is a year away and that is to Australia’s cost.
No government is perfect, and no Treasurer completely resists the temptation to engage in a little budget-related politicking; it goes with the turf.
But on the watch of the pious, self-important, bubbling lump of inferiority and resentment who has presided over the five largest deficits in Australian history and — if he’s honest — will tonight announce the sixth, this country has never been so poorly served by its servants in government as it has been by the present Labor regime and its Treasurer.
Perversely, it isn’t even a question of whether the economy is in the worst state it has ever been in: clearly, it isn’t.
But for mismanagement, incompetence, a questionable command of the realities and abstractions of economics, vapid communication skills and sheer political amateurism, this government and this Treasurer are certainly the worst Australia has ever witnessed.
Swan — and his beleaguered colleagues — can’t even get their stories straight.
“Unprecedented revenue writedowns” have been a favourite thing to blame in Labor circles for its failure to deliver on 600 explicit guarantees of a budget surplus tonight: this mythological loss of revenue has “grown” from $7.5 billion in December to $26 billion now (including an increase in the past fortnight alone from $12 billion to $26 billion).
Interestingly, actual government revenue has increased in the past year, by 7%, and the source for this inconvenient figure is Swan’s own 2012-13 mid-year economic and fiscal outlook (MYEFO) papers.
The really interesting thing, of course, is that the “writedown” is nothing more than a measure of just how overcooked Swan’s own inept economic forecasting has been; if you wish upon a star for $26 billion more than you actually have, there’s always the chance you might get it, but the overwhelming probability is that you won’t.
And you can’t blame “experts at Treasury”, as Gillard calls them, if the money doesn’t materialise; they can’t be “experts” one day and brainless, useless dolts the next.
“Writedowns,” however, aren’t the only thing Swan and Gillard blame for their dismal economic stewardship.
John Howard and Peter Costello are responsible, despite not being in government for almost six years.
The Global Financial Crisis is responsible, despite the fact five years — five years — have passed since that point.
The high value of the Australian dollar against other currencies is prominent on Swan’s blame list this year, despite it being lower than it was twelve months ago, even before it began to fall below parity with the US dollar yesterday.
In fact, there is a litany of factors responsible for the appalling budget management Labor has recorded since 2007 — to list them all would take too long — but the really funny thing about that is that none of them, as Swan and Gillard tell the story, is their fault.
Yet the GFC, whilst a “cause” of all the writedowns Swan needs to blame someone or something for — to backtrack for a moment — is also the crucible of Labor’s greatest claim to fame when it comes to the economy: because of Swan, Australia didn’t go into recession!
It’s true; Australia didn’t. But it recorded one of the two quarters of negative economic growth that technically define a recession, and avoided the second with a quarterly growth figure of just 0.1%.
It’s a pretty crass thing to trumpet anyway, but when it is remembered that “stimulus” spending (of $43 billion) is also routinely offered by the government as the justification, along with the GFC, for the almost $300 billion in commonwealth debt it has racked up since taking office, the “credentials” Labor seeks to brandish don’t carry so much weight.
I have noticed in recent days that Swan has been bragging that since 2007, economic growth in Australia has been 13%.
Which is all well and good, until it is remembered that this is barely more than the 2% per annum generally considered to be the minimum level of growth for the economy simply to replace the jobs that are lost each year.
It’s hardly a stellar result.
And it’s only a little more than half the result recorded by Swan’s (and Labor’s) Liberal predecessors over the nearly 12 year lifespan of the Howard government.
Swan, and Labor, have gone out of their way to offend some sizeable communities and sectional interest groups, including several ordinarily disposed to support the ALP.
It has thrown tens of thousands of single mothers off a parenting payment and onto a significantly lower pension in Newstart; in turn, it has failed to increase the rate of that unemployment benefit, despite deafening calls from its own constituencies to do so.
It’s cancelled (carbon tax related) tax cuts, despite repeated pledges to honour these whilst having the temerity to target the Liberal Party for cutting a separate carbon tax related measure.
It has alienated families struggling with soaring cost of living pressures (which the Labor Party essentially states do not exist) by cutting increases to Family Tax Benefit payments.
And it has raised the Medicare levy — to 2% — supposedly to pay for the National Disability Insurance Scheme, 70% of the cost for which is otherwise unfunded.
The Medicare levy increase is particularly salient, as Swan will freeze indexation of Medicare schedule fees; the government says doctors will absorb the effect of this, but anyone with a brain knows the decision will simply add to gap payments struggling families face to visit a doctor, with some finding it prohibitively expensive to seek treatment.
It’s especially offensive given Health minister Tanya Plibersek has been running around for days trumpeting “record” bulk billing rates: how long does Labor seriously expect it to take before these begin to slide in the face of their budget foibles, and slide steeply?
And reports that the budget will seek to “lock in” $100 billion in recurrent spending over ten years, to fund the NDIS and Gonski reforms in education, should be taken with a grain of salt: these might be worthy but they are not affordable, and I wager will never see the light of day in their entirety.
Just a tip.
Swan’s budget is good for some cheap, tacky politics, too: here in Victoria, the state government has decided to build a road tunnel to connect the Eastern Freeway with the Western Ring Road in an attempt to alleviate Melbourne’s congestion problems.
A second mooted major infrastructure project is a 9km underground rail line to boost capacity on the city’s public train network.
Both projects, in round terms, cost $10 billion.
The state Liberal government and the federal (Liberal) opposition are both pledged to fund the road tunnel, and approaches have been made to the Gillard government to contribute.
Instead, Swan’s budget tonight allocates funding to the rail tunnel, and ignores the road.
It’s the sort of cheap gimmick that represents everything wrong with politics in this country, and with the Labor Party approach to it in particular.
And talking of cheap gimmicks, the runup to this budget has been marked by yet more of the ubiquitous slogans Labor politicians seem to think that — if droned on rote, ad nauseum — will cause millions of stupid voters to recognise the “error” of their ways, and change their intended vote in the ALP’s favour.
Labor is “supporting jobs and growth.” The Liberals will “cut to the bone.”
No explanation or rationale of how either of these are occurring — or might occur, if people really are stupid enough to act on their intent to elect the Liberals — is given or offered.
But that’s an old story where this government is concerned; say whatever sounds good and keep on saying it. But far from convincing anyone, it just sounds stupid.
And that’s the point; an endless trail of broken promises, poor decisions, shocking management and abominable presentation can all be fixed with a bit of smarm, smug spin, a few smart answers, and an imputation that anyone who disagrees is just plain dumb.
Tonight’s budget is the pinnacle (for want of a better word) of a dubious bad joke; six years of Labor government that will reach the punchline in September, as millions of ordinary Australians deal out an electoral drubbing that the party may take decades to recover from, if at all.
Whatever else anyone thinks of this government, or the alternative — and let’s face it, the Liberals could hardly be worse than the masquerade of effective government the ALP has staged — tonight’s budget is an exercise in credibility-free posturing, and should be viewed accordingly.
And if Wayne Swan offers you, your family, your community or your cause any money, believe it when you see it; or, indeed, believe it at your peril.