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Divining the federal budget

By Ad Astra

Some of you may question the purpose of trying to divine what will be in the May 3 federal budget when the Turnbull Ship of State seems to be all at sea, wallowing towards an unknown destination, facing strong headwinds, its sails flapping, its hull leaking, with a dithering Captain at the helm, a loquacious and at times incoherent First Mate insisting he knows where he’s going, and a motley crew.

In these days of social media diversity though, there is the opportunity for average punters to express opinions, to have them read, and to expect them to evoke responses from others. So here goes.

What will be in the budget, as distinct from what will not, remains a mystery. Although in only a few days Treasurer Scott Morrison will stand up in the House at 7.30 pm on May 3 to tell us all, we have heard very little from him or PM Malcolm Turnbull. It is now usual, days before a budget is delivered, for advance notice to be given about the good news, and some of the bad, as we have seen recently with the Victorian state budget delivered on 27 April. What have we heard from the LNP?

Have we seen an economic narrative, apart from the Turnbull admonition that we must personally, and as a nation, be agile, innovative and creative? In his first statement after his election to prime ministership, he said that his government would be “…focused on ensuring that in the years ahead as the world becomes more and more competitive and greater opportunities arise, we are able to take advantage of that…We can’t be defensive, we can’t future-proof ourselves…We have to recognise that the disruption that we see driven by technology, the volatility in change is our friend if we are agile and smart enough to take advantage of it.” Since then, that narrative has all but evaporated. The three-word slogan: ‘agile, innovative and creative’, has become meaningless in the absence of practical applications of those ideals.

Niki Savva summed up the situation in her opinion piece in The Australian on 28 April: Budget 2016: Morrison has one chance, yet he’s up against it: “There is so much riding on Tuesday’s budget, for the Treasurer personally and government generally, it is hard to pinpoint another time when there has been so much pressure on a treasurer… So little time, so little money, so few options. Everything about this budget promises to be modest, except what it is expected to achieve.”

Against that background let’s divine what might be in the budget and what will not.

There are some inviolate LNP principles that can guide us:

First, don’t upset LNP supporters:

  • voters in LNP electorates, especially those held marginally;
  • those enjoying the liberal tax concessions of negative gearing, capital gains and superannuation;
  • big business and the top end of town;
  • bankers;
  • coal miners and coal seam gas extractors;
  • small business and ‘Mum and Dad’ investors;
  • climate change skeptics;
  • those who share the LNP attitude to asylum seekers;
  • the right wing conservatives in the LNP, the Nationals, opponents of marriage equality, and the Australian Christian Lobby;

Next, adhere to the economic principles espoused by recent LNP treasurers and prime ministers:

  • ‘we don’t have a revenue problem; we have a spending problem’;
  • ‘we must live within our means’, an appealing metaphor for household finance that is inappropriate for national finance;
  • reduce and eliminate the budget deficit;
  • reward Joe Hockey’s ‘lifters’ and penalise the ‘leaners’ who sponge on the welfare system;
  • reward those at the top and benefit will trickle down to those at the bottom;
  • reduce taxes; avoid raising taxes; avoid removing tax concessions;
  • focus on ‘jobs and growth’, a three-word slogan we hear day after day, week after week. It sounds good but when do we ever hear how ‘jobs and growth’ are to be achieved? It’s a meaningless mantra when devoid of a plan, but no doubt credible to the unthinking who avoid asking: “How?”
  • despite all of the above, Turnbull, with Morrison echoing sotto voce, will insist that the budget will be ‘fair’. But any attempt to reduce inequality will likely be minimal, despite the fact that inequality will be a hot button election issue because the electorate is becoming increasingly incensed by the unfairness and inequality it sees every day.

The difficulties in framing a budget in such difficult fiscal times have been well summarized by Niki Savva:

“It is impossible to see how he [Morrison] can meet the expectations or satisfy the demands of the voters, the ratings agencies, the media (social and traditional), lobby groups, think tanks and his colleagues. Expect any sensible debate to be drowned out by the whinger class united and assorted merchants of gloom from Left and Right.

“The budget has to provide the foundations and framework for the government’s economic narrative, which centres on jobs and growth in the new economy. It has to fulfil the Liberal credo of lowering spending, lowering taxes and lowering or eliminating the deficit; it has to be economically credible and politically appealing; it has to relaunch the government’s political fortunes and cement the Coalition’s standing as superior economic managers.

“All that as more people say they want the money spent on paying down debt, just so long as someone else – say the multinationals, or anyone on a higher salary than theirs – does the paying.”

Savva continues:

”There is always pressure on treasurers to produce budgets that refloat the government or sink the opposition, but it is much more intense this time because of the proximity of the election, combined with the newness of the government. It is the first Morrison budget, even though it will carry the full imprint of Malcolm Turnbull, and it will come a mere 60 days before the election.

“Although that sounds like a long campaign, there is not enough space between the budget and the expected July 2 election for a misfire to be forgotten. There is no margin for error. If Morrison mishandles it, it could well be his last major economic statement, and a serious setback for what had once seemed a clear path to leadership. If budget measures or projections collapse under scrutiny, if his speech is a flop, if he pays too much attention to the politics rather than the policy, if he makes a mistake in the selling of a document that he should, by now, know backwards, it could spell the beginning of the end of the Turnbull government.”

Against that realistic backdrop, let’s look at what might be in the budget, or perhaps more sensibly look at what won’t be in the budget:

  • no increase in the level or scope of the GST (ruled out in terror long ago);
  • no change to negative gearing (despite all the evidence that it needs radical change, which could add billions to revenue), and minimal or no change to capital gains tax concessions. Although such changes would benefit young couples hoping to buy their first home, they would hurt too many in LNP electorates, especially the top ten that benefit most, beginning with the PM and his Liberal deputy;
  • only minor changes to superannuation concessions that will reduce the benefit to the highest of income earners, but leave the rest untouched;
  • no tax increases or additions to the Medicare Levy; in fact almost no tax reform at all;
  • no increase in personal income tax, and no decrease either (well over a half of voters would prefer more spending on social services than reduced income tax, with only a third advocating cuts);
  • no increase in company tax, but possibly a reduction if the LNP is brave enough in the face of trenchant opposition in the electorate, where three out of four oppose any reduction in company tax. The LNP’s flawed rationale for a cut to company tax is that the benefits will ‘trickle down’ to increase workers’ wages!;
  • a crackdown on tax loopholes, tax avoidance and evasion, particularly by multinationals;
  • a levy on banks to support ASIC;
  • an increase in tobacco excise (Tony Abbott’s ‘workers tax’, but by a more benign name);
  • reduction in spending in unspecified areas (health, education, pensions and welfare payments are always targets), despite strong public opinion that voters would prefer the government to tax its way out of deficit rather than reduce spending on social services;
  • increased spending on defence, especially on submarines, frigates and border patrol vessels;
  • increased spending on ‘border protection’, especially now that PNG has ordered the closure of Manus Island and redeployment of the 850 refugees and asylum seekers there, and Turnbull has rejected New Zealand’s offer to take 150 of them. As local traders and employees are insisting on compensation once Manus is closed, more funds will be needed, adding to Morrison’s woes;
  • modest spending of $50 million for feasibility studies on infrastructure, with major emphasis on Turnbull’s ‘thirty minute cities’ to be supported by an investment-banking style “innovative financing unit” to devise funding deals for multibillion-dollar transport projects;
  • little or no additional spending on environmental issues, renewables, and the bogus Direct Action Plan, despite Greg Hunt’s repeated charade that he will ‘meet and beat’ the Coalition’s 2020 targets;
  • measures to manage the transition from an economy based on an unprecedented mining construction boom to the new diversified economy of the 21st century to ensure sustainable prosperity and full employment. Despite KPMG’s advice to increase the Newstart Allowance, improvements to unemployment benefits are inconsistent with conservative beliefs and are therefore unlikely;
  • little or no attempt at increasing revenue, although there will likely be measures to reduce the budget deficit – so-called ‘budget repair’ (which, according to Deloitte Access Economics is likely to blow out a further $21 billion despite anything that Morrison does. Moreover, Moody’s Rating Agency says our triple A rating is threatened unless revenue measures accompany spending cuts).

Policy wise there will be:

  • no Royal Commission into banking, despite all the evidence of unfair practices, dishonesty and fraud;
  • further attempts to introduce changes to Medicare, the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme, and imaging and pathology rebates to reduce health costs;
  • further attempts to restrict the costs of the National Disability Insurance Scheme;
  • further attempts to effect changes to university funding towards a ‘user pays’ arrangement;
  • further attempts to avoid the cost of the Gonski schools reforms in years five and six;
  • further attempts to rationalize the LNP’s approach to the NBN, in which costs are blowing out, implementation is slowing, and speeds are poor;
  • further attempts to rationalize and sell its Direct Action Plan for climate change to a skeptical audience of economists and environmentalists and a suspicious public, who ask what is causing the unusually severe drought and the coral bleaching, and what is the LNP doing about them;
  • further attempts to justify its ‘border protection’ policy, and the slow receipt of refugees from Syria.

No doubt there will be some surprises, maybe a few bits of good news, and likely some flimsily disguised bits of bad news that will be painted as necessary, even good for us. After all, we have ‘to live within our means’ and we can’t spend more than we collect in revenue, like Labor always does.

There will be an abundance of hesitant, unconvincing spin from Malcolm Turnbull, lots of econobabble from Scott Morrison’s motor mouth, lots of backing up from dalek Mathias Cormann, who will repeat his lines tediously, repeatedly, endlessly, with Kelly O’Dwyer bringing up the rear in her own inimitable style.

Whatever is in the budget, it would be impossible to satisfy all, or even a fraction of the stakeholders. There will be lots of commentary from experts and amateurs alike, many confrontations in the media between them and the politicians, and hesitant and unconvincing responses from them.

We will hear endlessly that the budget is all about ‘jobs and growth’, lavishly embroidered with the LNP’s favourite mantras. We will go to sleep murmuring ‘jobs and growth’, ‘jobs and growth’, ‘jobs and growth’ until men in white coats take us off to receive therapy for obsessive compulsive disorder. At least it will be peaceful there!

What do you think the May 3 Budget will include?

Do you believe that Morrison and Turnbull have got the message about the need for more revenue?

This article was originally published on The Political Sword

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18 comments

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  1. Terry2

    This is designed to be a nothing budget and the usual debate post budget will be lost in the election cacophony to follow : that’s the plan, isn’t it ?

    If there was anything in the budget we would have seen more leaks to News Corp beyond a “modest reduction in income tax for those earning over $80,000” and a small contribution to education funding.

    This budget is all about the election and Turnbull trying to control both Houses after the DD we didn’t need.

    Very cynical and I think the Australian electorate are awake to this.

  2. billshaw2013

    Regardless of what the budget contains the MSM will have prepared in advance its commentary. I can see it now……”The government has learnt its lessons from the Hockey budgets and presented a fairer and more balanced blah blah blah.”
    Or “This is a budget that will win them an election…..”
    Or “This budget should return the government to a winning position….”

    It will not be “Remember voters this government promised the world in the lead up to the last election and with its very first budget, not yet passed, failed to deliver. Their duplictity should not be forgotten on polling day.”

  3. Pappinbarra Fox

    WHAT AMAZES ME IS THAT this has been the government for 3 years and they are just now getting around to talking about having an economic plan for the country. Seriously? Note: talking about, not actually rolling out ….. sheesh.
    Good to see TPS and AIMN collaboration with quality pieces.

  4. stephentardrew

    When the whole econometric model is a subjective farce what hope is there of intelligent reform. More of the same garbage in and garbage out. I do not need to repeat John B Kelley’s sound empirically based critique of the whole neoliberal model embraced by Labor, the L-NP and the Greens. They have no intention of being innovative and actually solving the ridiculous debt myth and balanced budget idiocy. We are being driven to hell in a hand-basket by a bunch of fossilised economic ignoramuses. Meanwhile inequality increases and wages, conditions and the housing afford-ability take a dive. When the housing bubble burst, as it most surely will, you will only have yourselves to blame for accepting irrational money speak by the corporate global hegemonic one percent. Add TPP, TPIP, TISA, trade manipulation, and Investor State Dispute Settlements and things can only get a whole lot worse.

  5. David

    Wonderful post and most comments. suffice for me to add, it is on its way to social media where it deserves and will hopefully get a wider audience. Very impressive work Ad Astra, thanks.

  6. guest

    Agreed. Very impressive work, Ad Astra. Thanks.

  7. Möbius Ecko

    First the election was to be on IR, the ABCC to be exact. A DD is being called on it. When this fell flat with the electorate with very few embracing it as important, the election narrative shifted to negative gearing and the destruction of mum and dad investors.

    As negative gearing reform polled very favourably and Turnbull’s attacks on it fell flat the narrative has now switched to education, a Labor party strength.

    You can ascertain what the government’s latest main election issue will be by following ABC News, they conveniently put out the latest government propaganda as a sounding board, and the latest one is the government’s supposed fantastic education policy “that is shaping up as the issue in the upcoming election”.

    Pappinbarra Fox it’s worse than that as Abbott in opposition stated he was fully ready to govern with an economic plan to rescue Australia from the disaster. So the L/NP have had a lot longer than three years to have their shit together. That it’s still a bunch of messy, sloppy randomly spread out piles of fetid dung says a lot about them.

  8. Backyard Bob

    What do you think the May 3 Budget will include?

    Letters and numbers. I’m willing to put $100 on it. 😉

  9. michael lacey

    “…focused on ensuring that in the years ahead as the world becomes more and more competitive and greater opportunities arise, we are able to take advantage of that…We can’t be defensive, we can’t future-proof ourselves…We have to recognise that the disruption that we see driven by technology, the volatility in change is our friend if we are agile and smart enough to take advantage of it.”

    Cheap labour conservatives believe in a social hierarchy of “haves” and “have nots”. They have taken this corrosive social vision and dressed it up with a “respectable” sounding ideology they depend on to make their fortunes. Cheap-labour conservatives don’t like the minimum wage, social spending or our “safety net”, compulsory superannuation and Medicare since their inception, public education, unions, progressive income tax, they don’t like working people. They don’t like “bottom up” prosperity.

    What do they like: “free trade” agreements. Why? Because there is a huge supply of desperately poor people in the third world, a social hierarchy and privilege limited to them, “privatized tyranny” of industrial serfdom, all the military force we can stand to pay for they never saw a weapons system they didn’t like, intervention in sovereign nations, opening the public purse for corporate interests, offshoring assets, negative gearing, trickle down economics.

    I no their future planning austerity for working people and banquets for the rich!

  10. Jaquix

    I think the budget will be FULL OF LOLLIES ! It has to be, for them to squeak back into power. Its also not just a budget, it also needs to be a statement of LNP policy. Seeing we havent seen any of that in the last 3 years. (Things have be swept on and off the table I know, but the end result of that was status quo.) Plus, the books need to be balanced! The other point is that, if they get trounced at the election, they will never have to implement any of it, but they will point to it endlessly as their “masterstroke”. And treat it as if it really did come to pass.

  11. David

    Jaquix…the lollies are being handed out already but the flavours are hardly new or pleasant. Giving back some of the Gonski funding, 1.2 billion of the 4.5 taken away, not new money returned and with conditions on the States of its use.

    Taxation super privileges of the rich are to are to be slightly reduced, doubt will effect their way of life.
    2000 ship building workers in SA to have work in the yet to be announced details, including the French design of 12 subs. But the French media say 2000 of their workers will be included. Govt are silent on that one. Nothing will be announced or signed until after the election. (Govts flip flop clause?).

    So the sweeties are being distributed and already leaving a sour taste
    Frankly I do not believe a word they say until it is done and dusted….even then it is so easy to renege on. Reneging is something this Govt does better than anything, it is often called lying

  12. Jack Russell

    Yep. Fairy bread with lotsa sprinkles, and laced with arsenic…

  13. win jeavons

    Only supremely stupid or rusted on conservatives will believe a single promise made by a coalition that made lots of promises in 2013 and broke them all at lightning speed. Believe in actions not hollow promises. All the actions of the last 2+ years have served to demonise and impoverish the less fortunate in our land.

  14. Jack

    I would listen to Right wing journalist’s if they would provide some form of balance. From Rowan Dean, Pierce Ackerman to the Come hither spider Gerald Henderson and Steve Price. Though democratic,their mental reasoning skills seems no different to a Muslim Extremist.

  15. Florence nee Fedup

    I suspect one will be left with let down feeling budget night. Asking themselves what he has been about.

  16. Jaquix

    Just saw that sleazy Morrison smarming on TV about how theyve always been saying this and that and now its all going to be in the budget. Such a liar, slippery as an eel. Im looking forward to the next few weeks. There’s never been such an exciting time to be Australian!

  17. Wayne Turner

    A BRIBE budget,just to sucker the gullible into voting for these LYING Libs.

    A real budget from these Libs,if the fools get their way,after the election,will be the Libs 2014 budget ie: Attack the less well off,and feed the well off more.

  18. Jexpat

    BillShaw was absolutely correct:

    The budget isn’t even out yet, and already the presstitutes are falling all over themselves with praise, and using “all the right” talking points!

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