The government’s post-budget performance has been as poor as its pre-budget one, but Labor must frame the political narrative now, because life will get easier for the government.
As Labor MPs chattered away animatedly to each other in question time yesterday and their far more numerous government counterparts sat sullenly opposite them, Treasurer Joe Hockey rose to answer a question on the budget from his opposite number, Chris Bowen. His response was to complain that Labor was focusing on the politics of the budget, rather than the substance, to invite Bowen to debate it and to accuse Labor of refusing to support finding “a cure for cancer, finding a cure for dementia and finding a cure for Alzheimer’s”.
Inevitably, Bowen rose next question and invited the Treasurer to debate him next week at the Press Club, when Bowen was scheduled to deliver his budget reply. Hockey got up, delivered a clunky joke about how no one would be there, and declined.
The Treasurer had already complained once that Labor was taking a political line on the budget — yes, pot, kettle, etc (Hockey last night emerged after Shorten’s budget reply to lament its lack of substance — yesterday was like both sides had swapped roles and were uttering the exact lines of 2008-13). But to couple it with dodging your own invitation to debate, and accusing your opponent of loving cancer, accurately sums up the government’s post-budget performance.
No wonder Coalition MPs looked like they’d prefer to be anywhere other than behind Hockey, who this week showed none of the aggression and keen sense of his opponents’ weaknesses that had marked his parliamentary performance as Treasurer. Instead he was replaced with a lacklustre, sometimes nervous man who kept being tripped up by journalists, as if That Photo had taken the cigar-scented wind out of his sails. “Not as easy as it looked is it, Swanny?” Peter Costello had yelled from the backbench in the early days of the Rudd government. Swan, from his position close to where Costello had sat before leaving, declined to ask Hockey the same question, but it might’ve been even more apt.
Hockey is off to Melbourne and then Brisbane today, delivering — inconveniently or defiantly, depending on your view of the Fairfax reports about the activities of the North Sydney Forum — two party fundraiser speeches. Ostensibly, the week after the budget is devoted to the relentless selling of it by ministers, but we spend so long discussing the budget before it is delivered now that the media cycle is already moving on. The government might prefer it that way; its first budget process was politically shambolic from the moment it lost control with the deficit levy leak, and it didn’t materially improve once the budget was released.
Warren Truss — of all people, the one guy you thought you could rely on never to provide any colour — decided to (accurately) point out that some superannuants preferred to indulge in “a few cruises and the luxuries of life” before going on the pension. This promptly infuriated seniors’ groups, already sensitive over indexation changes (they might want to hope wage growth stays at 2013 levels, in which case CPI will deliver them a windfall). Hockey himself made a beer reference — he might not be old enough to remember John Button producing a $5 note in the late ’80s in an attempt to shout a bar, but he should know any reference to the price of beer from a politician is always perilous, especially if you’re suggesting people have a bit less of it in order to pay higher taxes and charges.
“The particular problem of the cruelty … [is] it confirms Labor’s narrative that the Coalition was all along hiding its intentions to rip Australia’s social fabric apart.”
And there was Peter Dutton, a kind of walking void, who doesn’t just not communicate, but seems to suck others’ efforts to communicate inside him into an infinite, cosmic silence. Health is a natural Labor issue, and this government is undertaking a major change to end bulk billing, which might turn out to be a worthwhile reform or might simply drive more people to emergency wards, but Dutton has been almost invisible in making the case for it. When he has emerged from Silent Movie mode, it’s been to offer such observations as today’s explanation that co-payments would make it easier to get an appointment with a GP.
Based on the last few weeks, this government would be flat out selling a standard issue, winners-and-losers budget, let alone the sort of hardline effort of last Tuesday, particularly given the hard line is equal parts outright cruelty and sensible fiscal discipline. The particular problem of the cruelty isn’t so much the political risk of it — it is mainly directed at low-income earners, students, the unemployed and poor foreigners, none of whom can fight back — as that it confirms Labor’s narrative that the Coalition was all along hiding its intentions to rip Australia’s social fabric apart.
That was Labor’s line during the election campaign, as Tony Abbott and Joe Hockey swore they’d signed up to the National Disability Insurance Scheme and Gonski and would be adopting a similar fiscal strategy to Labor; Labor argued that in fact they were lying and intended to gut social programs and implement a conservative austerity agenda. Labor can now insist, whatever the truth of the matter, that it was right, that that was the Coalition’s agenda all along, because that’s exactly what the budget looks like, particularly in the anticipated cuts to education and health indexation (it’s not a cut, it’s just a slower rise, Abbott argues — an approach he strangely didn’t adopt about the impact of the carbon price on economic growth).
And that’s how Opposition Leader Bill Shorten played it last night (pictured), in a speech of pedestrian delivery — which means good by Shorten’s standards — and little substance, but aimed exactly at reinforcing the perception of ideological cruelty. Shorten hammered the theme right from the outset, referring to “the beginning of extreme policies with an extreme impact on the Australian people … turning Australia into a place most of us won’t recognise: a colder, meaner, narrower place. Losing our sense of fairness and our sense of community.”
You could imagine Anthony Albanese giving a very different speech, the kind of mercilessly mocking speech he’d deliver after most of Abbott’s suspension motions under the previous government. But Shorten is aiming to appear less stridently partisan, which is interpreted as lacking cut-through on social media and even in the press gallery, but the truth is Shorten hasn’t needed to do anything much, so clumsy has this government been so far.
Down the track, in the next two budgets, life should get much easier for the government. Its forecast that the economy will slow this year is likely to prove too pessimistic — growth should be stronger, unemployment should be lower, and revenue should be higher than predicted, if the international economy doesn’t pull us back again. Labor needs to be successful in framing voter views of this government now, and hope that they stick between now and 2016.