And the best of all this bad bunch
Is shouting to be heard
Above the sound of ideologies clashing

— Billy Bragg, “Ideology”

Ideology is back, they’re saying. “They” being the politicians and the media. The Liberals are dangerous market fundamentalists, says Labor. Labor are dangerous Whitlamite tax-and-spenders, say the Liberals. The media cheers them on. After years of me-tooism and accusations of Tweedledum and Tweedledee, we’re back before the end of the Cold War, back before Hawke, back to the days when ideology mattered. That’s much more fun to report, especially if you’re a dedicated ideologue working for News Ltd.

Perhaps they’re right. But be very sceptical of what you’re being sold here.

The respective positions of the parties are, for all the son et lumiere show this week, not that far apart. The Opposition also supports a smaller stimulus package, albeit composed by bringing forward tax cuts and reducing business superannuation costs. The actual size of Malcolm Turnbull’s preferred package isn’t clear, but Nick Sherry has pointed out his proposed reduction in superannuation costs for small business would be in the range of $20-40b. Other Coalition MPs argue we need to keep something in reserve, presumably leaving the option for further stimulus open.

Nor is the Government’s package some wild ideological frolic. It is in the middle of current economic orthodoxy. Alan Wood, that raving leftie, suggests today that $42b may not be sufficient stimulus. The projected deficits, as a proportion of GDP, are far below the deficit left to the Hawke Government by John Howard. The arcane debate over whether tax cuts or handouts are more readily spent is likely to have minimal real-world significance.

Still, it suits everyone’s purposes to pretend that we’re back to a good old-fashioned left-right divide.

Warwick McKibbin today declared that there wasn’t any economic crisis. Coming from a member of the Reserve Bank board that has put interest rates into freefall to combat the financial, um, crisis, it was a peculiar statement indeed. Australians who are losing their jobs might feel that if it isn’t a crisis, it will do until one comes along. But he did make the far more sensible remark that “if this government was serious about dealing with an economic crisis, it would sit down with both sides of politics and work out a solution.”

Indeed. If this is the sort of crisis that Kevin Rudd has repeatedly said it is — and indeed it is — then the Government should be putting aside partisanship and attempting to construct a commonly-agreed framework to handle it.

However, as Rudd has demonstrated on a number of other occasions, he is happy to talk about bipartisanship, but singularly uninterested in pursuing it. Malcolm Turnbull, too, likes to call for bipartisanship, and urge it on the Prime Minister, but his idea of bipartisanship was amply demonstrated in relation to the first stimulus package, when he “supported” it but let his colleagues repeatedly criticise it.

There’s the issue of ego, of course. The House of Reps chamber is about the only room in the country big enough for the heads of Turnbull and Rudd. The idea of them working together is anathema to both. But it’s also about an unwillingness to pass up opportunities for political advantage. The Prime Minister has decided to use the crisis in order to totally discredit his political opponents, with the idea of destroying them politically. Turnbull has decided exploiting the crisis is his only chance of victory in 2010, which will be his one shot at the Prime Ministership. In both cases their parties back them. Coalition MPs have been spoiling for a fight. The national interest appears a distant second in their reasoning about blocking the package. Labor MPs would love to obliterate the Coalition.

The politicking continued in the Senate committee considering the package. The efforts of Coalition MPs in committee last night were laughable. Eric Abetz spent some time trying to determine whether the printer who produced the package documentation had to work overnight. Ken Henry noted that it had been a very long time since anything sent to the printer hadn’t required overtime, and he wasn’t referring just to life under Rudd. Barnaby Joyce, who appears to be wholly economically illiterate, was asking about the country going trillions of dollars into debt. Treasury officials were unflustered even as Coalition senators baited them. Today, they tried many of the same questions about modelling and the impact of tax cuts on PM&C officials, who politely suggested Treasury were the relevant authorities with whom to discuss such matters. Joyce got red-faced and cranky, which he does very easily, at PM&C’s failure to conduct its own economic modelling.

Many of the questions were designed to elicit some sort of concession or admission from officials that could be turned into a hook for a press release. “So you can confirm there’s nothing for pensioners in this package?” Steve Fielding demanded of a FAHCSIA official, as if the Government hadn’t given a cent to pensioners since it arrived in office. The politicking isn’t merely partisan, it’s also to enable individual senators to lift their profile with some sort of “get”.

That’s one of the reasons why the package is being delayed a week.

Not that the delay will actually mean anything. When Eric Abetz concentrated on issues of substance rather than trying to score points, he got FAHCSIA to admit it didn’t matter if the bills didn’t pass until next week, rather undermining the Government’s claims for urgency. Or, more correctly, exposing them as a political stunt. It was a good point, well made.

Just how bad do things have to get before both sides stop this sort of rubbish and think about putting the national interest first?

Peter Fray

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