What makes Malcolm Turnbull’s unqualified opposition to Kevin Rudd’s $42 billion package more than usually perverse is that almost everything in the package is undeniably good policy.
Refurbishing schools, insulating homes and updating moribund infrastructure would be worthwhile at any time, not just when the economy is in desperate need of stimulus. Indeed these are among the many things that should have been done in the boom years, when the government was awash with money.
Instead of course, Turnbull’s old mob decided that there were more votes to be gained in hand outs to the middle class and in tax cuts. Incredibly, Turnbull believes that tax cuts are also the answer to a looming recession. Obviously they are the answer to everything. Douglas Adams and Kevin Rudd, both of whom believe the answer is in fact 42, are clearly mistaken.
Turnbull does, however, have a minor problem of consistency. He purports to be concerned about the projected deficits, or as he prefers to call them, the crushing debts we will leave to our children. But at least Rudd’s lump sum payments, expensive as they may be, are one-off costs. Tax cuts are permanent; they are locked into the economic structure as a reduction of revenue year after year. They would make escaping the deficits far more difficult than anything Rudd has proposed.
But, Turnbull responds, he wouldn’t spend anything like as much as Rudd is suggesting — barely half that, in fact. Why? So he could come back for seconds and spend the rest later. Exactly how that would ease the crushing debt on our children is not explained.
It is hard to avoid the conclusion that Turnbull is merely posturing; that he does not really want to substitute a program of his own (indeed, apart from the chant of tax cuts he does not appear to have one) and he does not really want to stop Rudd’s from being implemented. Chris Evans, the government leader in the Senate, was quite right when he said that the Libs were wetting their pants at the idea that one of the independents might actually join them and vote the bills down.
Turnbull’s real hope is that Rudd’s package goes through and is seen to fail; that the recession grabs Australia as relentlessly as it will the rest of the world. He could then claim vindication: under his policies we would still have had the recession, but we would have saved all that money. And of course we would still have had run-down schools, decrepit infrastructure, and houses totally unsuited to the threat of climate change, not to mention a $950 hole in the household budgets of the needy, but that’s what we call responsible economic management.
However if, as most economists, the business community and Colin Barnett, the only Liberal premier, all believe, Rudd’s policies actually succeed to a worthwhile extent, Turnbull will be left looking very politically seedy. But then, he was looking pretty seedy before he came up with this courageous (as Sir Humphrey Appleby would certainly describe it) approach.
The doubters in his own party must now admit that he has taken a stand in firm opposition to the government, and this in itself is a welcome change. The question to be answered is whether it turns out to be the stand of a brilliant politician or the last twitch of an unreconstructed merchant banker.
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And let’s not forget that it was mainly the merchant bankers who got us into this mess in the first place. Wouldn’t it be a bit naïve to trust one to get us out again?
On which happy note I’m taking off for a month in India a country which, with all its extremes and contradictions, I find strange and challenging. I shall get my personal stimulus there, without resort to Rudd’s package or to Swami Makya Chunda of the Snatchyahandbag Ashram.
Cosmic revelations for all (especially Kevin Rudd and Malcolm Turnbull) around March 18. Cheers.