Wouldn’t it be great if all this Monopoly money was real?
Yesterday Joe Hockey and Tony Abbott went through the slightly surreal process of announcing their counter-offer to Labor’s flood levy, a package of spending cuts that they would make, if they were in government. It was the fiscal equivalent of mortgaging Old Kent Road and The Angel, Islington in order to scrape together some cash.
To say the package was highly anticipated would be overstating it somewhat. Even the Government’s reflexive demands to see “the colour of their money” over the flood levy have had a certain lassitude.
But as has been noted within Liberal ranks — including apparently by the deputy leader Julie Bishop — this has all the negatives of making real cuts — upsetting stakeholders, inviting close scrutiny — and none of the benefits, since they’re not actually in government.
And while Labor is perceived as the primary victim of the reduction of the debate over economic management to a contest to see who can cut spending the most, the Coalition has arguably done every bit as badly from it. They looked bad playing pass-the-parcel with the spending cuts after the Budget last May, then it bit them at the end of the election campaign with their refusal to use the Charter of Budget Honesty process they themselves had set up, and then it may well have cost them office when Treasury and Finance blew substantial holes in their savings list in front of Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott after the election.
Now they’re back for more. And there was much talk of “tough decisions” and references to the $50b in savings the Coalition had already founded.
The Coalition have been slightly tougher than Labor, but it’s like comparing two custards. There was no $50b in savings found by the Coalition. That list included selling Medibank Private (which they first promised to sell in 2004, but never quite got round to it), counting mining tax-related expenditure, fiddling with the Contingency Reserve, assuming higher interest payments for the NBN than Treasury calculated, and an unworkable freeze on Public Service recruitment.
At least there was no such sleight of hand yesterday, just a list of programs that the Coalition was proposing to cut. The one really good one was the cut to automotive industry assistance, $500m worth from the Automotive Transformation Scheme.
A year ago Joe Hockey, to his credit, suggested that automotive manufacturing assistance be looked at to fund budget savings. For his trouble, he copped a kicking from everyone, including his shadow Industry colleague, the risible Sophie Mirabella.
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Handing billions to foreign transnationals to support a small and declining number of manufacturing jobs has always been an article of faith for Labor, and — a brief flirtation with good sense under John Hewson aside — usually the conservatives as well. Now, in the space of a fortnight, both sides of politics have whipped programs away from the car makers. Hopefully it’s the start of a trend.
But halting Murray-Darling buybacks on the basis that, well, it’s been raining a lot lately and the Murray-Darling Basin Authority is still doing its plan shows the Coalition is every bit as committed to genuine reform of the MDB as Labor i.e. not at all.
And the fact that BER funding has been delayed, rather than cancelled, begs the question of why the Coalition wants to continue what is allegedly an absurdly profligate Labor spendathon that needs a judicial inquiry to expose the vast waste that previous inquiries and audits have been unable to find. The “tough decision” there would have been to live up to their rhetoric, rather than perpetuating what Labor has repeatedly pointed out as the hypocrisy of complaining in Parliament about waste, but happily turning up to the openings of all those new school buildings in their electorates.
But all that’s just politics. Cutting the Australia Indonesia Education Partnership program, which funds the construction, management and accreditation of Indonesian schools (“Islamic schools” Abbott carefully noted) is remarkably obtuse, not merely in its focus on cutting aid to a critically-important neighbour, but in undermining Western complaints about the influence of Islamic fundamentalist educators in developing countries.
It’s always good to be sceptical of the impact of foreign aid, particularly when AusAid ensures that most of its ends up flowing back to Australian companies. But the idea that “charity begins at home” is deeply offensive in its suggestion that any Australians face the same socio-economic circumstances as those we’re ostensibly seeking to help in developing countries.
It’s not been a good fortnight for Tony Abbott, by any stretch, especially after last night. He’ll doubtless pull out of it, but at some point it can become a self-perpetuating cycle of bad coverage. Just as Brendan and Malcolm.