The Coalition’s confused attempt to politicise the European financial crisis has backfired spectacularly after British Prime Minister David Cameron overnight endorsed increasing IMF funds and the Business Council backed the government.
Yesterday Tony Abbott and Joe Hockey broke bipartisan tradition and attacked the government over its support for increasing funding for the IMF in the face of a potential financial catastrophe in Europe. The Coalition’s justification for its stance was that the British government had indicated it would not be contributing to the eurozone bailout fund.
At the G20 summit in France, Julia Gillard committed to double Australia’s IMF Special Drawing Rights quota to just under $11 billion, as part of an IMF reform program.
The BBC quoted Cameron overnight as saying “when the world is in crisis, it is right to consider boosting the IMF … No government lost money by lending money to the IMF. There is no risk to British taxpayers of seeing the IMF perform its proper role. That’s what we have always supported.” One of Cameron’s junior ministers was reported as saying that while the UK government had committed no funds to Greece or the European bailout fund, there “may well be a case for further increasing the resources of the IMF to keep pace with the size of the global economy”.
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Trying to determine exactly what Hockey and Abbott were objecting to yesterday was something of a struggle. Hockey called Gillard’s statement about increasing Australia’s contribution to the IMF “extraordinary” but then said “the Coalition has no problem at all with putting additional resources into the IMF”. Then he said: “Australians will rightly be angry that on a day where the government is trying to ram through 11 new tax bills in the House of Representatives their prime minister is going and offering taxpayer money to the biggest economy in the world, the eurozone, to bail them out from their own manmade crisis.”
Gillard has offered no money to the European bailout fund.
This was no idle doorstop comment, but the core of the Coalition’s strategy yesterday: the Coalition led off question time with the issue, with Abbott asking about the government “propping up the eurozone” and “throwing good money after bad”, and Hockey quoting UK Chancellor George Osborne. Hockey then returned to the issue in the post-question time Matters of Public Importance debate.
As economist, financial market strategist and former Gillard adviser Stephen Koukoulas quickly pointed out on Twitter during question time, the opposition’s position was a remarkable contrast with the actions of Peter Costello, who as treasurer provided substantial additional funding to the IMF during the financial crises in the late 1990s, to aid countries like Brazil and Thailand.
The Business Council, too, reacted quickly, with CEO Jennifer Westacott releasing a statement that “Australia must play a constructive role by being prepared to make a contribution as appropriate to any negotiated solution, including through our membership of the IMF. Australia has acted in such a way as a global citizen in the past by agreeing to contribute through the IMF during the Asian financial crisis, and should be prepared to do so again if necessary to support global and ultimately our own economic interests.” Even The Australian was forced to criticise its political allies.
The rejection of Costello’s example is not that surprising; there appears to be little love lost at the moment between the former treasurer and the current opposition. Costello recently lashed out at the malign policy influence within the Coalition of economic illiterate and putative deputy prime minister in an Abbott government, Barnaby Joyce, and Abbott’s timidity on IR. In September, Hockey, who was at one time a junior minister under Costello in the Treasury portfolio, appeared to suggest in parliament that both Paul Keating and Costello “played with the economic growth figures in order to inflate income” when treasurer, saying: “I have been there; I know what they do.”
But the attacks on contributions to the IMF are of a piece with the Coalition’s broader retreat from economic orthodoxy on a range of significant issues like carbon pricing (where, apparently, the example of the UK government is to be ignored, not copied), protectionism and free trade, middle class welfare and foreign investment, in favour of government interventionism and cheap populism designed to improve Abbott’s support among blue-collar voters.
Hockey’s insistence that the Coalition had no concerns about the IMF, just with a fictitious plan for Australian taxpayers to prop up the Greek economy, looks like an attempt by the shadow treasurer to have it both ways.