“Labor has a spending problem, not a revenue problem.” — Tony Abbott and Joe Hockey, March 25, 2013
Well, as it turns out, however, Labor really did have a revenue problem. From opposition it all looked so easy — just cut Labor’s enormous waste, end the profligacy that was in the Labor DNA and replace it with the urge to fiscal discipline in the Liberal DNA, and the budget would whir back into surplus. Treasurer Joe Hockey even committed to a surplus in his first year as recently as just over a year ago.
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But the Coalition got into office and, for all today’s rather sad efforts to portray in the media (“Exclusive!”) axing a few agencies as a scythe-like demolition of the public service, discovered that all that Labor largesse it thought was there, wasn’t. Indeed, Labor had so viciously hacked into the public service that the Coalition had to dump its long-planned assault on the bureaucracy.
Thus, on the eve of Smokin’ Joe’s first budget, the political focus has been on revenue — a temporary rise in income taxes for high-income earners and a permanent rise in fuel excise for all of us, supposedly hypothecated to roads funding, but that will just mean roads funding from general revenue will be cut, as it should be (which commentators actually bother to pick this up in their budget coverage will be handy test of their quality).
But this dissonance between what the Coalition said in opposition and what it now says isn’t merely about being mugged by reality, or even about breaking promises. The weekend’s silliness about freezing MPs’ pay, announced triumphantly in a drop to News Corp papers, was highly symbolic. The Rudd government had done precisely the same thing — but who should have railed against that but Tony Abbott himself, who labelled it a “populist stunt” while, apparently, living hand-to-mouth on his post-2007 salary. It demonstrated how, on virtually any issue, from climate change to paid parental leave to the economy to taxation to political consistency itself, it is straightforward to find a quote in which Tony Abbott has declared, hand on heart, entirely the opposite to his current position.
Meanwhile, Smokin’ Joe was continuing to insist that lifting taxes after he’d promised not to lift taxes wasn’t a broken promise, both because the Coalition had never said it wouldn’t raise taxes and because in any event the higher taxes weren’t higher taxes but “levies”, or “contributions”, or anything other than “taxes”, really. Not for Joe the more laborious but correct approach of explaining that the Howard government had been wrong to freeze the fuel excise and that it was in Australia’s long-term interests to restore it, however much motorists may resent it. Just pretend it’s not a breach of faith — and points to Hockey for having a double explanation, like he could trip up those “broken promise” peddlers both coming and going.
“… the most sound analytical approach is to ignore what the Coalition says and focus entirely on who benefits from its use of power.”
“I’m not playing word games,” Hockey averred, hilariously, to Laurie Oakes during one such discussion. Indeed, it’s less like playing word games and more like waterboarding the English language. It’s beyond casuistry; it makes John Howard’s legendary parsing of his own statements look epistemologically rigorous. It’s all so laboured that the press gallery’s best journalists, even the government’s cheerleaders at News Corp, have begun thoughtfully stroking their chins and contemplating how voters will react. Is this flagrant and repeated breaching of the Coalition’s promises Abbott’s Gillard moment, they wonder? (Well, no, unless Labor can perform like Abbott did.) Will it permanently damage his government and his own prime ministership? Even Paul “Magic Water” Sheehan today wondered if Abbott was barking mad, a topic on which, for once, Sheehan might be able to bring to bear some expertise.
But all this was predictable, on the basis that Abbott would continue in government as he had acted in opposition, given how successful he had been. Tony Abbott has long been on course to be our first post-modern Prime Minister*, a leader unencumbered by any belief in the value of truth or consistency. Partisan types will Godwin the whole business and refer to “Goebbels” and “Big Lies”, but that misses the point that this isn’t about what’s true or false; such distinctions are for lesser folk. For Abbott, the truth or falsity of a statement is irrelevant: his statements are true because, as he declared a year ago, “they just are”; he is interested in a higher truth of what serves his own interests. And in any event, it’s not a lie if you actually believe it, and Hockey and Abbott actually believed mountains of Labor waste awaited them in once they got into government.
Some, like John Quiggin, argue that a lack of interest in facts is increasingly a characteristic of the Right — that it’s in the Liberals’ DNA, so to speak — which overlooks that relativism has been a defining characteristic of much of the scholarship from the cultural Left from the 1970s onward and is still to be found adorning identity politics. It is true, however, that progressive parties like Labor, especially, in Australia, and the Democrats in the US, have struggled to find a way to counter how politicians of the Right have freed themselves from the shackles of consistency and evidence. But for now, the most sound analytical approach is to ignore what the Coalition says and focus entirely on who benefits from its use of power. That will provide the most basic test of its first budget.
*I lay no claim to predictive powers, given my earlier prediction that Abbott would reduce the Liberal Party to a “reactionary rump”