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Federal

May 12, 2014

Ignore what the Coalition says, focus on whom it helps

The Coalition's propensity to say whatever is politically necessary at the time regardless of truth means the best way to assess the budget is to focus on who benefits.


“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.

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”

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22 comments

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22 thoughts on “Ignore what the Coalition says, focus on whom it helps

  1. klewso

    Poor deer Toady?
    I’m not an expert – I don’t know if, as pug, Toady copped one too many in the ring, and is “barking mad” – but I do wonder if he doesn’t imagine himself “King Dick the Lyin’ Hart chasing the Saracen Left out of the Holey Land”?

  2. aswann

    It’s like watching a magic show. The trick is to keep your eye on the cigar..

  3. gypsy

    My two daughters will vote for the first time at the next election. They are taking an interest in the processes around the budget and I am trying to guide them to respect democracy and to have confidence in our elected leaders (silly me). Rather, they are developing, and speaking in, such a cynical and angry fashion that I fear for the reaction of the their generation at the polls. It will be deserved.

  4. Raaraa

    Indeed, it’s less like playing word games and more like waterboarding the English language.

    Thank you.

  5. Honest Johnny

    “unless Labor can perform like Abbott did”. No. That’s precisely what we don’t want Labor to do. Abbott’s behaviour in opposition was so distasteful, so unethical, so populist, so lazy (in terms of policy rigor), it will take years to undo the damage he did to the respectability of the institute of our Parliament. Its all unravelling for him now. So why would Labor ever want to emulate that?

  6. Glen

    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.

    That’s more like it Bernard.

  7. AR

    HonJ – +1. I too baulked at such a tactic (hardly a strategy but enough, as the torys demonstrated)for the very reasons you listed.
    I’m glad that Abbott’s “they just are,/I>” has not been forgotten.
    As for “
    ..not a lie if you actually believe it..“, whilst morally feculent, it surely should scare us more that anyone could be so stupid, never mind Kredulous.

  8. MJPC

    The smoke and mirrors from Smokin’ is just not from the cigar smoke of his and the Corminator’s. Can someone tell me I’m wrong on this….,
    The levy, tax, levy..on the rich is the biggest smoke cloud of all and will only be paid by PAYE taxpayers above the level who donlt emply means of minimising income tax. If the rich have tax minimisation schemes such as trusts, negative gearing structures, company tax write-off’s then they will miss on paying the levy and continue to pay minimal tax whilst enjoying the maximum tax payer funded largesse of medicare, infrsstructure etc; is this not true?

  9. bushby jane

    Good summary of Abbott’s mob lying their way into power, you are right of course about watching who is benefiting from Lib’s largesse and it isn’t around 95% of us. Seems to me it would be relatively easy to balance the books with only around a half dozen moves, but all that is happening is playing around the edges to not really gain that much, and making a lot of plebs miserable doing so.
    By the way, why should road funding not come out of general revenue, please? (And of course Infrastructure Tony is only catching up on Howard’s lack of, the Labor lot started with NBN)

  10. Horde

    Another fine suite of observations, Bernard.

    Might I suggest, though, the word you are looking for with such well considered and contemplative statements as:

    “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.”…and…

    “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.”….and….

    “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 — ”

    …is, by definition, the B-Word which, according to Princeton’s Prof Harry G Frankfurt, is “a total indifference to what is real” that, by design, is meant to misdirect, deceive, falsify and/or mislead one’s target audience, in this case, the people of Australia, from what is real a.k.a. the truth.

    That the giving of false or misleading information whilst in public office (now a.k.a. BO’F moments) is an offence under Division 137 of Chapter 7 of the Federal Criminal Code appears to be lost on the artisans of the B-Word, suggests the latter (i.e. bullshit) is far more powerful and influential in Australia than the Rule of Law.

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