“First they came for the independent filmmakers. But I said nothing, because I was a ballerina …” — Martin Niemoller (adapted)

Watching the reaction to the Abbott government’s first budget, one is tempted to coin the headline: “Right-wing government in right-wing budget shock!”. That’s particularly so when you see the reaction, largely scrolling down through Twitter, of the class of 1972, whose sense of horror seems to be unleavened by any notion of politics.

For many, it seems to be an event outside of politics, inexplicable, cruel and arbitrary. That is to be expected, I guess. The budget marks the first decisive break with nearly a half-century of economic social-democratic liberalism — a long period in which all federal governments cut with the grain of social progressivism, changing little that had been established before them.

Malcolm Fraser may have abolished Medibank, but he left free higher education and a broad welfare safety net in place. The Howard-Costello budgets of the 1990s may have taken a razor to the cash value of specific programs, but they essentially left a Scandinavian-lite framework in place (as I noted in 2001 in my Quarterly Essay on Howard, “The Opportunist”, just in case anyone wants to suggest post-hoc wisdom). Where Howard decisively broke with a social liberal tradition was in relation to refugees and indigenous people — “the others”, within and without. In that sense, the Howard government was more like a pre-Whitlam Labor government than anything else, “McKellite” in Mark Latham’s handy phrase — until the debacle of WorkChoices, which rather proves the point.

By the time Howard left office, an Australian could still rock up to a clinic and get free healthcare, go to university for a less-than-crushing debt rack-up, take paid vacations, stress leave, apply for arts grants, and stay on the dole and pull cones in perpetuity, save for filling in a dole diary, and having the occasional appointment with a clinical psychologist who was even less employable than you were. The classical liberals tore their hair out about this, and about the way in which Howard was getting credit/blame for being some sort of liberal ogre.

Well, now they have a government and a budget they can like a bit more. But not much. For the weird thing about this budget is that it seems punitive to no great purpose. Howard and Costello did a lot of their cutting in the background — either programs which were amorphous but vital (such as R&D) or hidden from most but vital (such as indigenous health), while leaving the front end alone. This budget appears to go out of its way to hurt and affront people, without using the money to make any significant dent in the debt. Its significant frontline savings features seem designed to shape politically engaged sub-classes where none existed before.

Take the Medicare co-payment for a start. Most of us already pay something upfront for a GP visit because we don’t go to a bulk biller — and less than 100% of that co-pay is refunded. Bulk billing was designed to keep universality of healthcare intact — so that even the wastrel who had put the dole check on the first at Randwick could get an examination if they felt a twinge that turned out to be cancer. That has a downside, of course. Much of the waste in the health system is “frequent flyers” — the old, lonely and depressed, who turn up twice a week, every week, and constitute around 30-50% of some GP lists. They are enabled by bulk billing — and the theory is that even a small upfront payment causes a significant downturn in that traffic.

But of course it also means that some people — the deserving and undeserving poor alike — will simply not be able to see a doctor when they need to. Seven dollars doesn’t sound much — but of course many people on benefits, especially those with families, simply have no money at all in the last few days of a benefit cheque fortnight. When no money is required, the doctor can still be visited. The difference between zero and $7 is more significant than the difference between $7 and $30-$40-$50 for those who most require the universality.

Put simply, if only one parent cannot get immediate medical attention for their child from their regular GP, the cost is too much. Why? Because that one missed visit is the cancer missed. Because taking a child with flu — that might be something worse — to a hospital emergency room on a Saturday night is something no one should have to do. And that is what thousands will have to do.

“Either way, how could anyone who really wants a political stoush be dismayed by this budget?”

What’s weird about this move is that it is not presented as a belt-tightening, no-free-lunch type move, but as something that will power a new health research fund. Why? Why deny someone basic healthcare to fund research into increasingly rarer cancers, autoimmune diseases, etc? Why fund ways to extend life by three months for X hundred people, if delayed detection means a shorter life for X thousand people? The fund itself is not nailed down as a specific commitment over time — so is it a way of introducing savings that can be later produced as “over-delivering”?

I dunno. But I would have thought that the only political gain from pain caused would be the alleged core promise that the debt would be paid down. Why introduce a whole new spend? I have been walking around for two days trying to game this out in my head — it is like playing correspondence chess with a death-row serial killer. Cunning? Crazy? Who the eff knows?

We know at least why the higher education changes are the way they are — the aim is to wither the humanities. With open slather on course costs, people will think a lot harder about the earning potential they gain from a $120,000 degree — and make some savvy cost-benefit analyses as to whether they need to go to university at all. What will suffer most are arts and other related degrees, which will be judged not worth it. The relevant budget papers are virtually a photocopy of the Norton-Kemp review, a higher-ed model by two of the most austere and doctrinaire classical liberals around (both of whose authors, David Kemp and Andrew Norton, have spent most of their lives in the government/public/non-profit sector — “give me the free market — but not yet!”).

One can’t help but have a sneaking sympathy for some of it. The higher-ed system has been used as a way to park people in useless degrees for three years, for decades. We are one of the most over-pseudo-professionalised countries in the world, with degree courses for real estate agents, market researchers and quite possibly the bloke who holds the “stop/go” sign at road works. Winnowing that out a little wouldn’t hurt.

But of course these changes won’t do that. The standard has been set. Most work demands a degree, bullshit or otherwise, and so the imposed cost is simply the price of not falling into the pit of precarious existence — short-term unskilled work, much of which is rapidly disappearing. Doctors and lawyers will take it in their stride — it’s the business studies majors who will be saddled with debts that are lifelong, their degrees offering them no income premium, merely guaranteeing them a job. Debt, in this instance, is not primarily an economic measure — it is a form of social discipline, which yokes people to an all-encompassing system.

The third element in the triptych is changes to the under-25/under-30 dole, and once again I can’t even it’s what I dunno … Once again, grant the impetus — the dole is rorted, everyone knows lots of kids who sign on and suck cones and read too much into repeated viewings of Donnie Darko. Elements of the Left still try to play the ragged-trousered-philanthropist card on this one. It doesn’t work, because people who are doing it tough but trying to get a job all know people who are … sucking cones and watching Donnie Darko too much. I’m living with seven of them at the moment (in another country. But this is universal. Wild Things II. Have you ever watched it, like, six times in a row? It’s about the Ukraine.).What’s weird — or just cynical and stupid — about the move is that the method (six months on the dole, six months off) has not been applied anywhere else. For good reason. Because it rewards moral hazard. Consider the following scenario. Young dole recipient one: lives with mum in outer ‘burbs, sucks cones, draws dole, is thrown off after six months; stays with mum, sucks fewer cones, watches Donnie Darko, maybe does a few odd cash jobs, signs on again for another six months. Dole recipient two: lives with mum in outer ‘burbs, applies for jobs, buys cheap car to get to interviews/job that never appears, is willing to move areas for job, cannot cover a 12-month lease, cannot get apartment, cannot keep up car payments, sucks cones.

This dole regime is the dumbest, most demoralising system ever engineered — it is calibrated to reward the deeply indolent and punish the self-activating. Even the United States welfare system is not as capriciously stupid as this — there, you get 99 weeks in a row, then you’re cut off. Hideously cruel, but at least you can lease a car or an apartment. At least, for two years, you know where you stand.

Those are the frontline attacks, the attacks people will feel. Behind that are the institutional cuts — to health, to education, etc. They are perhaps more insidious and sapping, but also more gradual and obscured. None of it represents a real attack on the deficit/debt — if that were the case, we would cut off the dole at 26 weeks, freeze defence spending, abolish the chaplains program, cut ABC/SBS by 50% in one year, not 10% over four years (Jesus — cry me a river, scriptwriters of dramas watched by 7% of the viewing audience), and so on and so on.

This is a Venn diagram budget — where the shared obsessions of neoliberals, conservatives and porkbarrelers (roads!) falls, the triple intersection, there the money and the cuts go. This is a government with no one in overall control — least of all Tony Abbott, the figurehead shoved at the front of the ship when it was drifting, but no less wooden for that. What marks the difference between this government and the Howard government is that John Howard came to political maturity in the Cold War, and at the height of the unassailable arbitration system, when the power of the “other” — the Left — was visible. Howard understood that it was there, but dormant, all through his premiership. He fell when he was tempted by Senate control, to believe that he had really changed the political culture of Australia. Howard’s successors came to their political maturity in the bullshit phase of the Left/Right split, in the late ’70s, when the Left had lost, and Australia was channelling substantial energies into Palestine, hate speech, Palestine, bisexuality, Palestine, etc. Abbott and George Brandis are still there — still in the student union, fighting those battles. Joe Hockey, Mathias Cormann et al are still the commerce students who don’t have a clue. Pyne is … I dunno, TBH. Forget it, mac, it’s Adelaide.

So, to a degree, everything is imaginary to them. Forget Hockey dancing — this is not a Thatcher ‘84 moment, rolling over the miners, cracking the champagne. This is an all-nighter back-of-the-envelope presentation, a not-ready-for-prime-time budget, a we-didn’t-have-a-budget-but-we-had-to-do-one-anyway. I have run out of hyphens.

The chief takeaway from this budget (as bloggers at Left Flank and The Piping Shrike have noted) is not the strength of the Right, nor even its weakness, but its utter disarray. If News Corporation was not propping this government up, it might well have fallen already.

“That gets to the nub of it really: the budget is not a crisis for Australia, it is a crisis for the ALP.”

What does that mean for those who would oppose it? Finally, the scales have lifted from even the most reptilian eyes to realise: the Labor Party leadership is a dead object. That Bill Shorten does not have it in him to be Opposition Leader, much less PM. That he is exhausted, bereft, mid-life-crisised, a captive of his pathetic hypergamic ambitions, that he should just fuck off like Paul Howes, get on the board of a few banks, and spend an endless eternity with Richo, having lunches at a Sussex Street Chinese where the abalone stare back at you from the tanks, and wonder who is the more spineless animal on display.

Those who still care about the ALP should realise that elements of its core leadership is so captive to free trade notions that they have no real ground to oppose most of what is going on. They have more Stockholm syndrome than a Myer Music Bowl Mamma Mia gala. Lacking any ideas themselves, they are captive to the right-wing think tanks. They all but despise their own rank-and-file, these average suburban bastards who believe in nationalism, protectionism, the fair go, etc, etc, etc. Why don’t these turds read the Per Capita bulletins so they can understand why it makes sense that their jobs are disappearing?

That gets to the nub of it really: the budget is not a crisis for Australia, it is a crisis for the ALP. Will they affirm the notion of a social-democratic society, however minimal, and affirm universal access to healthcare, to support while unemployed, to feasible access to higher education, or will they fold and go under the radar?

Either way, for the Left, it’s win-win, politically speaking. Either this budget has fundamentally misjudged the residual social-democratic will of the Australian people, something that dates back to the early achievement of the eight-hour day in 1856 — in which case a popular campaign will grease it, leaving barely a smudge … or, they have judged it right, and there has been a decisive political-cultural shift in Australia, towards a more individualistic/class-fragmented way of life, in which the poor are seen — US style — as “other”. Either way, how could anyone who really wants a political stoush be dismayed by this budget? The suffering it causes is relatively minor, the political “re-classing” it creates is potentially unbounded. Who could be more motivated to change governments than the 18-year-old high school student whose future higher-ed debt suddenly quadrupled? The high school dropout who actually believes liberal bullshit and applies for four (barely existent) jobs a week?

If the progressive movement cannot make bricks out of this, then it may as well collectively retire to its half-finished novel about a single woman in post-war Iraq, or anti-Boko Haram selfies.

Labor is gone. What about the Greens? They will need to get out of this endless subcommittee bullshit, their pride in attaching four amendments to the Zyklon B (Manus) bill, and start being a grassroots party again. They need to start big public meetings in every capital city — town hall meetings, thousands-strong, put their energy to that. If the federal leadership won’t do it, the New South Wales branch should do so unilaterally, across the country. Who else? The Labor Left? They will be too busy sniping at the Greens and defending Shorten, before he marries the last Hapsburg princess on offer, to actually do anything, hand out a leaflet. The Fabians? They are content to be represented by News Corp hack Troy Bramston, who urges compliance to the cuts. Socialist Alliance? Can they stop using transgender ss-marriage as a recruiting tool? Maybe not.

But someone has to step up and book the halls, and get people out. Not in the name of cone-sucking dole-heads, but in the name of the fair go, and the basic notion of equality that sits, however variably, within the Australian public psyche.

The great thing is that this is not threat, but opportunity. Defeating this weak, neurotic provisional, heistant, cowardly, pseudo-right government would affirm for ever a social democratic base to Australian politics.

Go in hard.

Hard as a ballerina!


Peter Fray

Help us keep up the fight

Get Crikey for just $1 a week and support our journalists’ important work of uncovering the hypocrisies that infest our corridors of power.

If you haven’t joined us yet, subscribe today and get your first 12 weeks for $12.

Cancel anytime.

Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey