I never touch the lunch at the National Press Club addresses. Not because the food is bad, by any means, it’s just that lunch doesn’t fit my weird, mildly obsessive dietary habits, which makes lunchtime networking slightly problematic, but what are you going to do? I also never touch the wine on offer. I like wine. I love wine. Some of my best friends are wine, but no touchies before 5pm, lest I fall asleep. And I can’t drink the coffee because of the caffeine, of which I’m intolerant (yeah, I know, it’s one of the few things I’m intolerant of, right?). And the water… I can’t stand plain water. So the entire Working Press Table is laid out with stuff I won’t touch. I’m Tantalus, without the interesting culinary background.
Seated beside me is another man sent to the underworld for punishment: of all people, I’m next to Tim Shaw. Yes, that Tim Shaw, now working in Canberra, doing the breakfast shift on local station 2CC. He’s shown up for his first NPC address to hear the Treasurer, Scott Morrison, discuss “Backing Australians in our transitioning economy”.
As it turns out, it’s more a one-hander version of Waiting for Godot, the play in which, famously, nothing happens, twice.
Some speeches you know while you’re hearing them are weird, or badly misjudged, or pitched wrongly. This one’s a sleeper: it only becomes apparent over the length of the speech -- and Morrison goes on and on, well over the usual time allotted for NPC addresses -- and then in its aftermath that the Treasurer has said exactly nothing, about anything. It's Tim Shaw's "but wait, there's more" in reverse. For hungry journalists trying to get a take-out for afternoon columns, it’s thin gruel. Morrison devotes an extended period to justifying backing away from changes to the GST. He kinda sorta suggests there’ll be spending cuts in the coming budget, but in the Q&A afterward resiles from it, saying he’s merely focused on keeping spending growth in check. He vaguely admits that the government has made no progress in two-plus years on the budget, but later rejects an invitation from Laura Tingle to explain where they went wrong on curbing the deficit.
There’s not even a by-the-numbers bagging of Labor – the usual accusation that Labor has a “tax and spend approach" only gets a brief airing, possibly because Morrison acknowledges at various moments in the speech that both spending and taxation have increased under the Coalition. And the return to surplus – once upon a time a “budget emergency” -- will be, the Treasurer says, a test match, not a T20, affair, requiring “test match-like patience".
Samuel Beckett, the only first-class cricketer ever to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, would have approved.
Morrison only shows animation when having a brief excursion into justifying the Australian Building and Construction Commission, when he fluently lies about productivity and employment in construction falling after the ABCC was abolished. Nah, Treasurer, they went up.
The second act, the Q&A, follows, and nothing happens in that, either. Journalists try to get Morrison to offer something, anything, on policy, but Morrison knocks them back, firmly declaring things like “I’m not announcing our negative gearing policy today”. It’s February 17. The budget isn’t due for nearly three months. If it continues like this it’s going to feel like three decades.
But in concentrating on why there’ll be no GST change, and why there’s been no progress on reducing the deficit, Morrison shows that the problem isn’t merely that he hasn’t got policies to announce, he’s actually got policies to disavow – and, more subtly, a government to disavow as well. His fiscal message is: all we achieved in the last two years is to stop things getting worse, we haven’t actually made any progress on the deficit. The implication Morrison isn’t willing to state openly is that Abbott and Hockey failed, so now “the first Turnbull government budget” will have to commence the process of reining in spending. And his tax reform message is that fiddling with the GST won’t deliver the kind of revenue the Coalition had hoped for, so there won’t be any substantial tax cuts.
It’s a message almost biblical in its level of inconsistency and contradiction. At one stage, Morrison blames the high level of middle-class welfare for not proceeding with the GST – too many people receiving welfare payments, you see. Those with memories longer than five minutes will remember Abbott and Hockey railing at Wayne Swan’s attempts to rein in exactly that kind of transfer payment as “class warfare” and “the politics of envy”. All that middle class welfare that Morrison now complains of was, after all, a product of the Howard government.
So the Q&A ends up being a serial effort by journalists to wrestle with smoke, although that rather overstates its entertainment value. Tim Shaw – he and I are at the end of the table, a luxury that means one is not crammed cheek by jowl with one's colleagues – goes retail with a question on housing affordability; even on a flat deck with no movement and a well-pitched up delivery, Morrison opts to play it back down the wicket, test match style. I rise and politely inquire why the Productivity Commission hasn’t been allowed to conduct an analysis the Trans-Pacific Partnership -- Morrison says during his speech that the trade agreements negotiated by Andrew Robb would lead to "generations of prosperity" -- despite asking repeatedly to do it.
“The work's been done,” Morrison says dismissively. “The government isn’t going to manage the economy through the rear view mirror.” It’s an interesting concept -- let’s call it the Morrison Doctrine: once a government has made a decision, there’s no point evaluating it to see if it actually achieves what they claim it will achieve, even if they're continuing to make similar decisions in the future. Just drive on, pedal to the metal, and don’t look back.
Still, at least it was, finally, policy of a kind.