That serious contemplation is reportedly being given within the government to moving the budget, so Malcolm Turnbull’s plans for a double dissolution election in July can come to fruition, is a worrying indicator of desperation, if not panic, within the government.
The Prime Minister this morning said the government was “working toward” a budget date of May 10 — but pointedly did not confirm that date, leaving open the option of bringing the budget forward a week.
Moving the budget (an story first picked up by Fairfax’s James Massola weeks ago) is necessary both politically and in terms of law if there’s to be an election in early July (which will involve a long, long, long winter election campaign across most of May and all of June). The appropriation bills need to be passed before Parliament is dissolved so that the government can function into the new financial year. And presentationally there needs to be at least a small gap between the budget and calling an election.
But the budget is the key economic and fiscal policy event of the year. It’s not just another press conference or media opportunity. And it involves enormous work by ministers, their staff and public servants. Even in a good year, the process will run right up to the budget cabinet meeting that signs off on the document. In some years, there are still significant changes being made in the days before the budget. Key documents are often carted into the lockup after it is underway because they’ve been finalised and printed so late.
And this year, for the second time in three budgets, there’s a new treasurer at the helm. Worse, Scott Morrison has no experience in an economic portfolio — at least Joe Hockey went into the 2014 budget process with several years as shadow treasurer under his belt (for all the good it did him). The Assistant Treasurer is a neophyte as well. Only the reliable Finance Minister Mathias Cormann has budget experience. Not to mention this is Malcolm Turnbull’s first budget as PM, too.
Now, with two months left, the process may be shortened by a week. It doesn’t sound like much — Treasury officials can always work 20-hour days rather than 18-hour days, they can work full time over Easter rather than getting half a day off; Expenditure Review Committee can sit yet longer hours. It’s achievable if you’re planning a budget that doesn’t do a whole lot. Which, as it turns out, seems to be exactly what the government is aiming for — some fiddling at the margins of income tax to address the currently negligible problem of bracket creep (but in reality to offer voters an election bribe) and not much else in the way of actual reform.
But every week the decision on timing is left unmade makes it harder for a curtailed process to produce a good budget — either in policy or political terms. Rushed decisions have a way of coming back to haunt a government — although in 2014 that turnaround time was virtually zero. Nor will it do much to bolster business and investor confidence, which relies in part on knowing that Australia’s economic policy-making process is tried, tested and effective.
Then there’s the small matter of the trigger for the double dissolution. Whatever the constitutional interpretation around the Senate failing to pass the bill restoring Australia’s very own Stasi, the Building and Construction Commission, the issue itself is likely to be quickly forgotten in an election campaign. Voters are interested in the economy, jobs, healthcare and education and, if there’s a terrorist attack somewhere, maybe national security. Trade union corruption is way down the list of issues that affect votes — and in any event voters tend to see unions and business as equally corrupt anyway. And yet, the Coalition seems convinced that it is onto a genuine winner in launching an election about the ABCC bill and, therefore, Labor’s links to the unions, as if the electorate shared its own pathological loathing of trade unions.
Given ongoing revelations about appalling and scandalous conduct by the Commonwealth Bank’s insurance arm, the prosecution of ANZ for rate-rigging and who knows what other revelations of corrupt behaviour by businesses that might emerge between now and July 2, a government obsessing about the CFMEU might not strike quite the right note with voters.
On the other hand, all this has now unofficially launched the 2016 election. From here, everything will be seen through the prism of the election, whether the government wants it or not. And it means if Turnbull decides not to go with the early July double dissolution election, there’ll be a sense of anti-climax and indecision of exactly the kind now plaguing his government — and recall that history-changing failure when Kevin Rudd’s failed to pursue a double dissolution election on the CPRS early in 2010 — which he would have handily won.
Controlling the election date is supposed to be one of the most powerful weapons of incumbency. But somehow, Malcolm Turnbull is at risk of turning it into a hindrance and a distraction. And the risk isn’t merely political, but to the key economic setpiece of the year.