Whether it’s an abiding fear Labor will sack him if elected, or if he’s genuinely unsure what economic direction his former boss Scott Morrison is going to go in, Phil Gaetjens’ first speech as Treasury Secretary, delivered in Perth yesterday, was a strictly by-the-numbers effort. 

Since Gaetjens became Treasury head — a post to which he should never have been appointed — the government has lurched further into major economic interventionism, abandoned its company tax cuts, reversed its energy supplement decision and abandoned the energy policy it had worked on for a year. Since becoming Prime Minister, Scott Morrison has flirted with a royal commission into energy and, today, ditched a crucial part of Australia’s long-term retirement incomes policy, the lifting of the retirement age to 70. As a core part of the neoliberal consensus in Australian policymaking during the Howard years, Gaetjens now looks increasingly isolated even from the party for which he worked so long.

In that context, a full-blooded embrace of economic reform and a bold vision for a more efficient economy would have rung hollow at best and at worst embarrassed a government now more focused on saving the furniture than overhauling the economy. Nor is it clear exactly what the so far invisible Josh Frydenberg plans to do as Treasurer, beyond — we assume — prepare a mini-budget or economic statement instead of MYEFO for December, under the careful guidance of Mathias Cormann.

In that context, what Gaetjens omitted from his speech was more salient than a recitation of how well the global and domestic economy was travelling. There was not a single mention of wages beyond reporting that mining companies in the Pilbara had reported wage pressures in some roles. Otherwise, the most important issue facing the economy is apparently not worth the attention of the Treasury Secretary, despite the issue being of sufficient concern to the Reserve Bank for governor Philip Lowe to warn it will undermine the chances of economic reform, despite the impact on consumer spending, despite the role it plays in alienating voters from politics because of the perception that the economy is working in the interests of the powerful and corporations, not workers.

It’s unsurprising that Gaetjens fails to mention two of the other major economic policy challenges Australia faces — climate change and energy. The Coalition’s absence of coherent policy on either, and the red-hot political status of the issues within the Liberal Party, would rule out anything other than the most anodyne reference by a public servant. But it is in the demonstrable self-interest of the government, and its business allies, to signal to voters that it gets the wage stagnation issue and is engaged with addressing it. Instead, all we get is the whine of mining companies that they might have to pay more to hire specialist skills.

Out of touch and, perhaps, out of time.


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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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