With budget week done and the election about to be called, it’s hard to avoid the sense that Labor had the better of the fiscal setpieces this week. How much that counts out in the electorate remains to be seen — I remain sceptical that most voters would have much idea at all what each side is offering beyond “tax cuts” — but Bill Shorten’s budget reply last night was the superior political offering.
The government’s budget looked like a list of political problems at which it threw money. Stagnant wages? Throw tax cuts at low and middle income earners. Angry Victorians? Throw money at infrastructure. The coming Mediscare part II from Labor? Throw many at primary health. Anger over energy prices? Throw money at families right now.
You can tell it was based on a political list because Newstart recipients were left off — they don’t count as a political problem for the Coalition. No one thought about them, not til the penny dropped on the afternoon of the budget, leading to a ridiculous procession of rushed meetings and letters to fix the omission from the budget papers. That distracted from what was a workmanlike political effort for a deeply troubled government.
Labor’s offering, articulated by Bill Shorten last night, is far more coherent, aiming more tax cuts at lower income earners, leaving high income earners to their own devices, pumping more money into health with cancer as the headline priority, and more money for preschool and apprenticeships. All consistent with Labor’s political attack vectors of wage stagnation, health, education, all traditional Labor strong points, all aspects of its key theme of fairness. If the government has a shopping list, Labor has a philosophy.
The irony is, this budget confirms that, on a spectrum of the last thirty years, this government has been more Labor than Liberal in its economic policy. It has undertaken massive deficit spending, it has lifted education and health spending, it has invested heavily in manufacturing protectionism and it has swung sharply back to re-regulation in areas like energy and finance. On Tuesday night the Coalition added low and middle income tax cuts to that list, as well as throwing yet more money into health and urban infrastructure.
Take the name off the cover, and you’d be hard-pressed to work out just which side of politics had produced it. But that reflects not merely the dramatic shift in the electorate against neoliberalism, but Labor’s own effectiveness at exploiting that shift, right from the night of the first Abbott budget — one that was hailed by many in the media as a political triumph in the immediate aftermath, but which instead became so toxic it poisoned not merely Abbott’s prime ministership but the government that continued after his demise.
The result is a contest in which the electorate is being asked to choose between a side of politics that pursues interventionism and big spending because it feels it needs to to stay in office, and the side of politics that pursues it because it believes in it.
And Labor will reinforce that distinction by continuing to try to frame the Coalition as still wedded to the neoliberal agenda. Consider Shorten’s final words of his budget reply, which sum up Labor’s framing of the entire contest:
Do you want the best health care system in the world? Or the biggest tax loopholes? Do you want your children to get a world’s best education? Or the world’s most generous tax subsidies? Do we want a fairer, more equal country where the economy works in the interests of everyone? Or do we want another three years of drift, with the top end of town profiting much better than everybody else.
Even if Labor can’t impose this narrative on the campaign, it’ll be very happy with this week. Remember when the election was going to be dominated by scare campaigns on evil refugees, angry retirees and property price collapses? The government instead has just spent a week talking about Labor issues like low and middle income earners, health and infrastructure spending.
It’s allowed Labor to set the agenda. Bill Shorten will be delighted to do that all the way to mid-May.