Greg Combet treads a fine line when assessing the Morrison government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.
The chairman of Industry Super Australia and former Labor minister critiques with one sentence but offers praise with the next – his answers devoid of the scathing criticisms of Messrs Keating and Rudd.
Treasurer Josh Frydenberg’s budget put too many eggs in the private-sector basket and needed more direct government spending, he said.
But providing incentives to hire younger workers and allowing businesses to instantly write off assets no matter the cost were both worthwhile initiatives. And, notwithstanding some major design faults, the superannuation reforms were heading in the right direction, too.
Likewise, he said, the Morrison government deserved praise for closing Australia’s international borders when it did; for placing a high priority on the suppression of COVID-19; and for quickly rolling out income support measures such as the Coronavirus Supplement and JobKeeper.
But these achievements came early. And although Mr Combet said the budget contained some welcome measures, he read a worrying theme in between the lines.
“My overall criticism of the Morrison government, which I think broadly has done a really good job in dealing with the pandemic, is that they’ve left the stage of national leadership,” Mr Combet told The New Daily.
“We’ve got a number of prime ministers around the country – the Commonwealth government has just left so much to the states in handling the pandemic and handling the economic response.
“And I think it’s really important for the Commonwealth to be out there leading.”
Mr Combet said the building of infrastructure and social housing was one of several areas devoid of federal leadership.
He described the lack of new infrastructure spending in the budget as “a profound failure” and said social housing would have got “jobs going quickly and particularly in regional areas”.
When Mr Combet was a Labor minister during the GFC, the Rudd government gave $5.2 billion to the states to build 9500 social housing units and refurbish another 80,000.
The buck-passing abounds, Mr Combet said.
“At the end of September, about $35 billion had been withdrawn [via the early super access scheme], which is a huge amount of money, and a massive part of the economic stimulus,” he said, by way of example.
“And it’s been acknowledged that there was no [eligibility] testing at all. It was open slather.
“There was a bit of sabre-rattling by the tax office, that they’d be checking a sample of [hundreds of] people or whatever they were doing … but they are clearly not resourced to go around checking the better part of two million people who have taken money out.”
Former prime minister Paul Keating has also criticised the Coalition for using people’s retirement savings as a form of stimulus, claiming it shifted the burden of responsibility from the government to young and vulnerable Australians.
But Mr Combet said a lack of leadership was seen elsewhere, too.
“Like these border problems that we’ve got – [not] having a consistent view nationally about when it is appropriate to relax restrictions. I find it ridiculous,” he said.
“We’ve got a plethora of jurisdictions with different views about it.”
Although Mr Combet conceded that states were responsible for contact tracing and other health issues, he said our national politics had devolved to a point whereby premiers were free to decide whether they would pursue a suppression or elimination of the virus.
“Western Australia looks to have achieved its long-lived aspiration to secede,” he said, noting the differing approaches would hurt the economic recovery down the track.
“That’s where you really need strong national leadership to get some uniformity.”
The New Daily spoke to Mr Combet before the Australian Bureau of Statistics released the latest labour force numbers on Wednesday.
The data showed unemployment ticked up to 6.9 per cent in September – with 36,000 people losing their jobs in Victoria alone.
People in the Northern Territory, ACT and Tasmania also lost more jobs than they gained – and the unemployment rate increased by 0.5 percentage points in New South Wales, as more people started actively looking for work.
The figures were another reminder of the depth of the recession into which Australia has fallen – underscoring the need for ongoing government support beyond the measures announced in last week’s budget.
If the Coalition has its way, this could include another $130 billion of tax cuts for mostly high-income earners in 2024-25.
But Mr Combet said borrowing money to provide tax relief to high-income earners “who don’t need it and will just save the money” was “madness”.
As was failing to act on climate change – after one of the most devastating bushfire seasons in Australian history.
The Coalition had a workable policy in the National Energy Guarantee, Mr Combet told this author back in July. But he said politics had beaten common sense.
“That’s the problem,” Mr Combet said.
“A small group of people within the Coalition, who will not respect climate science, are holding the entire nation to ransom.”
This article is the first in a series of ‘Big Picture’ interviews with leading figures from the worlds of business and economics.
Throughout the series, we will discuss Australia’s economic recovery from COVID-19.
The New Daily is owned by Industry Super Holdings