Finance Federal Budget Federal budget 2020: Treasurer sells hope to climb out of a black hole
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Federal budget 2020: Treasurer sells hope to climb out of a black hole

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Josh Frydenberg wasted no time in his delayed budget speech, spelling out how deep a black hole he and the nation is in.

Five months ago he delayed the exercise of crunching numbers and best estimating where COVID-19 was taking Australia in the forlorn hope that things would get better or at least be more predictable by now.

But there was one indisputable certainty: “Our economy has been hit and hit hard” a sombre Treasurer told a subdued House of Representatives rendered sparse by MPs rostered to stay away for their own safety.

Mr Frydenberg was frank in his description of where we now are.

Instead of glorying in a budget night where he could claim the promised victory of having the nation “back on track”, he unveiled a record $213.7 billion budget deficit that would remain deep in the red over the next four years.

However, while “there is a monumental task ahead” to climb out of the hole, he assured the nation “There is hope. Australia is up to the task”.

Recovery is under way, the return of 760,000 jobs a harbinger of that.

Without a doubt this incipient resurgence is due to the government’s willingness to embark on record spending to “cushion the blow”.

The Treasurer says it saved 3.5 million jobs and helped 800,000 small and medium-sized business stay afloat.

The Treasurer is banking on creating jobs

But now the government believes is time to change tack.

The Treasurer has embarked on fiscal consolidation – the debt is growing but at a slower pace.

Mr Frydenberg is now relying on an additional $17.8 billion in personal income tax cuts to carry much of the recovery burden.

He hopes jobs will be created when grateful taxpayers regain confidence and begin spending again.

The fact that they are targeted at low- and middle-income earners rather than the top end gives some credibility to this strategy, but the assumptions border on the heroic in terms of the number of jobs this will create.

Still Mr Frydenberg is plowing on.

Long-term uncertainty

There are no indications that JobKeeper and JobSeeker will be maintained at their scaled-down levels beyond March.

Even the JobMaker programs for apprentices and the young unemployed are in place for only one or two years.

The payment boost for pensioners is similarly reduced and end dated.

The Treasurer and his Prime Minister, though, are well aware that they are like gamblers in the last chance saloon.

In his budget lock-up news conference, Mr Frydenberg echoed Treasury’s concerns about how the COVID-19 pandemic will play out.

The budget papers say “its effects on communities and the economy are highly uncertain”.

There are large upside and downside risks associated with the forecasts.

The upside presumes a rollout of a vaccine from July speeding a return of more business as usual, resulting in a $32 billion increase in activity in the first half of the following year.

The downside presumes outbreaks of the infection leading to the reimposition of lockdowns and a contraction similar to the first wave costing the economy $55 billion.

The Reserve Bank on Tuesday afternoon left official interest rates on hold, but Governor Phillip Lowe said “both fiscal and monetary stimulus will be required  for some time, given the outlook for the economy and the prospect of high unemployment”.

For a budget its framers say is all about jobs, the plan they have come up with will on their own admission take another four years to get below the Treasurer’s benchmark for success of 6 per cent unemployment.

And that’s based on the best case scenario cited earlier.

Scott Morrison told Parliament his government’s measures are “scalable”.

He may well have to do a lot of scaling up before the next election.

It will be instructive to see how Labor rises to the occasion on Thursday night. Anthony Albanese says he will then begin detailing his alternative for the nation.

Paul Bongiorno AM is a veteran of the Canberra Press Gallery, with 40 years’ experience covering Australian politics

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