News National Hockey’s budget is ‘Clueless’

Hockey’s budget is ‘Clueless’

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• The Verdict: did Joe Hockey get it right?
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Moments after Joe Hockey finished his budget speech, at just the point at which you might expect he was sitting down to a well-deserved cold beer, he was being grilled by reporter Sarah Ferguson on a special edition of ABC’s 7.30. He was looking good. Confident. Like a Treasurer. The real test was behind him, and he was on familiar ground, with questions he knew were coming.

But then Ferguson pressed him on broken promises, especially that pesky one about “no new taxes”, and pressed him again to admit that increased charges, whatever name you tried to give them, were ultimately taxes, and Hockey suddenly relented in that amiable, eager-to-agree way he sometimes has.

Sarah Ferguson: I don’t need to teach you, Treasurer, what a tax is. You know that a co-payment, a levy and a tax are all taxes by any other name.

Joe Hockey: Of course they are.

Sarah Ferguson: Am I correct?

Joe Hockey: Yes.

The moment after he’d given Ferguson that simple “Yes” he looked straight down. When he spoke again his voice was softer, his eyes were duller and the half-smile had vanished. His bravado had faded.

That’s because Hockey knows that his job now that the budget is completed is sales, and much of the sales job ahead depends on claiming black is white in a big, blustery voice. It’s this engineering of illusion that is at the heart of the government’s first budget. Conceding something is exactly what it looks like won’t do at all.

His concession on taxes wasn’t a silver bullet, but it was certainly a flesh wound and a sign of weakness in a man who knows he can’t afford to show any vulnerabilities in the days ahead.

Half an hour earlier there were few of the nerves you’d expect from a Treasurer delivering his first budget, as Hockey confidently proclaimed that we must “fix the budget together”. That “By everyone making a contribution now, we will build, together, a better Australia.”

This is just one example of several in this budget of what Cher in the 1995 teen movie Clueless described as a Monet (she was talking about sex appeal, not budgets): “It’s like a painting, see? From far away, it’s okay, but up close, it’s a big old mess.”

That was the first big sleight of hand Hockey was hoping to get away with. It’s true that to go with the cuts to welfare which largely affect low-income earners there is a big “Temporary Budget Repair Levy” for people earning over $180,000. That seems sound. But the clue to the illusion is in the Orwellian name itself: the levy is temporary, vanishing after a few years. The same goes for the freeze on politicians’ pay.

In contrast, the budget pain inflicted on the sick, those with disabilities, age pensioners, unemployed young people – those already doing it tough, those who can least afford to lose support – is permanent.


This is just one example of several in this budget of what Cher in the 1995 teen movie Clueless described as a Monet (she was talking about sex appeal, not budgets): “It’s like a painting, see? From far away, it’s okay, but up close, it’s a big old mess.”

Another example: at first glance it appears that the PM and his Treasurer have had the courage to go after middle-class welfare, the payments that John Howard notoriously used to systematically shore up votes. And in one sense, it’s true – there are some serious cuts to family support that will be felt by many.

But those cuts are masked by the huge expenditure on Abbott’s prize Paid Parental Leave scheme, and by the tax breaks for superannuation high earners that the Coalition reintroduced last year. This government isn’t nearly as brave as they’d like you to think they are.

Then we get to the broken promises. Tony Abbott promised no new taxes, and no increased taxes, as well as no cuts to education, health, the ABC or SBS, and no changes to the pension or the GST. Not ‘a lesser overall tax burden’. Not ‘only small cuts to education, health, and the ABC’. Not ‘no changes to the pension in this term of government’ – all excuses the Liberals have tried to use over the past week.

This government isn’t nearly as brave as they’d like you to think they are.

Like Julia Gillard on the carbon tax before the 2010 election, Abbott was very deliberately explicit so that Labor couldn’t accuse him of leaving wiggle room. In this budget, Abbott and Hockey have broken every single one of those promises except on the GST (and the way they have foisted responsibility on the states for health and education make it pretty clear that a GST debate isn’t far away).

So it’s a budget full of broken promises, which does little of what the Treasurer claims, and hurts those in our society already having a hard time of it.

And yet I suspect they’ll get away with it anyway. Before the 2013 election, voters fully expected the Liberals to bring out the axe. In focus groups like this one, ordinary Australians told the pollsters this is what Liberals do: “slash and cut and the deficit will be reduced. We are in for that cyclic change now.”

Political parties can get away with a lot when they do what people expect. Julia Gillard suffered for her carbon tax broken promise, but it didn’t exist in isolation: it came after multiple changes in climate change policy. And when the public chucked Labor out at the last election, they were responding to a party which had become too volatile for their liking. Apart from anything else, you were never sure who was going to be Prime Minister next week.

In contrast, John Howard got away with several broken promises because voters knew what they were getting. That was the essence of Howard’s brilliant 2004 campaign slogan “Who do you trust?”. It wasn’t about whether voters could trust what he said. It was that they knew him, and could usually guess what he’d do, and so far he’d done okay.

This is what Abbott is banking on. This budget will hurt a lot of Australians – but as long as it does what people expect of a Liberal government, then Abbott is likely to get the political benefits he wants from it. In that respect at least, the budget lives up to its hype.

Sean Kelly was an adviser to Kevin Rudd from 2009 then to Julia Gillard from 2010. He is on twitter @mrseankelly

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