Speaking at his last major media conference for the year, Treasurer Scott Morrison has set a challenge for himself and the government in 2017.
After forensically going through a mind-numbing list of numbers, Mr Morrison came up with a deteriorating budget situation – but happily the rate of deterioration is slowing.
The Treasurer said his mid-year fiscal health check “reminds us of the need to clear any fog of unreality about the scale of the fiscal and economic challenges we face as a nation, and the need for partners in the Parliament to support government efforts to restore the budget to balance”.
The reality looming through the fog is the $10 billion corrosion in the budget’s bottom line, and with it an increase in total government debt over the four years of the forward estimates.
So into the fourth year of a government that is supposed to have budget surpluses in its DNA, none have been delivered and a sceptical jury is out on whether the projection of achieving one in 2020/21 is nothing more than a mirage.
The treasurer, in making a plausible case for why the AAA credit rating should not be downgraded, boasted that in just six months he has delivered 75 per cent of the government’s savings agenda.
He admits he has done it with the support of Labor, the Greens and the crossbench in the Senate.
In fact, Labor has played a major role in this success as the Omnibus Bill and superannuation reforms demonstrated.
But not if you listen to Mr Morrison. He is accusing the Shorten opposition of playing the budget-wrecker for its own political advantage.
He can’t have it every which way. The ratings agencies, fortunately for him, are giving the non-government parties in the Senate their due credit. So far.
AAA to stay
The three international rating agencies have given the Treasurer a reprieve on any downgrading of Australia’s credit status.
The other political reality in the mid-year update is the fact that shrinking wages are causing major revenue write-downs. Thinner pay packets mean less tax coming out of them.
But these are no abstract numbers. They represent what is happening to real people. They go a long way to explain why the government finishes 2016 trailing Labor in all the opinion polls. Stagnating disposable incomes don’t make for happy voters.
Families being hit with a $40 fee when they visit their previously bulk-billing GP have little or no sympathy for Malcolm Turnbull’s obsession with Bill Shorten’s “big lie” about Medicare being under threat.
They are hardly likely to be impressed with a Treasurer and Prime Minister promising to balance the books, but failing to outline even one big idea on how their lives will be improved.
A $50 billion corporate tax cut delivered incrementally over the next decade simply doesn’t do the trick.
— Scott Morrison (@ScottMorrisonMP) December 19, 2016
Mr Morrison’s call for partners next year to deliver savings held up in the Senate since 2014 will be much harder to find. These ‘zombies’ – Labor nomenclature for ‘walking dead’ policies – are destined to remain on the books undelivered if you can believe shadow treasurer Chris Bowen.
He says things like raising the pension age to 70 or a four-week waiting period for unemployed teenagers to get the dole are not Labor values. Nor are they values supported by the Greens, Derryn Hinch or the Nick Xenophon Team.
It is true that the legislative successes of the first six months of the elected Turnbull government have boosted morale in the parliamentary party’s ranks. But the Gillard minority government was also successful in plying the Parliament.
In the end its disarray and internal rivalries overwhelmed it. A lesson that is beginning to dawn on government backbenchers, but not all of them.
In seeking partners for success, the Treasurer, and more to the point the Prime Minister, will first have to consolidate them in their own ranks.
The world will be watching. Just ask Standard & Poors, the most pessimistic of the big three agencies.
Paul Bongiorno AM is a veteran of the Canberra Press Gallery, with 40 years’ experience covering Australian politics. He tweets at @PaulBongiorno