Is the Prime Minister softening us up for a vanishing budget surplus even before it materialises?
That’s the conclusion of at least one canny journalist this week, following Scott Morrison’s latest attempt to convince city voters that he isn’t being irresponsible by throwing billions of taxpayer dollars at drought-stricken farmers.
During Thursday’s press conference to announce that Australia’s favourite everyman, Scott Cam, had been appointed as the inaugural National Careers Ambassador, PM Morrison claimed the whole point of returning a budget to surplus was so the money could be spent.
“We have announced over $7 billion worth of initiatives and we will continue to announce them. The drought is the first call on our Budget,” the PM explained.
“The reason you get the Budget into surplus, which we’ve been doing now for the last six years, is to ensure that you can respond to these urgent issues in responding to the drought and be able to do it not just now but into the future.”
The PM must have temporarily forgotten the other main reason he’d previously claimed the budget needed to be ‘back in black’, which was to pay off ‘Labor’s debt’. But never mind.
The implication of this comment seemed to have been lost to most journalists, who were apparently more taken with social media’s outrage that one of the nation’s most prominent celebrity spruikers had entered into a commercial arrangement to sell a government program.
I mean, how on earth did the PM think it was a good idea to employ a famously authentic tradie to promote the benefits of taking up a trade? Madness.
Meanwhile, the political editor of news.com, Malcolm Farr, sensed that Scott Morrison had “appeared to open the prospect of the much-ballyhooed Budget surplus being sacrificed to deal with the human and economic devastation caused by the drought.”
If the seasoned journalist’s instincts are right, and they usually are, the PM is foreshadowing a monumental shift in political tactics that has the potential to destroy both his own career and that of Treasurer Josh Frydenberg.
It can’t be overstated how important the return to budget surplus currently is for the Morrison Government. The actual return, that is, rather than the one promised since the budget in May 2019.
Aside from not being Bill Shorten, the promise of superior economic management delivered as a budget surplus was the only thing that Scott Morrison campaigned on during the federal election.
That’s why the PM and Treasurer have resisted so fiercely any suggestion that they should take the economic stimulus route chosen by their Labor counterparts Kevin Rudd and Wayne Swan to protect the Australian economy during the Global Financial Crisis.
To do so would be to kiss the surplus goodbye. And a broken promise of that magnitude could be political suicide.
That is, unless, the current Labor leader and his treasury spokesperson, Jim Chalmers, decide not to attack the Government for breaking its surplus vow.
It would be a bitter pill for them to take, given the attacks made by Liberal leaders such as Tony Abbott, Malcolm Turnbull and, yes, Scott Morrison, on Labor for promising surpluses but being prevented by economic events from ever delivering one.
However, bipartisan agreement to sacrifice the surplus for more important matters, such as helping farmers and applying a defibrillator to the ailing economy, would completely take the heat out of the politics of a surplus that vanished.
Such an action could recalibrate the way budget surpluses and deficits are discussed in Australian politics, banishing the misleading and simplistic notion that surpluses equate with superior economic management.
This would remove a potent weapon from the Coalition’s political armoury, but perhaps do so just before that weapon blows up in the Government’s hands.
If the economy is going to tank anyway, it would benefit Mr Morrison if Labor agreed to set aside any future debate over the surplus for the good of the nation.
If this is where the PM is heading, we may see further evidence of the plan when Parliament resumes next week.
If Mr Morrison challenges Labor to support his moves to ‘sacrifice’ the surplus for important nation-saving expenditure, which he claims includes support for farmers, then we’ll know he’s on the path to defuse the surplus as a political issue.
This could be a good thing, particularly if the Government’s suddenly-deeper pockets could also be tapped for a long-overdue increase to Newstart.