NATSEM BUDGET 2016: The Political Budget

Geoff Kitney

Geoff Kitney writes for the Financial Review on news specialising in Politics and Policy.

It is a political fact of life that the first thing that matters to Members of Parliament is that they get re-elected. 

And it is an almost certain fact of the current political situation that some (possibly a lot) of Malcolm Turnbull’s MPs will lose their seats at the federal election expected on July 2.

With this in mind, it was instructive to observe the body language on show behind Federal Treasurer Scott Morrison during the 30 minutes that he was on his feet delivering the 2016-17 budget speech to Federal Parliament.

Subdued, even pensive, would be the best way to describe the way government MP’s received the Morrison budget message.

A lot of those behind Morrison seemed to be slipping deep into their own thoughts as he laid out what he said was “a 10 year plans for jobs and growth” but which MPs were considering in just a two month time frame – the two months to the election day.

“What will this do to help me hold my seat?”  You could almost read the thought bubbles rising from the government benches.

The fact that the expressions changed little over the 30 minutes of Morrison’s speech suggested that the conclusion they were coming to was “Not much!”

For a budget brought down in unprecedented political circumstances – it was the first big political event of an election campaign already underway – it was almost entirely empty of blatant political vote buying gimmicks.

For those more concerned about the future of the economy than the fate of the government, the good news was that this election-eve budget will not do the damage that it had the potential to do in these fraught political circumstances.

The politics of this budget are more sophisticated than a simple, cash-splash, vote-buying exercise.

You could see written on the faces of government MPs that it was taking a while for them to work out what Turnbull and Morrison were trying to achieve with such as cautious and constrained budget package.

The key to understanding what this budget is all about is to recognize that what Malcolm Turnbull is trying to do in the post-Abbott period is to rebuild the coalition’s political standing on more normal, more measured and less strident foundations. 

The Abbott period was frenetic, hyper-driven partisan politics in which everything was exaggerated and overblown, especially fears of imminent budget disaster and expectations about how quickly and comprehensively an Abbott government could repair the damage.

When Abbott’s prime ministership spun out of control and self-destructed, Turnbull had the multiple problems of calming an angry mob of Abbott faithful and of winding back public understanding of both of the extent of the problems and the rate at which his government could fix them.

That project has not gone well: Disappointment with Turnbull has been growing while the government’s poll ratings have been shrinking.

Voters have become increasingly confused about the Turnbull government, about just who Turnbull is and what he wants.

The budget was a big opportunity for Turnbull to give shape to a political and policy agenda that, until now, has been all over the place.

What it has attempted to do is to redefine the extent and nature of Australia’s economic problems and set out a long-term framework for dealing with them.

So what we got is a budget with an unprecedented decade-long timeframe for its core strategy but with the political objective of winning an election in two months time.

No wonder the government backbenchers struggled to work out how to respond to Morrison as he delivered his budget speech.

The underpinning political purpose of the first Morrison budget was to get Australians to look at the budget and the economy – and the government’s management of both - in a different way to that urged upon them by Abbott and his Treasurer, Joe Hockey.

Abbott’s “budget emergency” – which he used to such powerful political effect against the Gillard and Rudd Governments – has passed into history. The budget repair job is now a medium to long term task.  The return to surplus, which Abbott put up in bright lights as his most solemn first term objective, is now a goal pushed far into the future and, even then, it will be only a tentative achievement with no prospect offered of the budget returning to significant surpluses of more than the one per cent of GDP Abbott had promised he would deliver by now.

For those, including an influential crowd of fiscal conservatives, this amounts to a failure of leadership in the face of a serious threat. 

But the government defends this fundamental change – which will see public sector debt grow to almost double what it was when Abbott won office declaring that Australia was on a part hot a Greece-like debt crisis - on two grounds: it is still going to be better under the coalition than it would have been under Labor and it is a pace of fiscal rebalancing which is appropriate to an economy in a still-fragile post-GFC condition.

The government has backed its ability to sell this as an approach that justifies the coalition’s claim to be more responsible economic managers than Labor.

The trouble is there is a wide credibility gap between the narrative and the practical measures underpinning it.

The “10 year strategy for jobs and growth” is hollow in the middle.

It is based on long-term projections which economists know are almost worthless and, apart from the plans for phased-in company tax cuts, provides only the skimpiest detail as to how this budget will provide the foundations for the economic transition form a resource industry economy to an innovation-driven economy.

There will be some more detail in the election campaign.

But where there are missing bits the government is inserting the phrase “trust us”.

What it is really saying is  “trust us with your vote on election day”.

There is so much hollowness in this budget that the next one is sure to be a much more difficult budget to frame – and to sell. 

But that is probably the main political point about this budget, the last of this term of government.

The first budget of the next term of government will be when Turnbull hopes he will have his own electoral mandate to be bolder and more ambitious. For him, and especially for his vulnerable MPs, the next two months will be nerve racking.

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