For months the government and its various spokesmen in the Australian have been warning us that the nation faces a catastrophe if the Budget does not pass the Parliament intact. Essentially we were told that there was ‘no alternative’ if economic progress and certainty were to be maintained. Indeed Paul Kelly, to the considerable delight of many in the business community, waxed eloquent in the Australian about how the country risked becoming ungovernable if the government did not get its way.
For the government, this line made political sense so long as the government was confident that its Budget would eventually pass, after the Senate changed on 1 July. In effect its strategy was to characterise the Labor Party and the Greens as being irresponsible, while it could soon expect to bask in the glory of achieving its chosen path to restoring the Budget surplus over time.
Now, however, the government has had to recognise that the new Senate since July is just as obdurate as the last, and possibly even less predictable. Instead, compromise is now the order of the day. Accordingly the spin also has to change. So now the story, faithfully reported in today’s Australian, is that most of the Budget has already been passed by the Parliament. The measures still outstanding will no doubt be watered down in the present negotiations, but despite the previous dire warnings, none of the still-to-be-announced changes will matter.
Well I agree they will not matter much. Indeed they may matter even less than the government lets on as the proceeds of the higher fuel excise and the medicare co-payment were going to be spent on extra road funding and health research respectively, and in themselves did not represent a saving to the budget bottom line; now that extra money can be saved, which probably represents a better economic outcome.
But what does matter to the government is that it will declare another victory as it properly moves to restoring the Budget surplus. And what should matter to the rest of us is that this required restoration of the Budget surplus over time could have been achieved more efficiently and fairly in other ways, with much less of the burden being imposed on the most disadvantaged members of our community, by relying more on real tax reform. See my three earlier postings ‘An alternate budget strategy’ on July 21, 22 and 23.