MUNGO MacCALLUM  So much for the miracle budget

May 23, 2017

Just a week after, it appears that nothing has really changed – another bad negative Newspoll, war on two fronts with the banks and the Catholics, and, of course, more brawling in the party room. There must be times when even the unquestionably optimistic – and egotistic – Malcolm Turnbull wonders why he bothers. 

The commentators who assured us that the formula of fairness, opportunity, security was a political winner, guaranteed of an immediate sugar-hit in the polls, have suddenly backtracked; now they tell us that the public is always a bit slow, but the wonder and beauty of Turnbull’s tergiversation will dawn on them in the next few weeks – or the ones after that, or at least some time before it is time to inaugurate plan B, if indeed there is one.

But in the meantime, the situation is, as almost always, fraught. Scott Morrison is publicly dismissive of the complaints from the banks; as he says, people don’t like them very much, and given that Labor is, for the moment, ready to support the levy, he finds no cause for alarm. But if – when – the banks pass on the new slug to their customers, shareholders and employees, it is a fair bet that the victims will squeal.

And this is likely to apply also to the increase in the Medicare levy, in spite of the fact that the punters initially approve of it. The black magicians of the government insists that it is a special impost, needed to fully fund the National Disability Insurance Fund. But whether, as Labor claims, the NDIS was fully funded or not, the propaganda is bullshit. It is no more and no less than a general tax increase, to be used how and where the government chooses.

And a tax is a tax is a tax, and most voters don’t like taxes – after all, Turnbull and his mates have been inveighing against the horrors of personal income tax for generations. In the distant days of 2015, Morrison vowed that the single, most vital reform he could produce was income tax cuts. Now he has presided over a tax grab.

It wasn’t his idea, the apparently impotent treasurer laments; he would much rather have reduced spending but those ignorant bastards in the senate wouldn’t let him. But this is a touch disingenuous. It is true that the decaying corpse of the budget devised by Tony Abbott and Joe Hockey was deemed unfit for human consumption, but there were, and are, alternatives.

It is not beyond the collective wit of the treasury to design a package that would satisfy the palates of senators who demand that the rich should suffer commensurately with the poor. Thus Morrison could have extended the deficit levy, placed limits on negative gearing and capital gains concessions and perhaps even tackled Liberal shibboleths like death duties, family trusts and exemptions to the value of the family home.

But this would inevitably enrage those within the party who regard any trimming of what they see as their base as tantamount to treason. Thus Morison has capitulated, but it may be a non-solution to a non-problem – the clamour for lower taxes will not go away and although the delay in implementing the bank levy and the Medicare levy will provide a reprieve, they will cut in, one way or another and probably both, well before the next election.

The screams of relief will have to be appeased, and it appears that Morrison is relying on the fantasies of exuberant economic forecasts to produce enough fat to produce a bonanza by 2019. As all the economists worth reading, not to mention many who aren’t, have pointed out, this is wishful thinking on an almost cosmic scale: the projected revenue from wages growth and company receipts will, as usual, fall far behind the predictions.

So what does ScoMo do then? Well, presumably hope for the best; but in the meantime there is a more urgent and present danger ahead, the Catholic crusade. Fortunately for Morrison he can hide behind Education Minister Simon Birmingham to avoid the full force of the onslaught, but it appears that, like previous crusades, there will be plenty carnage, rape and pillage to be delivered before the smoking battlefield remains fit for human, or even political habitation again.

The Catholics are miffed: they thought they had sweetheart deals secured by the previous government and they are not about to let them go. Hence a huge and tear-jerking propaganda blitz is in prospect, and one which will stretch the loyalties of many conservative supporters.

One of the problems is that many of the toughest right-wing warriors in the Liberal Party room are also Catholic hardliners – Captain Catholic himself, Tony Abbott, is only their most prominent general. And the Catholics know how to keep them on side, and how to fight their cause; after all, they have the experience; they have been practising for several hundred years. The Liberal Party, while willing enough in a stoush, are mere blow-ins in comparison.

The storm troopers of the Murdoch Press are already flocking back to the church militant: not only are they vigorously promoting the coming war, but they are recycling every Catholic handout they can find to enhance the victory of the true faith.

And the onslaught may well be irresistible. Birmingham started by talking tough, but within a week was wavering, offering negotiations – presumably as a preamble to surrender. It may satisfy some of the critics in the party room, but it will enrage others, and even destroy the great Gonski coup in the process – if Turnbull cannot hold the line on this one, it will confirm, if further confirmation is needed, that he is weak, indecisive, a ditherer, a puppet of the right wing.

There is one saving grace: Bill Shorten, whether a true son of the other church or through sheer opportunism or, most probably, a combination of both, has embraced the holy war. And if he is on the side of the rebellious Catholics, it follows by definition that their cause is decidedly suss.

Thus it may be that the knee-jerk loathing of Labor by the right will be sufficient to quell, or at least ameliorate, the revolt of the clerics. If it doesn’t, the budget may be the first step to Armageddon – the end of all things, but most particularly Malcolm Turnbull.

Mungo MacCallum was a senior journalist in the Canberra Press Gallery

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