Mungo MacCallum. Turnbull/Morrison mantra: jobs and growth.

May 11, 2016


Our economic plan for jobs and growth … jobs and growth…jobs and growth… jobs and growth … sobs of mirth … Hobson’s Choice … blobs and froth .. …

The trouble with endlessly repeating slogans is that they become meaningless babble. Just what the Turnbull/Morrison mantra will sound like in another eight weeks beggars the imagination.

And while we’re at it, the transition away from the mining boom is bad enough, but its ugly and illiterate derivative, transitioning the economy, is downright horrible, guaranteed to drive the sensitive listener mad within a fortnight.

But the irritating terminology is not the real problem with the budget. Turnbull and Morrison insist that it is not an ordinary budget – not a budget at all. It is a PLAN, and a plan not for a mere budget, but for an election campaign – perhaps for a decade.

But the immediate reaction was not to admire and analyse this solemn document, but to ask one simple question: can the government sell this manifesto, at least for long enough to win the forthcoming election? And, fortunately for the government, the answer seems to be a qualified yes – if only because there isn’t much to sell.

It hasn’t produced a lot of winners, but it hasn’t produced a lot of losers either. And that, in the somewhat parlous circumstances in which Malcolm Turnbull finds himself, is just about the best that can be hoped for.

They will also hope that the electorate will fail to see the inherent contradiction in the stitch up. Even as Morrison was taking his first, tentative steps into the budget lock-up, to recite another of his depressing slogans – living within our means — the Reserve Bank was cutting interest rates to an all time low in a completely opposite signal.

What Glenn Stevens and his fellow governors were telling the nation was that the economy is sluggish to the point of deflation and what is needed is not restraint but stimulus: borrow, invest, spend! Just what the voters will make of all that is best forgotten, and it undoubtedly will be in the days – no, weeks – ahead.

When it was already clear just 24 hours after the budget was brought down that it had become something of an anti climax, the government’s spin doctors tried to bring it together into six succinct dot points. But if anything, these only revealed the piecemeal nature of the document.

Point one: The great innovation strategy. But that was last year, and in any case, it never really explained just what, if anything, was actually proposed.

Point two: The colossal defence announcement, setting to high-tech spending throughout Australia. But that too was old news – last month, and widely regarded as an a electoral fix for South Australia with the rest way over the horizon.

Point three: The various free trade deals. But, yet again, not new, and in any case Turnbull and Morrison had very little to do with them. It is likely that the unilateral deals with South Korea, Japan, China and perhaps India will eventually prove fruitful, and just last week Singapore was brought into the mix. But the Trans Pacific Partnership Turnbull boosts so extravagantly is much more dubious: it appears to favour American corporations rather than Australian consumers.

So on to point four: tax. Attacking the dreaded multinational avoiders while reducing Australian corporate rates. The government argues that this is in sharp contrast to Labor’s schedule for tax increases: but hang on. Labor has no plans for major tax increases – it is just intending to withhold the tax cuts the government proposes. This is not an increase – it is in fact a saving from revenue; it is government that plans to spend them. But not, alas, on Turnbull’s plan – on its own.

And Labor would maintain the Temporary Deficit Levy, on the obvious ground that the deficit has not been reduced – it has multiplied threefold. Surely the need for the levy is greater than ever. Not much joy there.

Point five is superannuation: the retrospective tax you are having when you are not having a retrospective tax. And then point six: the clumsy acronym PATH, to   reduce youth unemployment. Well, it might be worth a try – nothing else has worked. But it at least counts as a positive. The rest, unfortunately, appears very wishy washy for an eight week election campaign. Perhaps, just perhaps, Turnbull really does not get politics.

In the meantime, in spite of Morrison’s fervent plea that the voters are now past the stage of finding winners and losers, they, with the help of an enthusiastic media, will get on with doing just that.

Morrison announced, in the tones of one proclaiming the Second Coming, that the class war is over. This, of course, is the constant assertion of the rich and powerful; what they actually mean is that the poor and underprivileged should bloody well shut up and accept their fate.

As the old hymn puts it, The rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate: God made them high and lowly, He ordered their estate.

Way back in 1945 the founder of the modern Liberal Party, Robert Menzies, delivered his edict: “We believe that the class war is a false war…” But it wasn’t then and it isn’t now. And Bill Shorten has sought to capitalise on this old and simple truth.

Shorten, it may be said, is trying too hard; but Turnbull risks being positively smug. By asserting his superiority over Shorten and everyone else, he is making what should be a straightforward election campaign a debate whose complexity threatens to unravel.

Let’s just keep it simple: jobs and growth … jobs and growth … jobs and growth … The Grapes of Wrath … Smokers’ Cough … The Glugs of Ghosh …


Mungo MacCallam is a political commentator and former senior correspondent in the Canberra Press Gallery.

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