I can't disguise the pounding of my heartAt today's Mid-Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook, there was the usual smoke-and-light-show with figures based on changed frames and assumptions, about which you can read on other blogs. It was no different to any other economic statement really: the Need For Fiscal Prudence, Taxed Enough Already, etc. The bit about taking the entire country along was jarring. Joe Hockey said in passing that he wanted the Australian people to come with him and the government on a "journey" toward a weakening economy, less government expenditure, and possibly even a budget surplus. That's the moment when I knew this government has no hope whatsoever.
It beats so strong
It's in your eyes, what can I say
They turn me on
I don't care where we go
I don't care what we do
I don't care pretty baby
Just take me with U
- Prince Take me with U
Hockey started off with a short personal anecdote. Liberal preselection speeches in the 1990s used to all start with this device, to invite you into the candidate's world, which was then followed by a tenuous attempt to link that to a wider theme. There you'd be, smiling away at some innocuous image from a 1950s/60s Aussie childhood, only for it segue into a diatribe on tax reform or crime/immigration like some jerry-built freeway on-ramp. So Joe Hockey went up Mount Kilimanjaro - without assistance or acknowledgment, it would seem - but why he did so was not clear. What would have been the consequences had Hockey not climbed Kilimanjaro? What stopped him ending up like Hemingway's dead leopard? This lack of clarity and urgency swept through his speech like one of his clunky and obviously scripted arm movements.
For years now, Tony Abbott has been trying to do two different but complementary things: rally people to popular causes, and to create an air of seriousness around those that are Unpopular But Necessary In The Long Term. He has failed at both. People voted against the particular model for a republic in 1999, not because the nation loves the Queen and unelected authority as much as Tony Abbott does. In 2007 people voted against a government that had been very popular, and a Prime Minister whom Tony Abbott quite admired; an election that actually resulted in that government, that Prime Minister, and his own good self, being flung into the political loserdom of opposition. He thought he could pick off The Nerd and That Woman, but could only do so once both had weakened one another.
His stunts, the personality patch-ups with Margie-and-the-girls and other props, have all failed to rally people behind anything positive. It's all stop this, and cut that - and even if it does all come off, what? It has no ability to rally the wider public, no ability apart from polling to sniff the political wind - governments that lose touch get marooned long before they are defeated. This government faces the real prospect of being marooned before it delivers its first budget.
No government ever gets to set the lights by which it is judged. Every one of the 26 Prime Ministers before Abbott had issues with the Senate, and as for an opposition voting against what they supported in government - nobody is listening because all governments have to cop that, and insert temperature-related vacation of the kitchen here. For once the press gallery was impatient with Hockey, and his complaining about situation normal in Canberra; Hockey had the discipline not to blurt out "but I thought we were buddies!", but only just.
Hockey spent three years claiming debt was a huge problem for Australia. Then in office he hosed this down, and political and economic commentators united in praising Hockey for ditching his central message. Today, he tried to hose debt back up (a clumsy image I know, but the politics is clumsier). That ploy cannot succeed, and I don't care if Peta says it will.
The idea that people will go along with cuts to areas they consider important in the name of the abstract and easily fudged budget surplus is sheer bullshit. Any old pol who's won and lost a few elections in the community where they live knows this.
Two years ago in London, Hockey made a speech in which he declared an end to the idea that government could buy people's loyalty through welfare transfers. That was a bigger call than Hockey realised, not least because nobody really called him on it. Even those who could see Hockey would be Treasurer after this year's election didn't seize on it for hints and signals as to what an Abbott government economic policy might look like. There are a number of reasons for this. First, political journalists are stupid and flock-oriented, and economic journalists are better at predicting what has happened rather than the less certain future. Second, if you did a serious critique of Hockey's economic policy then you'd have to evaluate it against that of the Labor government's policy; see the first point, but also if you compared the Coalition to Labor you run the risk of a 2004 repeat, where a flawed government found itself returned against an inferior opponent.
None of the commentators have referred to Hockey's End of Entitlements speech as the prequel for today's effort. This is because press gallery experience means diddly-squat. Can you imagine how insufferable Rudd would have been had he won the election in September? Nah, give Tony the green light.
If the MYEFO with all its bluster and hype is to mean anything, Parliament will be recalled next week and will bloody well sit until the cuts are made, or until the government has a quiver of double-dissolution triggers. That won't happen, so the bluster and hype emanating from MYEFO means nothing.
If Hockey's throwaway comment about the nation coming with the government on the journey through The Valley Of The Shadow meant anything, there would be six months of painstaking explanations between now and the budget. There would have to be a lot of preparation with key stakeholders. Do you reckon that preparation has taken place? Do you reckon they even know who their stakeholders are? Is there going to be a lot of knee-jerk bullshit and self-defeating statements from The Situation?
Paul Keating would never have ceded the limelight to Peter Walsh. Peter Costello did joint appearances with Finance Ministers under sufferance, and always outshone them. When Wayne Swan did joint appearances with Penny Wong, there was a perception of warmth and unity to the government of which they were part. When Hockey shared the stage today with Matthias Cormann, however, he made Cormann look like the brains of the outfit. Cormann will soon be distracted by the coming implosion of the WA state government.
What's going to happen is that vague but menacing proposals for budget cuts are going to sit in the Aussie sun for the better part of a month. Christmas-/ Festivus-/ other-table arguments ring to the sounds of people arguing how awful a job Abbott is doing. After Graincorp and school-funding and other debacles, we know already that if an interest groups screams loudly enough, in chorus, for a few days then this government will cave. Even if it doesn't, it will stand firm on the wrong things:
- It will claim education is important, but bellyaches about the schoolkids bonus and isn't measuring teacher performance in any real way;
- It will commit to infrastructure, without realising that big projects suffer cost and time blowouts, that any project given to Tony Shepherd's company might be misconstrued (yet if his company is denied opportunities, there'll be hell to pay from business), and that nothing big will be ribbon-ready by 2016;
- As soon as Abbott started talking about the lost cause of Olympic Dam to replace jobs lost at Holden, and then cut training programs, it was clear he had no clue and would have tens of thousands spiral into long-term unemployment. Talking points are meant to indicate vision, not disguise its absence; and
- Nobody wants to trash the Barrier Reef. Nothing this government does on environmental matters can or will make up for that.
The whole idea of the welfare state was to get and maintain people's buy-in to the idea of the state for sustainable reasons. Previously the idea of the state was a collection of People Like Us - people who look like us, talk like us, pray like us. Enemies, real or imagined, were fought abroad and purged from within. Nation-states operated for hundreds of years on that basis, but a focus on Volk leads nation-states to a bad place. If you're going to wind back the welfare state at a time when the market and other institutions are failing to provide for general prosperity, surely talk about people expecting less from government is idle. Why would people even retain a government that thought and acted like that? Never mind ideas about recasting the form and purpose of government altogether.
The very idea that people will take to government service cuts with good grace, and will reward achievement of abstract targets, should have died with the Greiner government in NSW and the Kennett government in Victoria. They should have learned from Howard - 16 ex-ministers, and none of them worth a cracker. This government has forgotten nothing from those examples because they had learned nothing.
The IPA lost all credibility when it put out its Northern Australia thing, wondering how to both cut Mrs Reinhart's tax bill while also increasing the flow of government largesse directly and indirectly to her. The fact that Tim Wilson has taken up a government sinecure and Chris Berg a taxpayer-funded study of the public sector has diminished it still further. Its founder, CD Kemp, offered the IPA to Menzies as the Liberal Party's brains trust, but Menzies cultivated his own counsel (the UAP had failed because of shadowy links to opaque business-funded entities) and he kept Kemp at arm's length.
Kemp's sons became ministers in Howard's government and the IPA became the de facto brains trust for a hollowed-out Liberal Party in recent years. Today, it stands depleted at the very point where its prospects for victory are closest to hand. The political carrion-eaters who picked over the Democrats in recent years have their beady eyes on the IPA just as those who know it best are fleeing. It, and libertarianism more broadly, had been a useful intellectual scratching post - but now it's not even that.
When you realise that Hockey has thought more deeply about his portfolio than all other members of the government put together - including the Oxford-educated Prime Minister - and that his thinking is shallow and counterproductive, you can see what a joke this government is. It cannot succeed, and its sheer force of will (less than you might imagine, really) won't count. This government will drift, it will overvalue the unimportant and undervalue what's vital, and leave us all 20 years behind where a modern productive nation should be.
A press gallery that could not evaluate policy if it wanted to should have compared and contrasted Labor and the Coalition, but could not risk Labor re-elected. Yes, insofar as it even matters now, Gay Alcorn was completely and utterly wrong to see a better side of the occupation to which she devoted her life, and hasn't been big enough to admit it. The press gallery is pretending the government's ineptitude is a surprise, but in saying that they only draw attention to their own ineptitudes. The failures of their 'profession' arise not from technology, but from their abrogations of fourth-estate responsibilities.
This government cannot and will not stay the course to austerity and fiscal rectitude, and as a result you can expect a blizzard of culture-war crap like Peppa Pig hoping to distract from this essential failure. It will distract the press gallery, because they're stupid, and if the government turns off the drip-tap almost all of them have nowhere else to go.
On that note, this will be my last post for 2013 as family holidays demand a respite from this and other toils. I offer more goodwill to all than you might imagine, so ding dong merrily on high and see you back next year (especially you). This blog will see off the Abbott government, and probably the IP bloody A at the rate it's going. There shall be much more interference in traditional media from this platform in 2014, just you mark my words: the ambivalence some detected earlier this year in these pages has well and truly gone.