Given months of polls that show Labor ahead and damaging internal disunity, the politics of this budget are extremely tricky for the government to manage.
It is not just that Tony Abbott’s sniping is causing political headaches for Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. Some of the government’s budget problems go back to the 2013 election.
In that campaign, Abbott suggested the budget deficit problems would be easily fixed by simply getting rid of Labor, and the government could somehow do so painlessly without cutting health, education or pensions.
However, as then-treasurer Wayne Swan had noted, Australian budget deficit problems were very complex and included substantial falls in government revenue due to the global financial crisis and the end of the mining boom. They weren’t just due to government spending.
Opponents criticised the size of the Rudd government’s expenditure, including its economic stimulus package designed to counter the GFC. Nonetheless, Kevin Rudd argued that Australian government debt was in fact relatively small compared with many other Western countries in a post-GFC world.
Once he won office, Abbott had to face the difficult realities involved in reducing the deficit. The substantial 2014 budget cuts, including to areas Abbott said would be protected, infuriated many voters and contributed to his poor polls and political demise.
The Abbott government’s woes went beyond the failure to fix a difficult budget situation. Other than attacking Labor, it wasn’t clear what its positive vision for the Australian economy was in terms of how to transition after the mining boom, and how to develop new jobs and new industries at a time of rapid economic and technological change.
Replacing Abbott with Turnbull was meant to provide us with such a positive economic vision. However, Turnbull’s mantra of living in innovative and “exciting times” failed to convince many voters. As one anonymous Liberal MP noted, it actually made some voters highly nervous about what was going to happen to their jobs.
Hence Turnbull turned to promising “jobs and growth” during the 2016 election campaign.
However, the Coalition’s narrow win suggested many voters still weren’t convinced the government knew how to ensure job security and a good standard of living in challenging times. In particular, many voters remained unconvinced that substantial business tax cuts would drive the economic growth and improved government revenues that were promised.
Given current levels of underemployment, unusually low wages growth and with inequality increasing, they had reason to be concerned. There is also international research suggesting that corporate tax cuts don’t have the beneficial results claimed.
Fast forward to the 2017 budget, and the Liberals are desperately trying to develop a more convincing economic narrative around good economic management, nation-building, and fairness.
Despite their attempts to blame past Labor policy and more recent Labor intransigence at passing budget cuts in the Senate, Liberal ministers are still having trouble explaining how government debt has increased from A$270 billion under Labor to some $480 billion under the Coalition.
Fortunately for them, Treasurer Scott Morrison now argues there is “good debt” and “bad debt”. Good debt covers areas such as infrastructure that assists economic growth. Bad debt apparently covers areas such as welfare.
Morrison is partly belatedly accepting advice on infrastructure-funding debt from bodies such as the International Monetary Fund, while trying to argue that the government’s new debt policies will be very different from past Labor economic stimulus ones.
Needless to say, these areas of “good” and “bad” debt aren’t quite as simple to define as Morrison suggests. Furthermore, so called nation-building infrastructure spending is sometimes more electoral pork barrelling than economic necessity. Doubts have already been raised over the economic, rather than political, benefits of a second Sydney airport and inter-capital city rail links.
Meanwhile, Turnbull struggled to explain whether Labor’s National Broadband Network was good or bad debt in terms of building necessary infrastructure.
Australian businesses that are struggling with Turnbull’s cheaper version, with its continuing use of 19th century derived copper wire technology or 1990s pay-TV-derived hybrid fibre coaxial cable technology may be wondering whether the Coalition should have discovered “good” infrastructure debt earlier and supported Labor’s more expensive fibre-optic to-the-premises model.
After all, under Rudd, the NBN was meant to be the nation-building 21st century equivalent of 19th-century government infrastructural expenditure on building railways.
Consequently, the government faces questions about whether its economic policy positions have been consistent, particularly given past Coalition rhetoric about debts and deficits.
Furthermore, while Morrison apparently characterises it as bad debt, providing temporary welfare benefits for those who lose their jobs because of economic downturns or restructuring helps keep up consumption levels. This in turn means it potentially has flow-on benefits for the private sector, as well as the individuals concerned.
It is a central lesson of the Keynesian economics that Robert Menzies’ Liberal Party embraced at its foundation, but was rejected under John Howard in the 1980s.
Does all of this mean that Turnbull is now acknowledging a lesson of the 2016 election: that neoliberalism is harder to sell than it used to be? Are his backdowns on “small-l” liberal values now being combined with back-downs on some of his long-held free-market values?
That seems to be going too far at present, especially given the government’s continued belief in the “trickle-down” benefits of corporate tax cuts and attacks on welfare expenditure.
However, there is some nuancing taking place as Turnbull tries to throw off the image of “Mr Harbourside Mansion” who loves hobnobbing with bright young technology entrepreneurs, and instead stress he is in touch with the concerns of ordinary voters.
It seems likely there will be some attempt in the budget to assist first home buyers. Various options have been canvassed.
Turnbull has already tried to position himself as taking action on household energy costs by criticising renewable energy costs and ensuring gas reserves. Meanwhile, there are suggestions the government will improve Medicare benefits in an attempt to counter Labor’s controversial “Mediscare” campaign at the last election.
All budgets are about politics, not just economics. But this budget will be even more so. Not all the measures are working out politically. Abbott is already threatening dissension over the impact of the education measures on Catholic schools.
This is a government in trouble. On one side it faces internal disunity and pressure from Labor’s emphasis on reducing inequality and fostering “inclusive growth”. On the other it has One Nation’s mobilisation of race and protectionism to appeal to the economically marginalised.
Then there is Cory Bernardi, the Greens, Nick Xenophon and a host of independents and other groups to consider.
After all, the budget is only the beginning. The next test is getting key measures through the Senate, perhaps even wedging Labor by deals with the Greens, so that the Coalition is in a stronger position to face the next election.