At the end of the week of Treasurer Joe Hockey’s second Federal Budget, I recalled the caustic observation about the current state of play in Russia: ‘The main problem in Vladimir Putin’s Russia is that it has an unpredictable past.’ Apparently, so does Australia, if the 2015 Budget has any value as a guide. Just a year or so ago, Australians were about to confront a ‘Budget Emergency’, according to the newly empowered Abbott Government. Indeed, people may recall that the PM, in Opposition, was fond of Hellenic comparisons of Australia to Greece, and at one insightful stage, Cyprus, as tales of doom repeatedly emerged from the conservative, ideological crypt. None of this could ever withstand any serious analysis for more than ten minutes and you did not need to embrace JM Keynes to dismiss such tales as mere hyperventilation. A glance at the comparative economic statistics puts things beyond doubt.But Budget night demonstrated that the ‘Emergency’, had it ever actually existed, was now consigned to a mythical past.
The Treasurer achieved a fighting speech, aimed as much at his backbench as at the markets and voters. And it seemed to work, with the Government’s stocks rising along with the more tangible kind on the ASX.The Treasurer was generous: the Grinch of 2014 was no more, although foreign aid was again cut, to loud applause from the beer hall elements of the Fourth Estate, without any serious consideration being given to the Australian commitments being violated or abandoned in countries that had supported our bid for a seat on the UN Security Council. The extent of Budget generosity easily eclipsed Rudd’s expansive approach on his brief 2013 return from Elba.
The Australian American Leadership Dialogue brought two outstanding US political craftsmen to Canberra for Budget week activities. Tony Podesta and Barry Jackson enjoyed themselves thoroughly. They saw elements of State of the Union address through to US political conventions in our Budget drama. There is no US equivalent, of course, merely a White House document which becomes subject to endless horse trading in both House and Senate.
This brings me to the red leathered chamber in Canberra, which ultimately will decide the fate of both Joe Hockey’s stalled first Budget, with much electoral poison still washing around and his kinder, gentler 2015 effort. Jack Kennedy was fond of saying: ‘Some people have the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought.’ A glance at some of the Greens and crossbenchers underlines the truth of this comment. But the fate of the Budget and the nation’s economic governance rests in these opinionated Senators’ hands.
Parts of the commentariat have termed this 2015 document an election Budget. John Howard seemed to nod in that direction when he emphasised the Government’s political imperatives. Bill Shorten, in reply, clearly had his eyes on the electoral possibilities, matching the Treasurer’s largesse, while shifting to a greater emphasis on technology and higher education. Federal Labor appears confident that it can do again to the 2015 Budget what it achieved a year ago: shred the document off the back of foolish errors, like Government claims of double dipping on parental leave being ‘fraud’, except where your Ministerial colleagues have so indulged. The truth is that the Budget gives Tony Abbott some early election options for late 2015 or early 2016. There is little more to give away in the Treasury in next May’s Budget so this may be as good electorally as it gets for the Coalition, with interest rates at record lows and the battle with the States over health and education funding yet to be joined. However, Senate voting reform must be achieved before an election is called. A bipartisan initiative to change to an optional preferential system or introduce a threshold quota will be the sign.
Both Joe Hockey and Bill Shorten were enthusiastically received by their respective public galleries. While this added to the Old Vic atmosphere of Budget contest, it should not be taken too seriously. Kim Beazley used to remark: ‘May God protect us from our supporters’. An endorsement from the public gallery is a little like the Barmy Army singing the praises of the English cricket team. High marks for loyalty, but only to be expected.
Gary Gray delivered a moving tribute in the House on the death of his father in law, the late Senator Peter Walsh – a legendary Finance Minister in the Hawke/Keating years, and arguably the most formidable custodian of the public purse since Federation. But it was as Resources Minister that I remember him best, for his uncompromising determination to confront humbug. At the 1984 ALP National Conference, Walshie faced entrenched opposition from Labor’s Left as he supported a proposal to liberalise the Party’s moronic ‘three minds’ uranium policy. Having weathered the storm, he proceeded to speak in reply: deliberately, slowly, purposefully. ‘In 1975 (unease)’, he began, ‘Jim Cairns (gasps) arrived in Tehran (groans) to sell uranium (anguished cries)…to the Shah!’ (shrieks). The critics collapsed. The debate was won.
‘Have a go!’ is now recognised as having political as well as sporting resonance. Too few of us now recall ‘Yabba’ and the Sydney Cricket Ground hill, where the cry would echo every summer to hapless batsmen struggling at the crease: ‘Have a go…ya mug!’