Leading article Australia

Joshua tree

15 May 2021

9:00 AM

15 May 2021

9:00 AM

Travelling across the Mojave desert in the mid-1800s in search of the Promised Land, a group of Mormons were mesmerised by strange trees that they had never seen before, miraculously blooming in the arid, parched wastelands. Convinced that these monocotyledons in the shape of outstretched hands were sent by God to guide them and assist them on their biblical-style trek across the desert, they called this unusual yucca palm the Joshua tree.

Like most desert trees, Joshua trees only bloom sporadically; the miracle of their blooming depends less on divine intervention and more on adequate rainfall following a winter freeze.

Federal Treasurer Joshua Frydenberg completed his own trek through the wilderness of Covid on Tuesday night, leading his people out of the wilderness of masked despair and lockdowns, courtesy of an equally miraculous Joshua tree; a money tree from which blooms endless hundred dollar bills providing free aged care, free childcare, free disability insurance, free domestic violence remedies, free first home deposits, free artificial intelligence research, free cybersecurity, free new roads and highway upgrades, free country doctors… the list goes on an on. Hell’s bells, the Matildas women’s basketball team even get a free $12 million dollars to spurge on overseas competitions.

Of course, none of it is free at all. Indeed, by 2024-25 Australia’s combined debt and deficit will sit at around a trillion dollars. Take that in slowly: a population of 25 million will, within four years, be in hock to the tune of one million million dollars. Thats forty grand for each one of us to repay. Assuming, of course, that interest rates stay at record lows (which they won’t).

The federal Budget delivered on 11 May was a farce. It was the Clayton’s Budget, the Budget you have when you are not budgeting. Indeed, the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language defines ‘budget’ as ‘An itemised summary of estimated or intended expenditures for a given period along with proposals for financing them’ (our italics). What was missing during the Treasurer’s earnest speech was any sense of how this monumental debt can be paid off and more importantly what cuts the government intends to make to its own profligate spending in order to reduce that debt.

On top of which, as Judith Sloan outlines this week, there is no evidence that many of the so-called economically beneficial stimulus measures such as increased childcare subsidies actually deliver what it says on the pack.

When quizzed repeatedly by Kieran Gilbert on Sky News about how the debt will be paid off, it was telling that the Treasurer reverted to hitting the panic button of a ‘once in a century pandemic’, ‘raging coronavirus’ etc. that has become the default Get Out Of Debtors Jail Card of this government. By all means promise this or that extra spending on important or worthwhile social issues, but  if you are not prepared to simultaneously reduce spending in other areas then you have not ‘budgeted’ – you have simply borrowed beyond your means. One is commendable, the other irresponsible and reprehensible.

Apart from the one worthy measure of a tax cut for those on low incomes, Budget Night was quite literally an embarrassment of riches. Embarrassing to see the party of John Howard and Robert Menzies treating the hard-earned taxes of the forgotten and quiet Australians with such absolute contempt. $12 million dollars for the Matildas may seem irrelevant in a Budget-splurge of billions, but it serves as an apt metaphor for how detached not only from reality but from conservative fiscal principles this government has become. The money is given to the Matildas because they are women, in an ideological push worthy of the Greens and Labor playing the identity politics card. Put bluntly, if the Matildas are incapable of supporting their own international sporting ambitions then they have two options: try harder, or go find your own sponsors. Or to put it another way, if we want to prioritise financing more aged care and domestic violence support, then we must de-prioritise in other areas such as, for example, by saying no to financing elite sports. That is what is called budgeting.

Rock fans will remember the iconic yucca palm featured on the cover of U2’s chart-topping Joshua Tree album released back in 1987, coincidentally at the height of Thatcherite fiscal conservatism.

That particular Joshua tree, alas, is now dead as a dodo.

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