The political theory, presumably, is that you won’t get into government by telling voters that you intend to sell public assets, put up taxes, cut benefits, sack public servants and end subsidies to uncompetitive industries. But you know that the budgetary and economic situation demands that these things be done. Enter the spin merchants with a deceptive, voters-are-mugs) strategy, pre and post-election.
The pre-election strategy usually comes down to saying that the incumbent government has messed things up and must be chucked out to allow better economic managers to take over. The offered alternative is all upside. The impression is given that it will leave voters better off and with a brighter future.
Voters buy the spiel and go to the polls looking forward to the new dawn of prosperity.
Then the post-election strategy cuts in. This usually comes down to saying that things are much, much worse than expected. Hence, the need for so-called ‘austerity’, which is reluctantly enacted. Public servants are sacked. Welfare benefits of various kinds are cut or made harder to obtain.
Subsequently a new election is held and the government is chucked out because of broken promises. Commentators arrive at the conclusion that voters lack the fortitude these days to accept the need for belt-tightening. They are only interested in getting free stuff.
This presents a chicken-and-egg problem. Did the voters start demanding free stuff, or did political parties take the lead in offering it? I don’t know but suspect the latter. In any event, I am not sure that Australian voters – the 10% that decide elections — do lack fortitude, as much as political parties lack conviction and competence. We may be on the Hellenic Highway, but we are not yet Greeks.
I am not sufficiently up with Queensland politics to know why the government did so badly. But unheralded cut-backs undoubtedly queered the pitch. Of course, in the end result, federal politics didn’t help. Was the result such a catastrophe for conservatives because voters refuse to face reality? I don’t think so.
Joe Hockey and Mathias Cormann produced an unsellable dog of a budget and Tony Abbott went along with it. It broke promises. It introduced measures never mentioned before the election. It hit the unemployed and poorer sections of the community. It sought to penalise pensioners by progressively reducing the value of their pensions against community standards.
It contained the budget buffoonery, hard as it is to believe, of a Medicare co-payment on the poor to be used to pay the salaries of professional, middle-class medical researchers, with some dangling, over-blown promise of curing cancer or Alzheimer. And pigs might fly.
Then we had the doozy of the massively expensive PPL scheme for the well-heeled while the poor were to be screwed to balance the budget. This didn’t sell because voters on the whole have IQs higher than 90. Even now, after the Prime Minister’s speech to the Press Club, we are left with the promise of more money for child care when the budget needs repair and an expensive national disability scheme has to be funded. Consistent? You bet it isn’t.
It looks like Abbott will have difficulty surviving, as will the government in 2016. The Coalition might have got away with budgetary second-guessing after the election if it had put in place sensible saving measures and explained them carefully. It is difficult to do that without guidelines. A stringent budget needs be constructed within guidelines.
In my view a sensible guideline for a first budget, given a hostile Senate, would have been to do nothing which directly targeted those earning below a specified level of income — for singles, for couples and for couples with children. Middle-class welfare and departmental expenditure and staffing needed to bear the brunt of savings. This was obviously beyond the wit of Abbott, Hockey and Cormann.
Does Abbott deserve to go? Well, as William Munny puts it in the movie Unforgiven, “deserve’s got nothing to do with it”.
The budget was and is nothing short of a disaster. It has undone the reputation of a government that, within less than half its term, stopped the boats, got rid of the carbon and mining taxes, remedied the NBN, and entered into three important free-trade agreements. It may now be too late for Abbott to move Hockey and put Turnbull in his place. If it is too late, it is time for Abbott to go. If, on the other hand, he still has the authority to reshuffle the team he may have found the pathway to survival.
Don’t blame the voters for any of this. Don’t blame communication problems. Blame the budget.