How long is temporary?

You can fool some of the people some of the time,
and those are the ones you want to concentrate on.

                                                        George W. Bush, 2001.

Thank goodness they have repaired the Hubble Space Telescope because we might need it when trying to find the end of Wayne Swan’s “temporary deficit”. His vague estimate, and that of the Australian Treasury people, is that “temporary” means some time between 2015 and…well…er…infinity? Temporary is a word best read cold— cold sober, that is. 

This might be the time to reflect on another great promise about “temporary measures”. That of William Pitt the Younger. Pitt became England’s prime minister in 1783 at the age of 24 and inherited the mounting debt from the three-year American War of Independence. He then faced the enormous cost of arming the country against the Napoleonic threat. In his December budget of 1798 he introduced income tax “as a temporary measure”. 

The tax was about 1% for annual incomes over 60 pounds and 10% for those earning over 200 pounds annually. Pitt’s “temporary” income tax lasted until his successor abolished it in 1801, but that reprieve lasted only until 1803 when it was bought back as a “temporary measure” during the Napoleonic Wars. After 1842 the “temporary measure” became permanent. 

Wouldn’t you know it—Tasmania was the first Australian State to introduce income tax (in 1880) followed by South Australia (in 1884). In 1895, New South Wales introduced income tax at the rate of six pence in the pound. All Australian States had income tax by 1900. The federal Labor Government of Andrew Fisher introduced a Commonwealth income tax in 1915, which was presumably, to help finance Australia’s part in WWI. When Fisher said that Australia would assist the Empire to her “last man and last shilling” he was serious. Since Andrew Fisher the Labor Party has fallen deeply in love with taxes. And they ain’t temporary. 

Back to budget-week and the performances of the main players. Wayne Swan looked and sounded nervous delivering his 30 minute budget speech, and sought the relief of a glass of water as his throat regularly dried. The chortle from the Opposition didn’t help, as he sounded the dreaded words “temporary deficit”. Kevin Rudd’s later encounter with Kerry O’Brien, as Rudd tried to justify the “temporary deficit” turned into a mind-numbing orgy of Rudd-speak which was almost incoherent. Lachlan Harris should remind his boss that English isn’t his, Rudd’s, second language. 

The Opposition leader’s Budget reply, by comparison was possibly the most articulate speech the Australian Parliament has heard in living memory, though he received little credit or recognition from the media, keen to pick out bite-size snippets for TV news, and a grudging recognition of his points on the approaching mountain of debt. “Temporary debt”, that is. 

To paraphrase Ronald Reagan, “Recession is when your neighbour loses his job. Depression is when you lose yours. Recovery is when Kevin Rudd loses his.”

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