Tales from the Budget Lockup:
- The celebrity gala: The budget lock up is as much a social occasion as it is an exercise in serious journalism: celebrity TV presenters are largely there for a selfie with the Treasurer and the Finance Minister and there are make-up chairs so that the likes of Paul Bongiorno and David Koch can spruce up for their five minute television spot from inside the centre. In what’s become a bit of a ritual, comedian Peter Helliar of ‘The Project’ turned up in his Team Australia outfit which this year seemed to consist of an Australian track suit top and a Trump-like ‘Make America Great Again’ cap. Unlike others he resolutely refused to submit to the ministrations of the make-up artistes. ABC Breakfast’s Michael Rowland was ubiquitous but at least we were spared the presence of Virginia Trioli who last year enhanced her stature by starting a banana fight.
- Feeding the masses: The catering arrangements for the big media organisations compete for ostentation. Most of it is supplied by Parliamentary Services and includes such things as pork and fennel in puff pastry, pizzas, pastries, salad and fruit. For smaller outlets, the choice is to bring a sandwich or rely on the Treasury’s instant coffee and Arnott’s biscuits. Inside Canberra always finds a seat in the room with the defence analysts and the troops from ‘The Conversation’ which has a considerable upside: the redoubtable Michelle Grattan always brings a hamper of goodies which she generously shares with all of us.
- Thanks to the Treasury officials: Inside Canberra thinks it’s time to give a big thank you to the long suffering Treasury officials who manage the lockup. The Treasury officials were both patient and responsive. The officials are unfailingly polite and helpful, always ready to explain the more abstruse details of the budget to uncomprehending journalists.
The Week in Politics
Budget week is invariably an arm wrestle between the government and the opposition to dominate the political conversation. The government starts with an advantage because it gets to deliver a list of policies which are designed to benefit the electorate. The opposition tries to find a killer blow which is so compelling that the government fails to get a bounce in the post budget polls. If there is no bounce the budget will be deemed a failure by the media and the crossbench will undoubtedly find the intestinal fortitude to oppose measures that the opposition has decided to frustrate.
Scott Morrison’s Post-Budget Address to the Press Club
There was a moving moment at the start of the Treasurer’s post-budget address when he discussed his brother in law who was in the audience. Garry Warren was a firefighter before he contracted progressive multiple sclerosis in 1999 and is now totally dependent on the NDIS. Mr Morrison said the government was asking Australians to “chip in” for a compassionate cause.
On the bank levy the Treasurer pleaded with the big five banks not to pass on the cost of the levy to customers.
Senate Shenanigans on Native Title
Key changes to the Native Title Act have been set back another month because the Labor Party refused to agree to an extension of Senate sitting hours until today. The Australian Senate is debating the government’s Native Title Amendment (Indigenous Land Use Agreements) Bill 2017 which seeks to overturn a court ruling that all claimants must sign agreements negotiated with commercial entities. Unless the legislation is passed, hundreds of indigenous land use agreements will be in jeopardy and traditional land owners will be disadvantaged. Labor agrees with the government that the amendments should be passed but it has been delaying the passage of the legislation, arguing that indigenous groups need to be consulted on the legislation before it’s passed.
Bill Shorten’s Budget Reply
Opposition leaders have two alternatives when they reply to the budget: they can present an alternative budget and an alternative vision for economic management or they can attempt to discredit the government’s approach. Bill Shorten opted to do both. He said that the government’s 2017 budget was an admission of guilt for four wasted years during which the economy had stagnated, wages had failed to grow and debt had increased. It is an economy characterised by unemployment and casualisation. He said there was nothing fair in making the middle class and workers pay more when you’re giving tax breaks to millionaires. He said that the budget was devoid of values. Emphasising this he said that a Labor budget wouldn’t cut $22 billion from schools while giving $65 billion in tax breaks for big companies.
The Opposition Leader used his favoured technique of obfuscation and misrepresentation to undermine the government’s position. He said that a Labor budget would not cut penalty rates when penalty rates have nothing to do with the budget. He also claimed that a Labor government would not make any of the cuts that are included in the budget even though he has declined to state clearly that he will reinstate them.
Emmanuel Macron has a Tough Road Ahead
As has been widely reported, Emmanuel Macron is the youngest French leader since Napoleon. At 39 he has all the optimism of youth and he’s going to need it. He has a month to put together a party to contest the National Assembly election. He has to find 577 candidates and so far he has 1500 applicants, the majority of them unknowns. However Macron has enough confidence to reject former Prime Minister Manuel Valls as a candidate, deeming him unsuitable to be a member of his newly created party, ‘République en Marche’.
Time to Fix the Energy Mess
The budget scraped the barnacles off the hulk of Tony Abbott’s economic management and converted it into a newly painted cruiser but the rosy glow will only last so long. In a few weeks Chief Scientist Alan Finkel will present his solution to the current energy mess and the government will have to convert that into a vehicle that everyone wants to get aboard. There’s little doubt that Dr Finkel’s report will find that a series of bad policy decisions by successive governments has led to a situation where energy is overpriced and insecure. Most of these policies were introduced for ideological reasons without scientific, engineering and economic analysis. The critical question is whether the political class will admit its mistakes and agree to unwind the policy errors.
Reactions to the Budget
It was predictable that the banks would react savagely to the $6 billion tax on their liabilities and the new regulatory environment to be imposed on bank executives, however some highly respected commentators came out in support of their position. David Murray, who led the Abbott government’s enquiry into the financial services sector, criticised the proposals for the Australian Prudential Regulatory Authority (APRA) to have powers to police the finance sector. Reforms in the budget provide for APRA to impose penalties of up to $200 million on large financial institutions and $50 million on smaller ones if their executives are guilty of bad behaviour, order the sacking of executives, and quarantine 40% of executive bonuses for four years. Mr Murray has come out strongly against APRA having these additional powers and, although it hasn’t been raised yet, it’s possible the banks may resort to the courts to challenge these powers as unconstitutional. John Howard and Peter Costello were also critical of the budget.
A Well Received Budget but Economic Problems Remain
Overall the budget seems to have been well received. On 2JJJ on Wednesday the audience seemed mostly favourable with two exceptions: the 7.5% increase in university fees and the proposal to drug test people on unemployment benefits. The general population appears to be relatively unmoved one way or the other. In the hours after the budget Facebook and twitter traffic discussion of the budget was almost non-existent. Some commentary took the view that the Liberal base would be upset by the general political approach to the budget which has been described as ‘Labor lite’. The protests have been muted, however, despite this general endorsement, the budget may be basically flawed because fiscal consolidation may not occur fast enough to correct the structural problems in the economy.