Listening to Bill Shorten’s budget reply speech, I was reminded on my son Mark’s statement of what people want from politics in his book Queensland: Everything you ever wanted to know, but were afraid to ask. He was addressing the old question of whether Queensland was different:
- Are Queensland voters different from those in the rest of Australia, then? Probably not, because Australians expect things from their governments – things like a social security net, infrastructure, sound management of the economy, respect for freedoms but concern for fairness and social justice, and high-quality education and health services to give everyone a shot at living the way they would like to. Both Campbell Newman’s spectacular downfall and Tony Abbott’s woes suggest that these values are not ephemeral but fundamental, and that voters will punish politicians who claim to uphold them but lie about that, and who embark on the dismantling of the state and the public sphere while indulging themselves in ideological fantasies and retributive wars on their opponents, real or imaginary. Newman governed as Abbott would have liked to had he not been blocked by the Senate.
What is interesting is that the Australian electorate is becoming more like the Queensland electorate has long been – relatively unattached to party and ideology, and prepared to embrace alternatives where they present themselves.
Shorten accused the Abbott government of “social vandalism” with unfairness at its core. The second budget was essentially a hoax, “a cosmetic job by a very desperate make-up artist”. The attacks on families, the unemployed, the university funding and the unconscionable war on the states were still there. He said we needed to restore hope with a focus on:
He wants to make Australia the science, technology and start-up capital of the region, with 3% of GDP spent on R&D within 10 years.
He has identified a critical gap in the teaching of science, technology and design in our schools.
two out of every five science and maths teachers for years 7 to 10, don’t have a degree in these subjects.
20,000 teachers in our science, maths and IT classes didn’t study these subjects at university.
He promises to remedy this situation, along with a $500 million Smart Investment Fund.
How he intends to fund the new vision splendid while doing something about bracket creep and looking to reduce the small company tax rate by five percentage point to 25% is far from clear. He points to labor’s concrete plans in the area of superannuation and international tax shifting. It’s a fair bet that negative gearing and dividend imputation are on the table.
Whatever the reaction to the second Hockey budget and the Shorten reply, it is one skirmish along the way. Abbott has tax reform as a major agenda item along with a new look at federation and the relationship with the states. Shorten has, I think, a coherent vision that he needs to show how he will fund. Abbott’s vision as still a work in progress, with, I suspect, serious internal contradictions in the party room thinking – a contradiction between an active and enabling government and a pared down minimalist vision where individuals take responsibility for their own welfare, a contradiction between central and devolved government. There are some real nasties in the Abbott budget, like the withdrawal of support for community health services.
Abbott needs time to work towards a coherent vision and consequent plan. Shorten is right in saying we have a cosmetic job at present, an attempt at a makeover without knowing what the final look is supposed to be. Unless the opinion polls swing heavily Abbott’s way I can’t see him going for a double dissolution. He needs time.
Whether Abbott has the leadership skills to achieve coherence, however, is highly questionable. Labor has a better chance if Abbott stays because the vision will always show divisions and faultlines with Abbott in charge.
Elsewhere Ben Eltham has done a detailed list of budget highlights and lowlights by portfolio.
Update: The ABC answers 11 questions you need to know to understand the budget.
For earlier posts, see: