Wednesday, 11 May 2011

The Budget - I'm confounded

I know I shouldn't be surprised, but I am. Again - yet again - I find myself confounded by the Australian public. I like politics. There, I've said it. I also like football. Loving the arts and cafes and gardening doesn't preclude a passion for politics. And football is the great social leveller, the vital integrator. For those who - be it for cultural or emotional or financial or language reasons - find themselves on the fringes of the greater society it can be the point of entry. But today I'm not interested in the ins and outs at Essendon or what that marvel Jimmy Hird has to say. Today I'm flummoxed by the great unwashed.

I listen to Fran Kelly on RN Breakfast every morning. I watch 7.30 with Chris & Leigh most nights. Plus Lateline with Ali Moore or Tony Jones, 4 Corners, Q&A, et al. I also read the papers most days. I voted for Rudd. At the last election I'd have voted for Turnbull but would cut off my right hand before I put a '1' next to the Lib candidate while Noddy's friend is in charge. That said, I did vote for Peter Ryan at the last state election. In the end I opted for Bob and the Greens at the last federal vote. I guess this all points to me being a left-leaning swinging voter. I'd like to think that my understanding of the electorate isn't too coloured by my own persuasions.

Working at the cafe I had to deal with all comers. In a conservative country town that meant many of my customers had differing views to mine. I mention this because I think I have a breadth of exposure to alternate views that should help me understand the other citizens of voterland. But I don't. As I mentioned, I'm confounded.

I've spoken to a few people about the Budget over the last couple of days. Invariably the conversation has started with "how did you fare?" or something akin. I live very well up here on the hill, so maybe I'm aberrant, but I have no idea how the Budget will impact on me as an individual. And I don't really care. I trust that the Government isn't going to nationalise my house or force me into a mining-labour camp in the Pilbara... Essentially the Government governs to do the best it can for the vast majority of us. I can't imagine how difficult that is in the current circumstances. Minority in both houses, constant negotiation with myriad, diverse, parliamentary stakeholders. And that's just in the House. There's also the views of so many interest groups to take into account, let alone the individual voters.

I've been resoundingly disappointed in Julia Gillard. I thought she was an articulate, savvy and accomplished Deputy PM. And an astoundingly good performer in Oppostition. Yet, as PM she has allowed the political debate to be dictated by the constant niggardlyness (is that a word?) of Abbott and Hockey. Does Big Joe really believe that there's a chance of a by-election? Short of a protest-retirement (sit, Kevin) or a death, surely not. And given the lack of vision coming from the Coalition - essentially since Tony rolled Malcolm by a vote - I can't see that the cross-benchers are any more likely to side with them than they were almost 12 months ago.

What has been so disappointing from Julia is the poor communication of the whole ALP team. On paper (sorry, football analogy) she has a great team. Swan has grown into the job (assiduously avoiding Ugly Duckling pun), Roxon is great, Tanner is missed but Wong has filled his shoes adequately, Smith is accomplished, Rudd loves what he's doing, Conroy is talented and articulate, Macklin is competent... The list goes on: Combet, Shorten, Plibersek, Ellis, Emerson, Burke, Ferguson. Even Garrett - I think - is a better Minister than the insulation mess that Rudd buried him in afforded. So why - oh why! - have the ALP been allowing the Coalition and the polls to dictate terms?

Timidity is one possibility, but I can't imagine the Julia we knew and loved being timid. Compromise is another option, but by all accounts she's masterful (misstressful doesn't really cut it...) at achieving outcomes from complex negotiations. Shame at the way she came to the top job? That is the only thing I can think of that could explain the malaise. And I have one thing to say if that's the case - get over it! The country needs a leader and you're it, baby! You feel guilty about wresting the mantle from Kev? Too bad. Toss and turn at night as you deal with your conscience, but your day job is to be the Prime-bloody-Minister. 

Anyway, that's what I'd have said a week ago. But then, like the ghost of xmas past, there she was, smiling, firm, resolute, at ease 'pon the screen of my teev. Which (I know, I ramble) brings me back to the Budget. I think it's a good Budget. Yes, there's debt, but show me a household or a company without debt. Yes, there are things that could be better, things that could be worse, but overall it seems to do what is required. Swan is the Treasurer for a minority government in the mid-point of a boom-GFC-boom cycle. He's overseen the borrowing and spending required to see the country through the GFC almost too successfully. Yes, there was some waste, but for the most part the programmes implemented did what they were designed to do - that is, insulate us from the crisis. Paradoxically, maybe if they hadn't been so successful the electorate would be more appreciative. Now Swan and his ALP colleagues recognise that it's time (no Whitlam reference intended) for the Government spending to wind back as private investment kicks back in. Abbott and Hockey have been blowing their "too much debt" trumpets so long that their lips look like fattened leeches, so the country is attuned to the idea (but maybe not ideal) of a surplus. But I give Swan the benefit of the doubt in assuming that he's aiming for a surplus in 2012/13 for fiscal and not political reasons...

Problem is that we get back to the opening gambit of my few Budget conversations: most people want to be better off after the Budget than before. But! They also seem to have bought into the Abbott and Hockey trumpeting. Any wonder I'm confounded! No one wants to be worse off, but most people also want the Government to spend less. Hmmm... This is nothing more than financial NIMBYism. It's OK - nae, necessary! - for the Government to spend less, just as long as they don't spend less on me. Queensland voted resoundingly against returning the ALP Government to Canberra last year, but those same voters wanted the Government to step in to provide support and money to rebuild after the floods and Yasi. And fair enough too, that's what Governments do. Imagine if Swan and Gillard had said, "no, sorry, we can't help because the GFC has eroded our income base and we'd have to borrow money to support you and in this political climate that'd be electoral poison..." It doesn't happen. But people have such short memories. 

Sigh. I'm so perplexed. You know what though? The Budget followed through on the commitments the Government made to the cross-benchers, so it has met its obligations to its extended parliamentary family. It also kept its spending to the cap it set itself at the last election. Tick, and tick again. And those ticks must take some pressure off Julia and co. Here's hoping that the few sightings of PM Julia this week weren't an illusion. And let's hope that radio stations start giving Wayne plastic cups when they ask the hard questions!

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