A pre-elec­tion bud­get looms.

The Saturday Paper - - The Week Contents - Paul Bon­giorno

Next week fed­eral par­lia­ment re­sumes and the leader of the house, Christo­pher Pyne, will ta­ble the sched­ule of sit­tings for 2019, an elec­tion year. He is sure to fol­low the con­ven­tion of iden­ti­fy­ing the sec­ond Tues­day in May as bud­get day. But few will take the timetable at face value. The Op­po­si­tion cer­tainly won’t, and all the por­tents in­di­cate that their scep­ti­cism will be well founded.

Con­sti­tu­tion­ally, Scott Mor­ri­son could keep gov­ern­ing un­til the end of Au­gust next year. The elec­tion for the lower house is timed to three years from the date of its first sit­ting af­ter the elec­tion. The se­nate, how­ever, with fixed terms, has to have an elec­tion for half its seats so that a new term can be­gin from July 1, 2019. The Par­lia­men­tary Li­brary cal­cu­lates that the lat­est the prime min­is­ter can hold the se­nate elec­tion is May 18.

Un­less Mor­ri­son is gripped by a crip­pling fear he will be cut down at the poll and hangs on for dear life un­til the last pos­si­ble minute by split­ting elec­tions for the two houses, May 18 con­ven­tion­ally is seen as the last re­al­is­tic date for the house of rep­re­sen­ta­tives as well. The sce­nario of a half-se­nate elec­tion with a reps elec­tion to fol­low at a later date would surely be an ad­mis­sion that the game is over, and spell death for the gov­ern­ment.

A May 18 elec­tion would mean the bud­get would have to be moved for­ward as it can­not be de­liv­ered if the par­lia­ment has been pro­rogued. Mor­ri­son this week sig­nalled his in­ten­tion to un­veil how big his cut to Aus­tralia’s mi­grant in­take will be in the bud­get.

La­bor has al­ready had elec­tion cam­paign dry runs and is con­vinced Mor­ri­son will bring the bud­get for­ward to late March or early April and then rush to the polls. It ex­pects the mother of all pre-elec­tion bud­gets. The prece­dent is the last Howard-Costello ef­fort that tried to buy the 2007 elec­tion with mas­sive and, as it turned out, un­af­ford­able tax cuts. The global fi­nan­cial cri­sis could hardly have been fac­tored in. But the as­sump­tion that the big­gest min­ing boom in his­tory would con­tinue for­ever was at best delu­sional and at worst cyn­i­cally ir­re­spon­si­ble.

Politi­cians star­ing down the bar­rel of de­feat in­ex­pli­ca­bly think the way to avert the harsh judge­ment of the vot­ers is to aban­don the poli­cies and po­si­tions that they have ar­gued are best for the na­tion and do what­ever it takes to give the mob what it wants. There are deep philo­soph­i­cal ar­gu­ments about pop­ulism not be­ing bad in a democ­racy. United States pres­i­dent Ron­ald Rea­gan’s first bud­get direc­tor, David Stock­man, quit the ad­min­is­tra­tion when Rea­gan threw fis­cal rec­ti­tude out the win­dow and ca­pit­u­lated to pow­er­ful vested in­ter­ests that wanted tax cuts but not the spend­ing cuts to pay for them. Stock­man, rather than be­ing dis­ap­pointed in Rea­gan, wrote a book about his ex­pe­ri­ence: The Tri­umph of Pol­i­tics: Why the Rea­gan Rev­o­lu­tion Failed. The rev­o­lu­tion was sup­posed to de­liver small gov­ern­ment and bud­get sur­pluses. It de­liv­ered the op­po­site. Stock­man con­cluded that the po­lit­i­cal real­i­ties of the Amer­i­can democ­racy – giv­ing the peo­ple what they wanted – tri­umphed. It took al­most a gen­er­a­tion to re­pair the eco­nomic dam­age.

A par­al­lel in Aus­tralia is the tri­umph of pol­i­tics over car­bon pric­ing. The loom­ing elec­tion may prove a wa­ter­shed mo­ment. But not be­fore Scott Mor­ri­son at­tempts to re­peat a ver­sion of Rea­gan’s Amer­i­can tac­tic and, closer to home, Tony Ab­bott’s folly. Con­sider this: as trea­surer, Mor­ri­son spent most of the past 12 months ar­gu­ing against a cut in the mi­grant in­take and for an en­ergy pol­icy called the na­tional en­ergy guar­an­tee. La­bor threw down the gaunt­let on en­ergy pol­icy on Thurs­day and re­fused to be wedged on im­mi­gra­tion all week.

The prime min­is­ter waxed lyri­cal iden­ti­fy­ing pop­u­la­tion growth with the pain of res­i­dents in our ma­jor east-coast cities. “They are say­ing enough, enough, enough,” he said. “The roads are clogged, the buses and trains are full. The schools are tak­ing no more en­rol­ments. I hear what you are say­ing, I hear you loud and clear.”

Even though the size of our mi­grant in­take is in his baili­wick, Mor­ri­son says he’ll be con­sult­ing the states on low­er­ing mi­grant num­bers. He made a virtue of the fact that this year the in­take is 30,000 below the 190,000 cap for per­ma­nent mi­gra­tion. In Fe­bru­ary he dis­missed per­ma­nent mi­gra­tion as the big­gest con­trib­u­tor to our clogged cities. Back then he said, “What’s been driv­ing up pop­u­la­tion growth in Aus­tralia is more tem­po­rary mi­gra­tion.” He pointed to the growth in in­ter­na­tional stu­dents, tourists and tem­po­rary work­ers.

No one is sug­gest­ing we should take an axe to them as the fix for our decades-old lack of plan­ning. The cost would be sub­stan­tial, some­thing then trea­surer Mor­ri­son pointed out more than once. The al­most 700,000 for­eign stu­dents are worth close to $30 bil­lion a year – one of our big­gest “ex­ports”. Last year there were 8.8 mil­lion tourists, al­most a mil­lion-and-a-half of them from China.

A clue to Mor­ri­son’s con­ver­sion now that he is a prime min­is­ter head­ing to­wards his date with destiny is the anal­y­sis done by Pro­fes­sor Ian McAllister in the Aus­tralian Elec­tion Study af­ter the 2016 elec­tion. He found 80 per cent of One Na­tion vot­ers were hos­tile to im­mi­gra­tion and wanted the num­bers cut. And the stereo­type of Pauline Han­son’s fol­low­ers all be­ing in ru­ral Queens­land doesn’t stack up. Half of One Na­tion’s strength lives in the big cities.

But if the plan is to im­press Han­son, the PM has a way to go. She tweeted that cut­ting im­mi­gra­tion num­bers alone is not enough. “The Mor­ri­son gov­ern­ment should also adopt One Na­tion’s pro­posed travel ban on ex­trem­ist coun­tries,” she said.

Bill Shorten isn’t spoil­ing for a fight on mi­grant num­bers. He says the in­take has to be mon­i­tored yearly. He is also crit­i­cal of the 1.6 mil­lion peo­ple on tem­po­rary work visas, but says greater in­vest­ment in roads, schools and hos­pi­tals is needed to ad­dress vot­ers’ re­sent­ment of ur­ban con­ges­tion. Where he is more than will­ing to en­gage the gov­ern­ment is on en­ergy pol­icy. Here, as far as he is con­cerned, the align­ment of pop­u­lar pol­icy and good pol­i­tics co­in­cides. The Fair­fax-Ip­sos poll on Mon­day sug­gests he’s on the right path. Re­duc­ing car­bon emis­sion is clos­ing the gap on re­duc­ing house­hold bills, at 39 per cent to 47 per cent. Es­sen­tial Re­search has found 76 per cent sup­port for gov­ern­ment sub­si­dis­ing re­new­ables.

Shorten is tak­ing the Lib­er­als’ cli­mate-scep­ti­cal, coal-dis­posed, lower power prices prom­ise head-on. He has a plan: “More Re­new­able En­ergy, Cheaper Power.” His of­fer to make the Turn­bull gov­ern­ment’s thwarted na­tional en­ergy guar­an­tee (NEG) the cor­ner­stone of that plan high­lights the mess the Lib­er­als have got them­selves into. Mal­colm Turn­bull, as over­heard by a Fair­fax re­porter last weekend, told a high-pow­ered dinner in Syd­ney the Coali­tion at present was “not ca­pa­ble” of deal­ing with cli­mate change, de­spite it be­ing “a pro­found prob­lem”.

La­bor’s spokesman on en­ergy and cli­mate change, Mark But­ler, says Mor­ri­son and his trea­surer, Josh Fry­den­berg, spent most of this year telling Aus­tralian house­holds and busi­nesses the best way to bring en­ergy prices down is via the NEG. They said house­holds would save $550 a year, whereas if the guar­an­tee was dumped, power bills would go up by al­most $300. Since the dump­ing, But­ler says elec­tric­ity prices are climb­ing on the futures mar­ket by as much as 40 per cent in 2019. Bloomberg and other mar­ket an­a­lysts say re­new­ables are al­ready cheaper than new coal-fired power.

La­bor is ex­ploit­ing the fact the gov­ern­ment party room backed the NEG three times be­fore a de­ter­mined group within the party, whom Turn­bull calls “in­sur­gents”, “blew the gov­ern­ment up” and with it a pol­icy that ex­perts took 12 months to de­velop. Aware these same con­ser­va­tives would at­tempt to re­peat Ab­bott’s block­ing of any at­tempt to leg­is­late the NEG af­ter the elec­tion, But­ler and Shorten have a plan B still based on much of the work that went into the Turn­bull-Fry­den­berg plan.

They are promis­ing to spend $5 bil­lion im­ple­ment­ing the Aus­tralian En­ergy Mar­ket Op­er­a­tor’s in­te­grated sys­tem plan. This of­fers re­li­a­bil­ity and sta­bil­ity of power while at the same time scal­ing up and util­is­ing re­new­able en­ergy. Shorten, seiz­ing on re­search by The Aus­tralia In­sti­tute, says this ac­cel­er­ated tran­si­tion to re­new­ables will cre­ate 60,000 jobs in con­struc­tion and 12,500 jobs in main­te­nance. Un­like the Lib­er­als af­ter 2020, La­bor has given a pol­icy frame­work to de­liver its tar­get of 50 per cent re­new­ables and a

45 per cent cut in emis­sions by 2030.

And to fur­ther blunt a counter-cam­paign warn­ing that such tar­gets can only lead to job losses and push up prices, La­bor is promis­ing to fund one mil­lion house­hold bat­tery in­stal­la­tions by 2025, cut­ting more than “60 per cent off their power bills”. A “just tran­si­tion au­thor­ity” will be set up to re­train and help re-em­ploy dis­placed coal in­dus­try work­ers.

This is all de­signed to bury the ghost of Ab­bott’s suc­cess­ful 2013 cam­paign. Turn­bull, mean­while, is tak­ing keen in­ter­est, fol­low­ing an In­sta­gram cam­paign to “vote Tony out” of War­ringah. A Lib­eral branch in Syd­ney’s Ro­seville is now call­ing for Turn­bull to be ex­pelled from the party.

Maybe Mor­ri­son will try to hang on un­til Oc­to­ber next year. •

CON­SIDER THIS: AS TREA­SURER, MOR­RI­SON SPENT MOST OF THE PAST 12 MONTHS AR­GU­ING AGAINST A CUT IN THE MI­GRANT IN­TAKE AND FOR AN EN­ERGY POL­ICY CALLED THE NA­TIONAL EN­ERGY GUAR­AN­TEE.

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