Cry me a river, ScoMo
WHEN I started out in politics in 1998, the Howard government’s work to pay off Labor’s years of debt had not long started. Budget meetings were dreaded by ministers under pressure to review their portfolio spending, line by line, and cut waste. Few were brave enough to front Peter Costello and argue for big government.
It goes without saying that no one in their right mind took their fiscal lead from the Labor Party. Instead, as Liberals, we believed our job was to get the finances in order, return to surplus, tackle underlying debt and then do our best to set the country up for the future.
People seem to have forgotten that then, as now, the Howard government faced a hostile Senate for much of its life; not me, I hasten to add.
I only worked for Senate ministers during my nine years with the Howard government so my memory is seared with the experience of rejection, compromise and dogged incremental success.
So you’ve got a tough Senate Mr Morrison? Cry me a river. That’s no excuse to junk what the Liberal party has always stood for — lower taxes, careful spending, smaller government and reward for effort. You’re not the first Liberal treasurer to have to clean up a Labor debt mess but you’re the only one in recent memory who’s tried to do it by delivering a Labor budget.
While journalists were in the Budget lockup on Tuesday afternoon, Scott Morrison took the opportunity to slip out a direction to increase Australia’s debt ceiling to $600 billion. A mere 10 years on from the departure of Howard and Costello, we’re back to where we started, only it’s worse.
With debt at a historic record high, the job is so much harder second time around because Australia is without the economic hardheads needed to put the national interest ahead of their own self- interest.
I get that Malcolm Turnbull is desperate to be popular, that much is obvious after he set being ahead in Newspoll as the bar for prime ministerial competence when he seized the top job 20 months ago. But chasing the polls to the exclusion of all else is a cancer that eats away at good government.
On the face of it, populism is easy because you just give people what they say they want, but it rarely delivers decisions that are in the nation’s best interest. Doing the right thing as a decision-maker requires leadership, which in turn requires decisions that aren’t always popular. Good leaders win the people over; poor leaders put themselves first.
And what of this term “pragmatism” that’s been used a lot this week? There’s good sense in being pragmatic if it’s built on underlying principles but it’s not an end in itself if it means you stand for nothing. Amending legislation to get 80 per cent of something rather than 100 per cent of nothing is pragmatic. But adopting Labor’s practice of increasing taxes is not because it undermines the long-held Liberal principle that a country cannot tax its way to prosperity.
Take the new bank tax. Sure it is popular, bashing banks always is, but take out the emotion and look at the reality; money to pay this extra tax will have to come from somewhere. With most Australians either a customer or shareholder of one of the big banks (and many superannuants are both), this just means ordinary people end up paying for the Treasurer’s tax grab anyway.
Still, Labor-lite Budget or not, the government’s crackdown on people rorting the welfare system deserves support. Everyone who does the right thing — by working hard, paying tax and providing for their family — resents people having a free ride at their expense.
Don’t get me wrong. People doing it tough deserve support and most people on welfare abide by the rules. But last year, there were 380,000 occasions where people on the dole missed job appointments without a reasonable excuse. Some of the 760,000 people currently on unemployment benefits — tens of thousands, perhaps — are “gaming the system”. Having started the reforms when elected in 2013, it’s good to see the Coalition is getting them in place.
A condition of receiving unemployment benefits is that you’re supposed to actively seek work; you are required to turn up for interviews with job agencies and you can’t be a noshow for work for the dole or any other employment program you are on.
But Labor’s misguided pseudo-compassion got the better of common sense and modifications to the system meant almost no one lost any dole money for not turning up to job interviews, missing training sessions, or failing to do work for the dole.
This will now change. What ministers Christian Porter and Alan Tudge are proposing is complicated, but the new demerit system for Centrelink is a big step in the right direction.
As well, no one will be able to claim the disability pension solely on the grounds of substance abuse (that’s right, previously, being an addict met the test). Being high or drunk will no longer be a “reasonable excuse” for missing a job interview either. Up to 5000 new applicants for welfare will be drug-tested and, if positive, they’ll have 80 per cent of their welfare put on a debit card that can only be used for necessities.
Despite the outcry from professional activists, these changes are hardly draconian. They’ve been proven to work in two indigenous trials and, quite frankly, shouldn’t all welfare payments be administered via a debit-card system anyway? If it means taxpayer funding actually gets spent feeding the children it’s meant to support and ensuring they get a roof over their head and books for school, why the out- rage? Amid the tax and spenda-thon that was Budget 2017, this is perhaps one area of policy we all can applaud.
Rather than trying to outspend Labor, the Coalition needs to do more of this sort of welfare reform because this is where taxpayers want to see change. As Bill Shorten’s reply to the Budget on Thursday night proved, with his announcement of billions in more funding and even higher taxes, Labor will always win any “tax and spend” race.
It might be good short-term politics, and may even help the polls, but giving up on debt only hurts Australia in the long term.
Treasurer Scott Morrison kisses his daughter’s hand after delivering the 2017 Budget. Picture: Getty Images.