Cry me a river, ScoMo

The Sunday Telegraph (Sydney) - - NEWS - PETA CREDLIN

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.

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