WHEN Julia Gillard was prime minister and her embittered predecessor Kevin Rudd was hovering offstage, and intrigue abounded and Labor was enduring a string of cost blow-ups and shredded budget estimates, and it was flat-lining in the polls, it cooked up one of the great political con jobs.
Labor announced a series of major spending initiatives on education, social welfare and health care. They were untested, uncosted and unallocated. To pay for these national schemes Labor announced ... almost nothing.
The cost was safely postponed to beyond the budget forward estimates, past two election cycles, to 2017 and beyond.
As per plan, when the Coalition confronted these costs in government and said it would not commit to them, it was savaged by Labor and much of the media.
It is why Labor rushed out a TV campaign about Tony Abbott’s “lies”. Because it deflects from Labor’s much bigger con.
This budget has some bungles. It was badly sold, the groundwork was poorly laid, and the anxiety inflicted on young people who lose their jobs is an example of an avoidable blunder.
I’m offering an exchange I had on radio this week with a figure subject to even more reflexive hatred than Tony Abbott, because I think it foreshadows a coming debate. It was with Alan Jones.
Jones: “There is no surprise in the polls. They show support for the Abbott government plunging. And the Labor Party, the arsonists, would be back in charge. That is, the crowd that gave us $190 billion in deficits in five years ... we’re told if an election were held the Labor Party would romp in ... no admission of the financial disaster that Abbott inherited and ... promises to spend more for university students, the unemployed, the welfare recipients ...
“The arsonists, if you are to believe the polls, are still in control. What to make of all this? Paul Sheehan is on the line.”
Sheehan: “Alan, we now have a leader willing to sacrifice his career for the good of the economy. We have an opposition leader willing to sacrifice the economy for the good of his career ...”
Jones: “I think we can end the interview now ... You can’t do any better than that. That is exactly where we are ...”
Sheehan: “Bill Shorten spoke for 33 minutes in Parliament and I listened very carefully for how he was going to pay for his compassion ... And I did not hear a single syllable, not a sentence, not a nanosecond of air saying: ‘These are the sacrifices we will make, these are the hard decisions, these are the choices, these are the taxes, these are the cuts and these are the efficiencies ...”’
Jones: “According to the International Monetary Fund, and I will say this slowly, in the six years to 2018, Australia is forecast ... to have the third-largest increase in net debt, as a proportion of GDP, among 17 rich nations, and the highest spending growth. Something’s got to give.”
Sheehan: “This budget process has only just begun. The budget is going to be absolutely whacked by the small parties ... The new mantra of Australian politics is show me the money, how are you going to pay?”
Jones: “When you look at polls, let’s be blunt about it, we want the mob back who presided over the border protection debacle, who presided over the building of the education revolution extravaganza. We want the mob back who presided over the home insulation program ...”
Sheehan: “Well, we’ve reached the point in society where the demographic change and the ageing of the population and — here’s the rub — the expectations of the public ... [means] there is a tremendous amount of generosity with other people’s money.”
You may think me, quoting myself, agreeing with Alan Jones, in defence of Tony Abbott, is a self-indulgent provocation to a certain kind of reader. Of course it is. But it’s time for the outrage to grow into a discussion about how we are going to pay for this compassion and fairness.