We were promised a Labor budget and we got one, at least Labor in its modern sense of a managerialist party that still faintly remembers the old nostrums of equity and opportunity that form what’s left of its core values.
If we had a genuine budget process that didn’t involve systematic leaking of major initiatives, one suspects the reporting of this budget would be very different. Between aged care reform, the dental program, a start to a national disability insurance scheme and additional welfare (let’s call it what it is) for low-and middle-income earners, there’s plenty of “Labor” initiatives – although some credit will have to be shared with the Greens. Moreover, unlike big-ticket items like the carbon pricing package or the mining tax, one suspects the aged care reforms and the NDIS will be left intact by the Coalition.
Despite all that, the budget is scheduled to be back in surplus, albeit virtually a rounding error, without too much pain except from high-income earners, the foreign aid lobby and business, which has seen its promised 1% tax cut vanish before its eyes. The surplus also comes at the cost of Labor’s credibility on personal tax reform, to the extent that anyone remembers the government’s insistent rhetoric about making life easier for taxpayers last year.
Labor will also be hoping that no one notices that this year’s deficit has blown out yet again by another $7 billion, something else that has helped it get that magical black figure for next year. Some commentators keep talking about the size of the fiscal turnaround between this year and next, forgetting that in fact the two are closely related – Wayne Swan has been busy shifting payments into this year from next, knowing neither the media nor the electorate will pay much attention to it.
But none of that – putting aside the static of brothel-visiting union officials and accused speakers – is likely to cut through for any sort of turnaround for Labor. It’s more of the same that we’ve got from the government ever since the financial crisis receded – steady, unspectacular, and in my view sound management in an environment where revenue is hard to come by and ministers in spending portfolios have to curb their ambitions. Labor is a prisoner of a mining boom that began, pre-GFC, as a vast tax machine, but has now turned into a vast investment machine, dedicated to expanding resources capacity at the expense of taxable profits. Meantime, more traditional sectors like manufacturing continue to struggle. The impacts on tax revenue will be felt for years to come.
Labor hopes the extra money flowing to low- and middle-income earners is enough to assuage the electorate’s hostility to the carbon price and that broken promise. The party hopes it’s enough to turn angry, resentful voters into voters at least willing to listen to Labor’s story about how it’s managed the economy through a difficult period pretty well and why the Opposition is all over the place on fiscal policy and economic policy more broadly. The carbon compensation ultimately is the political compensation for years of poor communication by Labor.
What Labor wouldn’t give for just one year of the conditions Peter Costello enjoyed before the financial crisis, where the main challenge each budget was to find new ways to spend extra revenue. But this is Labor’s economic lot; the party may well rue its luck, just as it rued its luck in entering office on the eve of a financial catastrophe, but you manage the economy you’re given. Swan has been a bland but responsible Treasurer, and history will ultimately offer a fairer judgment of his economic legacy than voters certainly will. But that will be of no comfort to Labor MPs facing a wipeout next time they go to the polls.