Over the course of the last week, the expression on Treasurer Wayne Swan’s face has been even more deadpan than usual; so deadpan, in fact, that its as if someone from Treasury has swung an almighty great frying pan across his gloomy mug. In a sense, that is of course just what has happened. There is no tougher gig to have at the moment. Even before one considers all the election promises that Rudd Labor made back in late 2007, and the bold stimulus measures introduced during the past six months in an attempt to ward off the worst of the GFC, the government is starting behind. The tumultuous financial conditions have reduced profits, spending and incomes across the country, wiping a sizable $210 billion from the government’s anticipated revenue. Let’s be clear: whether the federal government was headed by Labor, the Liberals, or anyone else, it would have delivered a budget in the red in 2009-10 like the Rudd Government has. The buck must stop with the Treasurer, (if not he, then who else?), but its fair to say that a significant portion of the big red numbers being bandied around are not Mr. Swan’s or indeed Federal Labor’s fault.
Casting a considered eye over the opinions flying around in the mainstream media, it would seem that this is a Budget that is hard for people to support. It mixes almost evenly boosts and blows, to the point that some commentators believe it to be a confused budget, a budget that tries to stimulate the economy even as it withdraws funds from some, possibly lulling it back to sleep. There are welcome measures, such as the significant increase in payments to single pensioners, the introduction of parental leave (even if it is delayed until 2011), and the urgently needed $22 billion package of infrastructure measures. On the flip side of the coin, there are a few downright bafflers. The planned lifting of the pension age to 67 is a positively nutty idea, and gives credence to the accusation that Treasurer Swan is living blindly on the teat of the bureaucrats in Treasury. The means testing of the private health rebate is a questionable measure, given that it is likely to encourage people to ditch private health insurance and increase load on the public system. For once, Malcolm Turnbull might be on the right track by suggesting that raising excise on tobacco is a more sensible measure and can deliver the same amount of revenue.
It will be interesting to observe how Messrs Rudd and Swan react to Turnbull’s suggestion, and indeed to see how the public reacts to the Federal Opposition’s constant carping about the level of national debt. One does get the sense that the broader public is quite concerned about the hundreds of billions of dollars of public debt that Australia is now swimming in. This is a real concern, but it is a concern that is being simplistically tended by the Coalition. For his part, Malcolm Turnbull seems determined not to utter a word about the possibility (nay certain fact) that his team would also find itself in billions of dollars of debt if it were in government now. What remains to be seen is whether or not the sheer magnitude of the red numbers here are enough to get some people to lose faith and start to consider the opposition as a viable alternative government.
Make no mistake, this is the start of Malcolm Turnbull’s big chance.