The 'Bringing down the Budget' show

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Tension is high across Australia in anticipation of the Abbott Government’s Budget extravaganza, B2 — a vaudeville-cum-variety show, which opens in Canberra next Tuesday. 

The existential angst of aid workers attests to this tension, as ActionAid Australia's Holly Miller confirms:

"The whole of the aid sector is hanging on the edge, waiting nervously for the May budget when it will be revealed exactly which parts of the aid budget will be cut — a bit like a doomsday clock." 

Tellingly, the ABC’s attempts to seek details were evaded.

"The Treasurer isn't engaging in budget speculation."

So much for "consultative government".

Time is not only ticking down for aid workers, however, the clock is also running for our PM and his mate. Hockey is on notice that he will be replaced if he fluffs this budget, Niki Savva says sagely, whilst others believe a dud budget will also terminate Abbott’s flagging career.

Abbott, however, brushes aside the rumours, some people just make stuff up, he says. We will just have to take his word for it.

Will B2 be a hit?  Even if he has to fudge it, Abbott will do anything to save his neck — even contriving to appear fair.  He’s dropped his "debt and deficit disaster" scaremongering. He’s flip-flopped on debt from Labor’s "disaster" of 13 per cent of GDP to now call projected debt of 50 to 60 per cent of GDP as "a pretty good result".

Abbott, the eternal pragmatist, now favours restraint, while Hockey wants to cut further. Little wonder relations appear strained in recent images taken to show palsy collaboration and budget chumming up.

Bringing down a budget is a sideshow compared with "running the economy" yet, unless our leaders can step up, Australia will continue its economic slide. Abbott’s evasion will only further damage his credibility and weaken his capacity for reform.

Leadership is what we expect from government — leadership which has a real plan as distinct from rhetoric; a slogan about a plan.

For example, 94 per cent of Textor’s recent research sample agreed that the nation

“... needs a better plan for its long-term future."    

But what to do? Property is booming while our terms of trade unravel, with commodity prices dropping back to normality after a boom which governments chose to see as endless. Now the Coalition can choose between allowing deficits to balloon and a credit rating downgrade in return. Or it can rein in spending and slow the economy even further.   

Satyajit Das, financial market veteran, argues federal budgets matter little in an increasingly globalised financial system — a global economy. Yet others contend that our economic structure has been crippled by years of policy failure. Leaders lack political will to reform. Governments do nothing beyond simply looking to the RBA to lower interest rates in the hope that this will boost economic activity.

The truth lies somewhere between these two extremes; our government’s power is proscribed but within its limitations, there is a power of good it can do. Or, as in the current case, a power of damage to be done by choosing do nothing.

Lowering interest rates doesn’t always work magic, as Reserve Bank Governor Glenn Stevens pointedly observed recently, cueing a reluctant Abbott Government to take monetary action. There are limits to what can be achieved by fiscal policy alone — if anything. The most recent interest rate cut led to a rise in the Aussie dollar as speculators punted on it being the final cut.

Our prosperity is ultimately shaped by forces beyond control of governments or nations. B2 will be a strategic diversion whilst real power over the nation’s fortunes lies in the hands of international capitalists in a global financial system. And our current local neo-con politicians are happy to surrender even their limited authority to the TPP, for example, such is their deference to international capital, free trade and ‘market forces.’

Yet, Bringing down the Budget will be a fantastic show. It’s traditional, for starters, for the country’s Federal treasurer and his government to pretend to be in charge of the nation’s finances, to have plans and the means to carry them out. Fantastic. And it’s revealing. Hockey will, yet again, claim he knows what is best for us without ever having to ask.

Strong performances are expected from Tony the ten pound Pom as the widow Twankey and Joe Hockey as the bungling but loveable comic Ali Baba, who runs around swearing revenge on a mob of merchant bankers, tax-evading multinational thieves, only to disclose in the final moments of the show that he is married to one of them.

Highlights include "It’s everybody else’s fault but mine", in which a hapless Joe Hockey must convince a sceptical audience that that he has learned anything from Budget Mark 1, despite his continued need to blame others and his deluded claim that he "tried to do too much in the way of reform". If only we had all set out to do so much less and had no-one to contend with. The world would be close to perfect.

As Hockey explains to the AFR: ‘It is the senate. It was the Greens. It is Labor.’

Au contraire Joe, let’s not forget the matter of your poor communication and consultation. Your budgets won’t work because they are not built on consensus. For consensus, you have to talk to people; share with them. You have to heed and respect what people say.

The essence of theatre is illusion. The Federal Budget perpetuates the illusion that our leaders have the power to shape our future when they clearly struggle to cope with the present. Expect more rhetoric about "heavy lifting", the "bulk of the hard work" being done. Expect blather from Social Services Scott Morrison about pension "taper rates", as he wilfully confuses the technical element of budgeting with its real locus in political priorities.

The hard work of raising revenue has not even begun, whether it be via chasing tax evaders or reforming superannuation tax — a scheme which is obscenely skewed in favour of the rich and costs us as much as Medicare. Investing in renewable energy industries would make more sense than continuing to pour money into a hole in the ground to benefit multinational mining companies. Or into the pockets of the coal barons.   

B2, is a cleverly marketed surrealist life-size puppet theatre show sequel to B1, Federal Treasurer Joe Hockey’s debut. The show was widely panned as unfair. B2 is billed to be a "bring home the bacon budget", although some observers add: "only for those already riding high on the hog", or a "pigs might fly" rider.

The (Second) Greatest Show on Earth gets its nation-wide release on May 12. A small fortune has been spent in its promotion. Punters await in frenzied expectation. Will Hockey get it right this time? What has he learned from his earlier flop? Will this be curtains for the dynamic neo-con duo?

Given our Treasurer’s abysmal first budget show, what hope is there for his second? All that is certain is that there is a lot riding on this production. No wonder he and Abbott look nervous, especially in each other’s company. No wonder Abbott is so toey. 

Unwittingly, using negative psychology, Abbott is promising a budget that will be "very dull, very routine".  Or perhaps he’s slipped into his promised "under-promise, over-deliver" mode.

Meanwhile Laurie Oakes is leaking.

We are in for a double dissolution, he puffs, doubtless while we are still distracted by Charlotte Elizabeth Diana’s blessed arrival, the sensational success of direct action and the funds given over to WA to reward Premier Colin Barnett for being unable to see past his own greed far enough to forecast a return to normality in iron ore prices — banking on boom times lasting forever.   

And a "fair budget". The fairness tick of approval will earned by a fudged budget that does nothing to address the nation’s declining fortunes or any other type of leadership, but which will do everything possible to shore up Abbott and Hockey’s survival, with perhaps even hope fantastical of boosting chances of an Abbott Government return.

The original John Graham feature image in this piece may be ordered from the IA store. You can follow David Tyler on Twitter @urbanwronski.

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