The Coalition's 'morally bankrupt' Budget

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Cartoon by Mark David / @MDavidCartoons

If taxation policy is a declaration of a government’s agenda for the nation’s future prosperity, then this Budget is comprehensively bankrupt, writes Peter Henning.

WHERE the bloody hell are we?

In the recent movie, On the Basis of Sex, about the life of U.S. Supreme Court Judge Ruth Bader Ginsberg, there’s a scene where her husband, taxation law expert Martin Ginsberg, says to a group of young law undergraduates:

“How a government taxes its citizens is a declaration of a country’s values.”

That might very well be true of a country where the government actually represents the values of its citizens. It is more accurate to say of the current Australian Government that taxation policy is a tool used to retain power by carefully planned pork-barrelling. It is also used to try and impose its own values of self-centred individualism and socio-economic division on society.

Can you imagine the troglodyte trio of Morrison, Frydenberg and Cormann – who have just framed the navel-gazing, self-centred Coalition Budget – doing what New Zealand PM Jacinda Ardern did this week and paying for the groceries of a mother of two children who forget her wallet?

Instead of having any interest in helping women in a way that Ardern does automatically, the issue for Morrison and his team is how to ensure that socio-economic inequality is maintained and strengthened while masking it behind a veil of misleading rhetoric. Just as Turnbull took great pains to cloak his fundamental conservatism under the guise of being a “liberal”, so Morrison is intent upon looking like a “centrist” while pursuing a hard-line extreme right-wing agenda.

Morrison has already given the game away by saying that the federal election this year will be a contest between “enterprise and envy” — a marketing phrase he’s picked up along the way, which he earlier phrased as “the politics of envy”  back in 2017. A simple translation is that Australia is composed of two tribes — one called Enterprise and one called Envy.

Moreover, how can we believe that there is any probity, any respect for integrity and any semblance of honest dealing, in rejigging the Budget to April – for the first time ever – when we all know that it is to accommodate the necessity of a federal election before June?

This Budget is about one thing and only one: it is a marketing exercise. It has nothing to do with national leadership. It has nothing to do with the national interest. It has nothing to do with the major issues confronting Australia now and into the future. It places personal and partisan political careerism above all else. It is designed to seduce voters.

If anything epitomises the deviousness, deception and gross irresponsibility of this Budget, it is the “Christmas Island stunt”. Back in February, in a highly orchestrated and carefully publicized scare-mongering campaign designed to wreck the humanitarian intent of the Kerryn Phelps-initiated Medevac legislation, Morrison reopened Christmas Island as a destination for refugees at Manus and Nauru requiring urgent medical treatment in Australian hospitals.

Morrison claimed that the cost would be $1.4 billion, to ensure – in a hideous and woeful imitation of Trump’s description of Mexican immigrants trying to enter the U.S. – that “rapists, murderers and paedophiles did not reach the Australian mainland. To add to this Goebbels-like baloney, the idea was floated that Australian hospitals wouldn’t be able to cope and the new Medevac legislation would prompt a massive renewal of “people smuggling” boat arrivals which Border Protection would be quite incapable of handling.

The farce was even accompanied with a prime-ministerial press conference on Christmas Island, in the presence of high-ranking military officers and their black-shirted paramilitary cousins of Peter Dutton’s Home Affairs Department, the whole junket and its associated paraphernalia of equipment and preparations costing a mere $180 million or so. 

Then we learn from the Budget that the Christmas Island reopening was an end in itself — a scam and a sham. The infamously disingenuous Minister for Finance, Mathias Cormann, proudly proclaimed that Christmas Island would be closing down before it opened, thereby miraculously saving $1.2 billion. Meanwhile, of course, more than 300 staff would be sent to the vacant facility, perhaps to ensure they could then be brought back to Australia.

The whole 2019 Budget should be read within a context of understanding that the Christmas Island stunt epitomises the preferred Morrison model of governance — marked by extravagant, grandiose and expensive public gestures. We should remember that Morrison tried to win the Wentworth by-election by a similar grandiose stunt — promising to copy Trump and switch the embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

It is no surprise, therefore, that wishful comments like “back in the black”, or that wages growth will trickle down from some magic pudding, are no different from praying for rain. As almost all commentators have already said, including former Howard Government Treasurer Peter Costello, the Budget is based on bizarre futuristic planning that can be described as not merely “optimistic” or “inherently implausible”, but as fundamentally nonsensical. 

The Morrison-Frydenberg Budget represents a Government shackled in a time warp, trapped in a bubble of ignorance and arrogance. The absurdist fantasy underpinning the mindset of this Budget is that over the next decade the world order will stop still and go into deep hibernation till 2029.

Let’s face it, the Abbott-Turnbull-Morrison governments have done immense damage to Australia. Their ingrained culture, exhibited by their own internal partisan disunity, personal hatreds, extreme hubris and complete absence of coherent policy direction – except power for its own sake – is the only “vision” they have for Australia. 

The unity ticket they offer to us – individual self-interest – is antithetical to the urgent need for national reform. If taxation policy is a declaration of a government’s agenda for the nation’s future prosperity, then this Budget is comprehensively bankrupt. It is a fitting epitaph to the leadership vacuum, inhumanity and unbridled lack of principle which have been the hallmarks of the Abbott, Turnbull and Morrison administrations.

Peter Henning is a Tasmanian historian and author.

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