Whatever happened to the Federal Budget?

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(Image via Senator Helen Polley / @polley_helen)

Down in the engine room the Turnbull Government has hit the booster on the "Bullshitron", writes Mike Dowson.

YOU CAN SEE what they were trying to do. Wipe the slate clean. Demonstrate they have a heart after all. Neutralise the opposition. Not mention the war within the Party. And win enough crossbench support to crack on with the long-term project of dismantling our social services.

They must’ve thought they’d nailed it. The compromise we were all hoping for. "Good economic management" at the expense only of people who don’t matter.

An inclusive vision. Celebrated by big business, beloved of the wealthy, rejoiced in by foreign investors. A vision that unites. The entire one per cent. With enough concessions to return the rest of the populace to normal levels of sedation.

Admittedly, the tax hikes disguised as levies were a nice touch. Even better, the impost on the big banks that borrowers will wear. There was, briefly, some sense of relief and gratitude among ordinary voters. It was like a pause in a bombardment.

Market research had told the strategists that, even among the hardcore base, many have warm blood or a conscience. Economic policy modelled on carnivorous dinosaurs just before the K-Pg extinction event had been a difficult sell. A new approach was needed.

Down in the engine room they hit the booster on the "Bullshitron". Long-abandoned humanist ideals came flying out of it like corporate profits from a complacent country.

"Choice". "Fairness". "Security". "Opportunity".

“I dinna think she’ll take it, Cap’n!”

“Warp speed, Mr Scott!”

Now the excruciating, mechanical din has subsided, let’s look at current trends and where they lead and see if this Budget will, in fact, achieve anything at all.

Ignoring blips on the graphs, here are some factors that are trending downwards. Economic growth, productive investment, employment, wages, educational performance, housing affordability, and taxes paid by the very rich and multinationals.

And here are some factors trending upwards. Poverty, homelessness, youth suicide, mental illness, preventable disease, domestic violence, household debt, mortgage stress, power prices, and the incomes of the very rich and multinationals.

This is difficult stuff to interpret. Yes, there are plenty of experts in all these areas. They never stop banging on about research, statistics and conclusive studies. But these "elites" know next to nothing about the fears and prejudices of people in marginal electorates.

That’s where we need strong government. And we know they’re strong because they’re cruel. They understand full well the effect that welfare dependents and minorities have on good people robbed of their future by the very rich and multinationals.

None whatsoever. That’s the precise effect. Mistreating the disadvantaged won’t fix anything. Which means they can be used as scapegoats indefinitely.

What matters is that anxious voters think the Government shares their concerns. And this is intended to win support for the centrepiece of the Government’s strategy. The only piece, really. A handout to the very rich and multinationals.

That’s where "fairness" comes in. People will only tolerate grotesque injustice if it’s fair. That means the pain must apply not just to someone else, but specifically to people we don’t like. Even the hardest of hearts wants a good night’s rest, untroubled by conscience.

While it’s acceptable to the Government’s base to heap ire and resentment on pariahs, such as refugees, the unemployed, Indigenous people, young people and women, all but the meanest sociopaths draw the line at children and the disabled. So, to demonstrate its commitment to "fairness", the Government has partially reinstated some of the items it previously torpedoed, most notably Gonski and the NDIS.

But what about us, the people, I hear you say. There you go again. Us, us, us. Don’t you think your elected government has more important things to worry about?

Rest assured, this Budget is all about jobs. Our politicians know that if they get the policy settings right, jobs will appear.

Some of them hope to work in mining, some with the banks. A plum diplomatic post might be OK too, but there are only so many of those. As soon as they get the social justice flush button working again and the country clears the S-bend, angry voters will boot them out. And no one wants to survive on parliamentary entitlements alone. Although they are very generous.

Voters know what they want. They want things to be like they were. No climate change. Steady jobs. Cheap houses. Not their houses, of course. The ones their kids want to buy.

The problem for the Government is that it doesn’t want to provide anything. It’s trying to get out of the business of providing things. It wants the private sector to provide everything. So the Government’s role gets reduced to manning the Bullshitron.

You don’t want climate change? There isn’t any. You want a steady job? Take a wage cut. You want a house? Ask your parents for money.

But the private sector doesn’t want to provide anything either. Companies don’t come here to create jobs and build communities. Of course, they say they do. They say it because it’s what we want to hear. The Bullshitron is yet another publicly funded invention appropriated by the private sector.

The Adani mine is supposed to create 10,000 jobs. That’s true, if you round up to the nearest 10,000. Otherwise, it’s 1,464. Over time. Until they aren’t needed anymore.

Of course, you don’t get something like that for nothing. New jobs have a cost. In this case, it’s $1 billion from the taxpayer, 70,000 existing jobs at risk on the Great Barrier Reef and about half as many potential new jobs in renewables. Not to mention the Reef itself.

Companies come here because they want our resources and our money. They’d prefer to just take them, by bringing in some big machines and cheap 457 workers, or luring us to overspend on their goods and services. But if they must pay someone local to help with the extraction, they’d prefer an obliging political party to a lot of troublesome employees.

In these new economic conditions, there is nothing in this Budget, indeed, nothing in the policies of either of our major parties, which will deliver the results that most Australians want. Nothing.

The Budget reflects the state of the nation: division and denial. The beneficiaries of the boom years want to hold on to their privileges. Those who missed out, or arrived lately, are understandably pissed off. But hardly anyone – among the major parties, the media, big business, economists and voters – is willing to face the truth.

The truth is that everything has changed. The boom years are over. Now we’re back to the rich screwing the poor. The current debate is about how vigorous the screwing should be.

Meanwhile, an ocean of trouble is lapping at our door. Climate change is real. Global security is fractious. The global economy is fragile.

And what are we doing about it? We are presently reduced to prostituting ourselves to foreign miners and local opportunists while our government distracts us by performing vaudeville with coal.

We can still have steady jobs and affordable houses, if that’s what we want. But not until we take government back into our own hands. Whatever specific disagreements we may have, surely we can agree on that. It’s time to pull the plug on the Bullshitron.

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