Monday, May 22, 2017

Labor-like budget ticks all the boxes for Turnbull

For students of the politics of economics – my special subject – this clothes-pinching budget has been a feast. Oh no, it's "Labor-lite". Shocking!

Actually, it's a budget that ticks all the boxes for Malcolm Turnbull and, by extension, his parliamentary followers – something their silent acquiescence suggests they realise.

You don't need brains to see a Labor-lite budget. What's harder is to see that it's not as out of character as some suppose.

True, the song Turnbull and Scott Morrison are singing now is very different to the one they sang in last year's budget.

But the beginning of wisdom is to see that, these days, what each side of politics offers is an ever-changing mixture of ideology and pragmatism.

The bedrock is pragmatism: what must I say or do to win the next election? Pragmatism rules because of the way politics has been professionalised, becoming a career ladder you climb from newly graduated ministerial staffer to (you hope) prime minister.

But ideology has its uses. Mainly, to gratify the prejudices of the party base and enhance your supporters' loyalty to the tribe. It gives then a warm feeling. It also helps to jolly along union or business donors.

Then there's the third, usually unmentioned factor: Consistency, no need for.

When you're constantly changing the mix, increasing or decreasing the pragmatism component, you can't be too worried about getting caught changing your story from what you said before.

Since the responsibilities of office change little from year to year – similarly, the advice of the econocrats – the two sides' rhetoric while in government is more similar than when they're in opposition. Everyone changes their tune when they come to power.

As for the boxes this year's budget ticks for Turnbull, the first is it shows him taking firm steps to get the trajectories of budget spending and taxing heading in a better direction, giving the budget substance at a time when its forecasts and projections would soon be exposed as optimistic, even fiddled.

It shows Turnbull having the sense to cast off the wishful ideology foisted on him by the economically uninterested Tony Abbott (egged on by the Business Council's lesser geniuses, to whom he foolishly outsourced the commission of audit) that, despite eight income tax cuts in a row, only cuts in spending were needed to get the budget shooting back to surplus.

By doing so, Turnbull was accepting the budgeteers' orthodoxy that budget repair always involves tax increases as well as spending cuts, and joining ranks of all previous successful Liberal prime ministers, starting with John Howard and his goods and services tax.

Nor is Turnbull the first PM to succeed partly by pinching the best of their opponents' policies.

Second box: it shows Turnbull coping with the bills left by Labor – the National Disability Insurance Scheme, schools funding and (eternally) Medicare – in ways that are politically shrewd and not terribly distorting economically.

Solving the NDIS cost problem by linking it to a barely perceptible increase in the Medicare levy in two years' time. Switching to a cheaper version of Gonski-style needs-based school funding. Imposing a new $1.5-billion-a-year indirect tax on the hated big banks – for whom he's been leaking votes by running cover against a royal commission – to help reduce the structural budget deficit.

Third box: this budget neutralises two of the greatest areas of voters' concern, where Labor is permanently perceived by them to have the comparative advantage: health and education.

And this at a time when, largely thanks to factors beyond their control, we're not travelling too well in the areas permanently perceived by punters to be the Libs' comparative advantage: managing the budget and managing the economy.

Fourth box: this budget takes a Liberal party drifting ever-further to the hard right, and yanks it back to the sensible centre, where elections are won.

Fifth box: this budget shows Turnbull as leader rather than follower of his ever-more reality-detached backbench.

It at last gives voters a glimpse of the fair-dinkum Malcolm – the one saying what we all know he really believes – and whom many people whose vote is up for grabs were hoping and expecting to be led by after the unlamented demise of Abbott.

Last box: Turnbull's return to the centre has at last wrong-footed the formerly sure-footed Bill Shorten, exposing his pretence of putting the public interest ahead of partisan advantage – if we can't have our version of needs-based school funding, let's block the Libs' version – and prompting him to shift to left of centre, with his plans to increase taxes on high income-earners.