We need to stop passively accepting “truisms” that long ago ceased to be true, and we should start with the myth about the Coalition’s superior economic credentials, writes Tim Dunlop.
Tony Abbott and Joe Hockey are on track to destroy one of the most commonly held beliefs in Australian politics, namely, that the Coalition are better economic managers than Labor.
Indeed, smashing this “truism” may be one of their few lasting legacies.
Still, even as they undermine it, it is remarkable to see just how sticky the myth is. For instance, during his recent speech at the National Press Club, Mr Abbott intoned:
This government will deliver Australia’s economic future because only a Coalition government can. As Liberals and Nationals, sound economic management is in our DNA. We’ve done it before and we are doing it again.
What’s remarkable about this is not that he said it, or even that he believes it, but that his assembled audience of media heavyweights didn’t burst out laughing.
I mean, what exactly does the government have to do before the press gallery and other distinguished commentators not only stop playing along with this little fantasy, but acknowledge that the Abbott Government is on track to be one of the most useless economic managers of modern Australian history?
It’s not just that unemployment is rising and that the budget deficit persists; nor is it simply that the budget is stalled and in a complete shambles (imagine the conniptions sections of the media would be having if Labor were in this mess). It is that the Government simply don’t seem to have a clue about what they are doing.
Take the Medicare co-payment. This was simultaneously sold as a way of staunching the budget deficit and as a way of creating a medical research fund. Talk about magic pudding logic.
The health portfolio is now onto its second minister and there have been, what, three other variations on the copayment theory? Tony Abbott now says the copayment itself is “dead, buried and cremated”, but Tony Abbott says a lot of things.
Or take industry assistance. The government patted itself on the back about not offering grants to struggling industries and assured us that this was part of their tough, no-nonsense approach to curbing expenditure.
Great, except that as of this week, they’ve changed their mind. They are now providing up to half-a-billion dollars for the car industry, and as Laura Tingle noted on Twitter, they did it without so much as a press release.
These are not just adjustments brought on by a measured rethink or changed circumstances: they are incompetence, plain and simple, brought on by desperation and confusion.
But wait, there’s more. Delayed payments for those on unemployment benefits is being reconsidered by new minister, Scott Morrison. The PM’s precious “captain’s call” parental leave scheme has been dropped. Defence have got the pay rise the government said they wouldn’t get.
And this doesn’t even include the measures that are simply being blocked by the Senate such as the inequitable higher education funding arrangements. The Government seems to have no clue as to what to do about that.
To top it all off, Joe Hockey has been “floating” little ideas about changing the way we access our superannuation. Tony Abbott has said that it is a “perfectly good and respectable idea”, but even Peter Costello groaned:
We went through all of this back in the mid ’90s. We had a look at it, we decided, because we thought superannuation should be for retirement savings, we decided not to allow superannuation to be available for housing.
At this stage it is less the efficacy of the policies themselves that matters than the fact that the government flits like a drunken butterfly from one measure to another and back again, and back again, without any apparent governing logic.
Look, it is important to stop retelling ourselves this ridiculous fable about the Coalition’s economic credentials because it distorts so much of the rest of our political debate. Indeed, one of the reasons people are shocked – to the point of denial – about how bad the Abbott Government is at running the economy, is exactly because very few people ever called out the Howard government’s economic failings.
As economist Stephen Koukoulas noted back in 2012, Howard and Costello were accorded a respect their actual economic record didn’t deserve:
The budget papers … show that the Howard government was the highest taxing government in Australia’s history. In 2004-05 and 2005-06, the tax to GDP ratio reached a record high 24.2 per cent. In addition, there have been only seven occasions where the tax to GDP ratio has been in excess of 23.5 per cent of GDP and all seven were under the Howard government.
In a similar vein, in the last 30 years, there have been 10 occasions when the tax to GDP ratio has been below 22.0 per cent of GDP and all 10 were under a Labor Government. To put simply, the Howard government was a high taxer, while the current Labor Government is a lower taxer.
In terms of government spending, there have been only five years in the four decades leading up to 2012-13 when real government spending was cut in real terms. None of those cuts were delivered by a Coalition government.
Maybe if these facts were better known, if they were hammered by the media in the same way they hammered 20-year-old stories about Julia Gillard’s time as a lawyer, the incompetence of Messrs Hockey and Abbott would not have been such a well-kept secret.
So here’s a suggestion. Who leads the government is an important matter and the media are right to cover it. But Tony Abbott’s dying swan routine is one thing: the underlying incompetence of his government is something else altogether.
So can we reprioritise a bit? Can we please stop talking quite so much about the leadership mess that the government is in because in the end, it doesn’t much matter who leads a bad government.
Let’s instead start telling the truth about how bad they actually are, and let’s begin by not passively accepting “truisms” that long ago ceased to be true. Let’s actively challenge this damaging, childish myth about the Coalition’s superior economic credentials.
It’s great that some journalists are calling them out, but it is not enough as long as the myth persists.
The truth is, the only sense in which the Coalition are the better economic managers is the sense in which every parent thinks their kids are smarter and better looking than everyone else’s kids: they may believe it in their hearts, but it doesn’t necessarily stand up to objective, unsentimental analysis.
Tim Dunlop is the author of The New Front Page: New Media and the Rise of the Audience. He writes regularly for The Drum and a number of other publications. Twitter: @timdunlop.