Monday, 11 May 2009
As Sunday’s Insiders showed, political commentary becomes soporific in the run up to the Budget at the best of times, but especially this year. Paul Kelly, having finished writing a book about the last twenty years of Australian politics, doesn’t seem to have worked out what has changed over it. His view that the Rudd government’s second Budget will define it, was not only what he said last year (it didn’t), but probably what he could have said for Hawke’s second Budget.
If the last Budget showed how the meaning of economic debate and the government’s role in it has hollowed out over the last two decades, the economic crisis since then has blown it away. In 2009, across the major capitals of the industrialised world, Treasury officials are laying out economic responses to a downturn that they had no idea was coming, have no idea what it was caused by, have no idea when it will end and no idea why. Predictions of some officials in Washington, London and Paris that the economy would begin to recover within a year, are based on no other reason than they wouldn’t know what to do if it didn’t.
Meanwhile over here, such policy dilemmas are not really a problem because the economic crisis has been internationalised away. Kelly thinks the government will be held “held politically responsible for the recession”. He has missed that since it first became clear the downturn would hit the Australian economy, the Rudd government has engaged in a relentless, and fairly successful, political campaign to make sure that everyone gets the message what caused it i.e. an international phenomenon for which no responsibility is held here (not even by the last government). From the occasional doorstop by Swan in front of the White House, to Rudd’s grander Summits, there has been generally a rule of being overseas for the bad news and in Canberra for the hand-outs.
There may have been a time in Paul Kelly’s memory when governments actually looked as though they were determining the fate of the economy, but not any more. It’s for this reason that the dilemma that the media thinks the government is supposed to have over what political ‘message’ this Budget will send for the government’s future direction, doesn’t really exist – or at least not in the way they think. The government response will be pretty straight forward, a bit of hand-outs here and trimming of the sails there to economic forces over which it has no control.
This does, however, raise a more difficult political problem with the Budget for which neither side is anywhere near finding the answer – the point of government at all if it has no control over something so basic as the economy. This is why there is some degree to which the coalition’s complaint about debt has some effect. Not as a way of establishing any alternative, the Liberals have nothing to say on how a coalition government would get out of debt, except probably like the last one did, wait for a mining boom and hope for the best. But it does have a corrosive effect by reinforcing the limited role of government and how in the face of there being nothing the government can do, maybe cash hand-outs will just make things worse. With no expectations of an economic strategy being laid out, because there hasn’t been one so far, we will probably get what we saw after the last Budget, a sense of drift.
Posted by The Piping Shrike on Monday, 11 May 2009.Filed under Tactics