Michael Pascoe: The budget without reply

After nine years in power, Peter Dutton and his colleagues have little to contribute to the debate, Michael Pascoe writes.

After nine years in power, Peter Dutton and his colleagues have little to contribute to the debate, Michael Pascoe writes.

Next Thursday the Sydney Liberal Party faithful are being invited to pay $880 a seat for lunch and to listen to a budget reply by Opposition Leader Peter Dutton and shadow treasurer Angus Taylor.

As a value proposition, it will need to be extremely fine food and wine as the opposition has no budget reply.

Oh, there will be words said, as there will be on Thursday night when Mr Dutton delivers his official speech in Parliament. But it is guaranteed to fit Macbeth’s view of life, “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing”.

I’ve been covering federal budgets closely for four decades of my near half-century in journalism. None of the preceding 39 has so quickly and comprehensively destroyed the previous government.

Quite simply, there is nobody on the opposition benches with the required credibility to be able to offer a meaningful critique.

And I don’t just mean the quick $22 billion Finance Minister Katy Gallagher found squirrelled, porked, misallocated, wasted and generally fiddled in the March budget Labor inherited.

Readers of The New Daily over the past couple of years know better than anyone how billions of dollars have been corruptly misdirected by the Abbott, Turnbull and, most of all, Morrison governments.

As bad as that is, the bigger condemnation of Coalition members is that every problem facing this and the next several budgets has been made worse by the Coalition.

There’s a problem with NDIS costs blowing out? Guess who’s been running it for the past nine years?

Scott Morrison and Angus Taylor were largely responsible for a lack of energy policy. Photo: TND

Energy prices are being driven up by a war, but who had no energy policy for most of the past decade?

Good heavens, some clown established our emergency oil reserve on America’s east coast, a month-and-a-half’s sailing time away. Laughable – and the clown is now the shadow treasurer who is clinging to a “broken promise” about energy prices as the best thing the opposition has going for it.

(Claiming a broken promise about reducing energy prices given current external factors is rather like me promising to buy the grandchildren an ice-cream after I go for a swim, but while swimming, a shark bites off my legs. I don’t think the grandchildren would call the subsequent lack of an ice-cream a broken promise. Well, the three-year-old might, but you’d have to have the mentality of a three-year-old.)

Cause and effect

Having so totally botched his previous portfolio of energy and emissions reduction, it is a monument to Angus “Grasslands” Taylor’s chutzpah that he was prepared to take on a frontbench role at all, let alone shadow treasurer.

Inflation is too high? Beyond the international and weather factors responsible for that, dud Coalition policies fuelling a housing construction bubble, throwing billions of dollars at profitable companies during the COVID crisis and wasting more billions on political projects (see Katy Gallagher above) have exacerbated the problem.

Perhaps the unmitigated gall of what’s left of the Liberal Party was best exemplified in a tweet by the member for Deakin, Michael Sukkar.

Each and every one of those issues are covered in the Liberal Party’s fingerprints. Heavens, wages suppression was official government policy.

Let it not be forgotten that Mr Sukkar was assistant treasurer and minister for housing from 2019, and the minister for homelessness, social and community housing from 2020.

The things Mr Sukkar was supposed to be responsible for – housing and especially social housing – are in a state of absolute crisis. He was a non-performing disaster of a minister.

There might have been a bigger portfolio failure in the Morrison government than Mr Sukkar, but there might not be. And in the small world of counting Liberal Party branch numbers that Mr Sukkar inhabits, he probably thought his tweet was “smart”.

(OK, yes, Robodebt arguably was worse – and there were lots of fingerprints on that crime.)

Follow the money

As he rises for his budget reply speech, Mr Dutton might seem to have an advantage over his colleagues in that he did not hold an economic policy portfolio in the last government.

But he was still a member of the Expenditure Review Committee – the body that ticked off and approved all the dud, bad and sometimes evil (Robodebt) policies.

One-time Treasurer Josh Frydenberg and Finance Minister Simon Birmingham.

Having done that, he and his accomplices – Simon Birmingham, Barnaby Joyce, Anne Ruston, Dan Tehan, Stuart Robert, Bridget McKenzie and, of course, Scott Morrison and the departed Josh Frydenberg – must need a long spell in a distant paddock before they might be taken seriously about the responsibilities involved in running a government.

They have one and all totally shot their credibility beyond the confines of Sky After Dark and the Murdoch press.

The real issues

The problem with this lack of an opposition remotely worth listening to is that there are issues with Jim Chalmers’ first budget, but they are not issues the opposition is capable of dealing with.

They range from the merely annoying (the BS “one million new homes” cheap spinner’s trick, as phoney as Scott Morrison’s ‘‘1.3 million new jobs”) to the serious one of what wasn’t in the budget.

The main job of the media pack in the budget lockup isn’t really to understand the budget (and avoid falling into “feeding the chooks” headlines), but to come up with a neat headline that summarises the overall thrust.

Such was the nature of Tuesday night’s effort that the pack failed, there was a headline consensus.

For mine, it was the “Watch This Space” budget.


Treasurer Jim Chalmers has produced a stop-gap budget.

The obvious space is the gap stretching to the horizon between payments and revenue.

The other space is the policies that will be required to deal with it – the tax increases and the spending reductions.

Dr Chalmers meant this only as a stop-gap budget, just dealing with the most immediate fires.

That was demonstrated by his disappointing tap dancing around one of the pieces of low-hanging fruit he has been offered to fill some of that first space – the internal transfer pricing fiddle enjoyed by Big Gas to reduce the Petroleum Resource Rent Tax they should pay.

To be clear, it’s five years after the Callaghan Review reported on the PRRT joke, four years since the Coalition government’s response to that report asked Treasury to review Big Carbon’s gas transfer pricing swifty, two years since Treasury’s review was supposed to be completed, and four months since Treasury officials said they were “briefing the new government on a number of matters, including the PRRT gas transfer price review”.

But on the ABC’s 7.30, Dr Chalmers told Sarah Ferguson there was something about COVID-19 delaying the review.

Oh please, really?

Like the pussyfooting over the need to reserve east coast gas for domestic consumption and the lack of ticker for a windfall carbon profits tax, that’s not good enough.

But don’t expect the opposition to be able to make those kind of points.

Hot tip for anyone considering the value of $880 for the November 3 lunch – there isn’t any.

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