Paul Bongiorno: The tainted debate over cost of living needs a reality check

Peter Dutton and his team need to explain how they would address cost-of-living pressures, Paul Bongiorno writes.

Peter Dutton and his team need to explain how they would address cost-of-living pressures, Paul Bongiorno writes. Photo: AAP

It is hardly surprising that the most burning issue in national politics at the moment mirrors the pain millions of Australians are feeling as they struggle to pay the bills and make ends meet.

The Opposition credits its unremarkable byelection win at the weekend in one of its safest seats almost entirely to these cost-of-living pressures, even though the self-funded retirees who inhabit the mansions on the canals in the Gold Coast electorate have benefitted handsomely from higher interest rates fattening their investments.

That a significant majority of voters in this seat decided not to break the habit of a lifetime is more an indication that the outcome has little political significance other than the maintenance of the status quo.

Still cost-of-living pressures can be an electoral vulnerability for the Albanese government if voters in marginal seats, especially on the fringes of the capital cities, believe it is failing to address the crisis.

What’s the alternative?

But there is another side to this argument, and it goes to the credibility of any alternative that is on offer.

And for a clue of what that might be, we need look no further than what the Coalition is saying and demanding now.

Angus Taylor

The messages of shadow treasurer Angus Taylor appear to be falling on deaf ears.

Shadow treasurer Angus Taylor on Monday said what is needed is a government “that brings down policy that reduces inflation, that fights inflation first. Fiscal policy, energy policy, industrial relations policy and we are not seeing that from this government”.

“We need a government that recognises this,” Taylor said.

Before looking more closely at what this can mean, the latest Newspoll suggests Taylor’s conclusion is not shared by a majority of Australians, with the government maintaining a thumping 10-point, two-party preferred lead over the Opposition.

Serious matters

Economist Stephen Koukoulas says there are two options for any government to tackle inflation: Dramatically cut its own spending or raise taxes.

Neither are politically easy, and the Liberals know it because they went into the last election promising to do neither after winning the previous election by running the mother of all scare campaigns against Labor’s tax reforms.

budget 2023

Treasurer Jim Chalmers delivered the first budget surplus in decades.

Taylor ignores the first budget surplus in decades and the $40 billion worth of savings the government was able to bank by diverting 80 per cent of its windfall revenue to paying down debt.

The logic of Taylor’s criticism is the rejection of the targeted cost-of-living measures Treasurer Jim Chalmers has delivered already in the area of cheaper medicines, electricity bill relief, support for minimum wage rises, child care and early education rebates.

We are yet to hear what spending cuts Taylor would make to show his seriousness.

The fact that the Opposition voted against most of the relief measures merely exposes the fact they are playing hard-ball opportunistic politics.

Dutton ‘misguided’

Nowhere was that more obvious than Peter Dutton’s declaration ahead of the appointment of the new Reserve Bank of Australia governor that he wouldn’t support “somebody who is tainted or can be seen to be tainted”.

Dutton particularly had in mind the head of Treasury, Steven Kennedy, and the head of the Department of Finance, Jenny Wilkinson.

Their taint was that they had worked closely with the “Liberal or Labor government before”.

He seemed to be suggesting both would put political considerations ahead of what the evidence might demand in raising or cutting official interest rates to contain inflation.

Former prime minister Kevin Rudd’s chief of staff David Epstein called on Dutton to retract what he called was his “misguided and mischievous slur”.

Spirit of independence

Taylor was left to mop up the mess on Monday by heaping praise on both public servants and explaining Dutton’s view in terms of maintaining the “absolute sacrosanct independence” of the RBA.

It was a limp defence that revealed the ingrained antipathy of the Liberals to the conventions of an independent Australian Public Service meant to give “frank and fearless advice” in the national interest.

The bitter fruits of this approach were documented in the Robodebt royal commission.

Epstein in Pearls and Irritations said: “Employment as a departmental secretary and providing expert advice to governments of the day has never been a disqualification for leading the RBA. Nor should it be.”

Speculation in Canberra suggests Dutton knew or was given a very good idea that the government was not going to appoint either public servant. After all, the Treasurer had discussed the appointment twice with Angus Taylor.

Whatever the case, it was a ham-fisted intervention of a piece with the near impossibility of having a rational political debate over economic policy when it comes to taxing and spending.

Paul Bongiorno AM is a veteran of the Canberra Press Gallery, with more than 40 years’ experience covering Australian politics

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