Originally published in The Guardian, May 4, 2016.
The 2016 budget is aimed at neutralising the Labor party, solidifying the government’s upper middle class base, and distancing itself from its first two years in office, with the express intent of getting it over the election finish line – in front – on 2 July.
Instead of offering bold new ideas for reform, the government offers a new slogan: Jobs and Growth. Thirteen times, in fact, in the treasurer’s speech. And its plan for jobs and growth relies heavily on recycled ideas of governments past.
It is as limited in its ambition as it is in its innovation.
The budget offers minimal structural reform. There are tax cuts for small (and eventually large, multinational) businesses, and for those earning over $80,000 per year. But these are not themselves bold or even new ideas. The personal income tax cuts are reminiscent of the Howard era tendency to slash the upper-middle class tax burden, and the opposition is already on the record suggesting the corporate tax rate should be reduced to 25%.
The budget emergency is gone and a return to surplus is, we are told, on the way, despite this budget offering more government expenditure as a percentage of GDP than under the former Labor government.
What it does offer, however, and what will be campaigned on, are re-branded ideas that the government formerly opposed, and ideas it has appropriated from the opposition’s own reform agenda.
Asic funding will be returned, despite being cut by this government two years ago.
Multinationals will face further scrutiny on tax avoidance, much to the pleasure of the Labor opposition who have been arguing for this throughout this term of government.
Cigarette taxes will be hiked, as proposed by shadow treasurer Chris Bowen last November.
A version of the low-income superannuation concession – a marquee Rudd/Gillard era reform that was scrapped in the first Abbott budget – will be reintroduced in an effort to recast the government as one that is fundamentally rooted in fairness.
And superannuation tax concessions for the wealthy will finally be reigned in, as again has been argued vigorously by the opposition for months.
These are not new ideas, but recycled ones proposed by former governments and the current opposition. These are ideas aimed at replenishing the government’s political capital heading into an election campaign, and neutralising the Labor party’s core campaign platform.
To be fair, there were other, more unique policy proposals outlined on budget night.
The treasurer also announced a youth employment plan, Path, but it has already received criticism. As the Australia Institute and Interns Australia have noted, the internship program at the core of Path expects younger Australians to intern for as little as $4 an hour. “Real work for the dole”, as the treasurer put it.
Solving youth unemployment is a worthy objective – youth unemployment in Australia is a scourge and an economic liability. But this is a policy directed to the same youth who were abandoned in the 2014 budget, and who were asked to go six months without any assistance. It is a small step forward after two years of being ignored.
The youth unemployment plan could have been a high point in the budget, but seems to be, in reality, merely a rebranded version of “work for the dole”, which will do little to re-excite an often disengaged and disenchanted portion of the electorate.
Then there are the usual measures that have come to be expected during this government’s term in office. Cuts to foreign aid, and a dearth of investment in early childhood education. More mysteriously, the budget papers include a $2 billion savings measure from higher education – the details of which aren’t available. More worrying signs for students.
The budget is risk averse – it is election season, after all. However, considering the budget is the focal point of the Australian political calendar and the best opportunity for the government of the day to outline its vision, should the electorate not be entitled to expect more than a regurgitation of old or even stolen ideas?
Where is the long-term plan for what Australia can and should be? Morrison’s vision for the future Australia is not significantly different from what Australia currently looks like under this government. It’s more of the same, with slightly lower business tax rates.
New ideas are few and far between and old ones will, ironically, form the centrepiece of a newly rebranded “fairer” Coalition that aims to erase the memory of the electorate that so rejected it after the 2014 budget.
The treasurer has been able to skilfully reorient the government away from the narrative it promulgated for its first two years, towards a more centrist and electable space.
What he hasn’t achieved, however, is a bold, innovative or original agenda that will distinguish the Turnbull/Morrison era from the ones that preceded it.