I was not intending to write another post on this election, but a grumpy remark from Mr Rudd on the radio yesterday morning turned me once again into a Grumpy Old Man. He expressed wonder yet again at why Mr Abbott had still not released every detail of his proposed costings, so that people could see where the cuts that would affect them would come.
‘Give over!’ cried my GOM sharply. ‘Why on earth should he play your game?’ There was no reply, because the ABC had turned to something else. The more I thought about, the more I felt I should respond to Mr Rudd, even though Mr Abbott had declined to do so.
If I had been in Mr Abbott’s position (fortunately I am not), I would have said something like this.
‘Look, chum. Did you listen to your former colleague Mr Tanner the day before yesterday? He said that whichever party was elected on Saturday would have some very hard decisions to make over the next few years. I thought he was bang on target. He also said that governments over the last few years had been able to act like Father Christmas — I guess he included your two governments and the Gillard team in that description — but those days were gone, and that we were in for a severe dose of fiscal medicine (I don’t think he used exactly that last phrase, but it was the take-home message).
‘And you want me to lay out my team’s proposed cuts! Why would I do that? I don’t have a clear idea of the real budget situation, and we are already committed to some of your policies, like Gonski and Carers for the Disabled. Heaven knows how we’re going to pay for them, let alone keeping the benefits of the carbon tax while getting rid of its revenue. The Treasury people are the sharpest knives in the kitchen block in terms of predicting revenue, but they’ve got it wrong three years in a row. I don’t pretend to know any more than they do.
‘So I’m staying mum about all this. I’ll announce what I want to announce when I’m ready to announce it. I think the electorate knows that it can’t have everything, and I’ve tried to dampen expectations. People know there are going to be cuts, and they’re ready for them. And they’re still going to vote for us. So I’m saying as little as I can.’
Or something like that. Mr Rudd plainly thinks, as do Ms Wong and Mr Bowen, that somehow the Coalition is obliged to respond to the Government’s insistence on laying out all its costings. And they pretend indignation when the Coalition refuses to do so. This is all just another election campaign game, and the Government has simply not won it.
As it happens, I don’t think that there will be a whole lot of swingeing cuts the day after, or even six months after, the election. Like other governments before them, an Abbott Cabinet will set up some kind of razor gang, whose final effects will take some time to register. It is not easy to close programs down. No doubt Canberra will suffer, as it did under Keating, Howard, Gillard and Rudd, but the delivery of programs does not take place in Canberra. In any case, no-one outside the National Capital sees unemployment there as a problem.
Mr Rudd was right about one thing, and that was the importance of jobs. Our whole social welfare system is based on full employment, continued economic growth and jobs for everyone who wants them. When the economy is bowling along nicely governments can afford a bit of largesse here and another bit there. When it’s really moving governments can pay off debt, set up Futures Funds and get into subsidies for renewable energy.
But when growth is slight or stagnant nothing is more important than jobs. They are far more important than ‘climate change’, or better schools, or looking after the disabled, because those without jobs don’t pay any tax, and they also have their hands out for unemployment relief. It’s a double whammy. Governments hate sluggish growth, because everyone blames them for bad times.
It’s rarely their fault, because governments don’t in fact create jobs or make money, or do anything economically productive, and whatever they actually do will have a downside as well as a benefit. Mr Abbott has said that the Coalition will create two million jobs over the next ten years, but he doesn’t mean that at the end of the decade there will be a gigantic public service with 2.2 million employees. He means, as does Mr Rudd, that while he is in power, other people will create all these jobs, because he and his colleagues will ‘restore confidence’, or do something else somewhat magical.
Those who are worried that nothing has been said in the campaign about ‘climate change’, and alternative energy, and things sustainable, should realise that in this market-capitalist society we live in the first assumption is that everyone ought to have a job, because then they can look after themselves and their dependents.
We have indeed had a long Father Christmas period. I do not envy Mr Abbott in having to deal with the Scrooge period that is on its way. Menzies nearly lost the 1951 election less than two years after he won a comfortable victory in 1949. The economy was the problem. When things are bad it’s always a problem.