Government and governance | Australia

6 May 2016

It’s not enough for the Government just to say, “trust us”, John Hewson writes.

In my younger years, Budgets were judged by the newspaper banner headlines the next morning, headlines such as BEER UP, PETROL UP,CIGS UP, and so on.

Those were days when budgets were looked forward to more eagerly, and with greater anticipation. People were concerned as to how it may affect them. So, the budget speech was, in itself, a significant event, mostly because details of the Budget initiatives were never leaked in advance.

Indeed, Treasurers and government officials could lose their jobs if found guilty of leaking. You may recall that famous occasion when TV commentator, Laurie Oakes, reportedly found a copy of the budget in a garbage can, and so broke the details. All hell broke loose. All sorts of inquiries were initiated. The then-Treasurer, John Howard, was most lucky to have survived.

In those days, budgets were, might I say, less “political”, and more likely to contain difficult decisions seen, and sold, as in the national interest.

So, most interestingly, in recent days, Treasurer Scott Morrison has been at great pains to suggest that we had moved beyond the days when the electorate simply looked at the Budget selfishly, assessing it in terms of “What’s in it for me?”

He made the plea in his Budget Speech by claiming that: “This cannot be just another budget, because these are extraordinary times. This Budget is an economic plan, it’s not just another budget”. It’s not just about winners and losers.

However, protest as he will, the electorate is even more cynical, and self-interested these days. This is especially so when they view politicians with even less respect than they used to – politicians they see mostly playing self-absorbed games to win the daily media, many with their ‘snouts in the trough’, rather than governing in the national interest.

More on this: What should Australian voters expect ahead of the 2 July poll? | Quentin Grafton

The Government was hoping to get away from having to acknowledge the winners, and to deal with the losers; hoping to convince voters to simply judge them on what they claimed to be “the right plan for Australia to overcome the challenges of economic transition and to clear a path for long-term growth and jobs in a stronger, new economy.”

The plea hasn’t worked. Almost immediately, the focus was identifying the winners and losers, and voters quickly made their own assessments.

The most visible winners were a few middle-income earners who got a small tax break, small businesses that got one too, some youth seeking to overcome the failed work-for-the-dole scheme, the defence establishment, and maybe some tech start-up endeavours.

However, in the old terms, the gain for middle-income earners was modest, about $6 per week. That used to be a hamburger and a milkshake, but now it’s just a milkshake.

The most visible losers were smokers, low-income earners and families, the wealthy ageing, multinationals and other tax avoiders, and schools and hospitals. Plus more broadly, Australia, due to the lack of reform.

Morrison’s hope that we’d all focus on and accept the plan failed simply because he gave virtually no detail of the transition of our economy. He offered absolutely no explanation as to where the jobs and growth would come from.

For example, given the Paris commitments the Government made to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, an obvious dynamic growth sector will be renewable energy, as we transition our power generation away from a dependence on fossil fuels, promising a host of new businesses, massive new investment, and many, many thousands of jobs.

We have an abundance of natural assets in sun and wind, and we have the technologies and resource inputs to ensure the development of essential, cost effective, heat and battery storage. Yet climate change didn’t even rate a mention in the speech, and the only significant decision was to cut $1 billion from the Renewable Energy Agency.

It’s absolutely no good, indeed condescending, to simply say trust us, we have a plan and, if we win the next election, all will be fine in our nirvana.

Why not take what we can get now?

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Hewson, J. (2016). In the national interest? - Policy Forum. [online] Policy Forum. Available at: