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A Budget Is Not Just A Financial Document, It's A Moral One

03/05/2016 6:26 AM AEST | Updated 15/07/2016 12:52 PM AEST
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Stefan Postles via Getty Images
CANBERRA, AUSTRALIA - MAY 14: Minister for Immigration and Boarder Protection Scott Morrison during House of Representatives question time at Parliament House on May 14, 2014 in Canberra, Australia. Australian Treasurer Joe Hockey last night delivered the federal budget announcing plans to reduce welfare, health and education program spending and increases taxes to bring the deficit down from $AUD 48.9 billion this year to $AUD 2.8 billion by 2017-2018. (Photo by Stefan Postles/Getty Images)

How you judge today's federal budget depends what you think a budget is for. Conventional wisdom has it that the best budgets stimulate the most growth. Conventional cynicism says the winner budgets are the ones that give enough prizes to the right voters to lock in a majority come polling day.

Then there are those of us who agree with Martin Luther King Jnr, who maintained that a budget is not just a financial document, but a moral one. Speaking at the time of the Vietnam War, King believed that 'a nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defence than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death'.

Certainly a budget, as a comprehensive statement of how the national treasure will be spent, is a telling reflection of where our collective heart lies, or at least where the government of the day thinks it does. It reflects what we value and what we value less -- whose thriving we think important, and whose we aren't much bothered about.

Governments often appeal to our sense of the common good, but increasingly they treat us less as citizens in a democracy and more as consumers. In reality we're a bit of both. Sometimes we can be persuaded to view political and economic choices through the prism of the common good, but most of the time self-interest reigns. Anyone involved in politics knows this.

In 1975 the major parties shared over 90 percent of the vote. Last election they dropped below 80 percent and barely managed two-thirds in the Senate. Voters have many more choices and they don't just swing anymore, they float.

Instead of chasing the middle ground, parties now engage in policy product design aimed at attracting particular segments of the electorate, defined by geography, age, gender, wealth, working status or any of a dozen other variables.

This political culture seems to fit well with an age of rampant individualism, where successive generations have largely internalised the idea of self-advancement as life's primary good. Yet culture is a living thing, never set in stone, and periodic change is part of being alive.

Globally the signs of our times are disenfranchisement, disillusion and disengagement, with complex and challenging impacts on politics in different countries.

If Donald Trump is one symptom of change, Bernie Sanders is another. Sanders' critics brand his politics as old-fashioned, yet his appeal is strongest among the young.

In Europe conventional politics has run up against a reinvigorated left and a resurgent right, fuelled by panic about migration as well as economic dislocation, even in traditionally liberal countries like Denmark and Finland.

Australia actually only has a mild dose of these economic and political ailments; most countries would love to trade our problems for theirs. The federal government has a structural deficit but debt is less than most comparable nations, and for all the dire talk, the ratings agencies still have Australia as AAA.

Likewise our political ills are mild.

No shortage of discontent but more healthy scepticism than dark cynicism or a lurch towards extremism; the revolution is not coming here any time soon.

But as some of his supporters have conceded, the Turnbull Government has struggled to cut through with a coherent narrative, and has continues the pattern of political tone deafness we saw under Tony Abbott, Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd.

The Government's big problem is that it ditched Tony Abbott (and with him Joe Hockey) but failed to do the same to their 2014 budget. That vastly unpopular budget sought to sacrifice important investment in the country's long term advantage -- especially by forcing the burden of health and education spending on to the states, which lack the revenue-raising capacity to meet public expectations.

It also put our Asia-Pacific neighbours, and some of the world's most vulnerable people, at risk through an unprecedented series of massive cuts to Australian aid, which accounted for a third of total savings.

And yet it maintained a state of complete denial about the need to address falling revenue, reform the tax system and moderate features that massively benefit the highest earners and distort economic behaviour.

So how does the Turnbull Government now put together a narrative with enough appeal to self-interest but also a semblance of concern for public good? How do they convince hard-pressed wage earners that the top end of town is sharing the burden? How do they sell a budget as economically responsible, but also fair?

Labor, too, needs to do much more than simply negate the Coalition's policies. Not since it went so badly missing among the twin distractions of the global financial crisis and their own internal fracturing last time they held office, have Labour articulated what exactly their vision is for Australia's future, including its place in the world.

In what we used to call the normal political cycle this election should have been a walkover for the Coalition, but they have left themselves very little time to establish a commanding lead. As John Howard remarked, you can't fatten the pig on market day.

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