There are two main layers to the misinformation that dominates coverage of the economy during this election campaign.
The first is that the Coalition relies on major media to report its economic narrative for the entire ‘policy’ component of its re-election strategy. Everything else is meat pies and footy, horserace ephemera, church on Sunday, pub on Anzac Day.
Secondly, there is a complacent and unhelpful view that even well-regarded economists and journalists who know (or should know) better are kicking down the road. This is the demonstrably false claim that the Liberals and Nationals lack a policy platform.
There is no truth to either of these claims. Lets start with economic management. The Australian economy was successfully steered through the 2008 Global Financial Crisis by the Rudd Labor government. At the time, Treasurer Wayne Swan explained its Keynesian philosophy, which boils down to counter-cyclical government borrowing and spending to minimise the hardship and cost caused by steep downturns and mass unemployment.
Swan and another Labor Treasurer (later Prime Minister) Paul Keating are the only two Australians to be recognised internationally for their economic competency. A more detailed comparative analysis from economist Stephen Koukoulas, a former Labor advisor, can be found here; and an earlier debunking after the disastrous 2015 Abbott-Hockey budget by Tim Dunlop here.
The GFC was itself caused by neoliberal policy settings that peaked during the Howard era (1996-2007). In brief, neoliberalism transactionalises all human relations, commodifies identifiable sectors of the population – welfare recipients, single mothers, people with disabilities, refugees – and transfers public resources to private interests.
Like its classical liberal parent, an ideology designed to rationalise the pervasive inequalities produced by the English class system and industrial capitalism, neoliberalism comes with multiple lies of convenience. ‘Trickle-down’, for example, is reverse rhetoric, describing the deliberate movement of wealth and assets up the economic scale as its opposite.
In this context, financial markets were deregulated beyond any effective oversight. Public assets were sold off. In New South Wales, then Premier Mike Baird sold all the information about all the land. A religious man and corporate banker, he handed womens refuges built by feminists to the corporate arms of organised religion like Mission Australia. Hundreds of women, and many children, have been killed by ‘intimate partner’ men since then.
We were told ‘competition’ would drive prices down when in fact privatisation saw widespread price-gouging and electricity bills skyrocket at four times the rate of the general price increases. Political leaders allowed the vested predictions of credit ratings agencies to hold enormous, unwarranted and ultimately catastrophic sway over fiscal decisions. This is the real sovereign risk, a term bandied about by economic illiterates who never point to the austerity imposed by the IMF on developing countries, for example, or by the EU on Greece.
Anyway. Back to the campaign.
The twin failures of uncritically broadcasting government attacks on the Opposition while pretending the Coalition has no policy platform is partly a self-fulfilling dynamic. The prime minister offers endlessly repetitive and dishonest criticism of Opposition policy, and refuses to campaign on his own platform, which after five years is very clear.
Reporting whatever lies the Liberals tell about Labor is a reversal of the public interest responsibility of the fourth estate. It is supposed to report what the government is doing, and what the opposition offers in the alternative, so that people have a meaningful choice at the ballot box.
And what is the Government doing? How can we glean a Coalition policy platform from all this carnival barking? Easy. Just canvas what it has done over the past five years; and check whether any Liberal or National party representative, whether officially or by the traditionally worst political gaffe of all, which is accidentally telling the truth, has repudiated or deferred or suspended or cancelled the policy position.
Fiscal policy is the obvious place to start, because the only actual argument the Prime Minister will put – other than stunts and piecemeal announcements designed to dominate the news cycle – is that he, Scott Morrison, has a better one. A growing list of eye-wateringly expensive allocations – the preferred unit of cash wastage seems to be a half-billion dollars – is sufficient evidence that this is untrue.
The Abbott government announced in 2014 that it would slash over half a billion dollars from Indigenous Affairs, and it did. The Turnbull government outright rejected the Uluru Statement from the Heart, and referendum proposal for an Indigenous Voice to Parliament, by press release. Its minister, former nationals deputy leader Nigel Scullion, approved ‘Indigenous’ funding to mates in the cattle and fishing industries and, when questioned, appeared not to grasp what could possibly be wrong with that.
There was the $443 million to the Great Barrier Reef Foundation, run by a board peppered with mining industry executives; the $499 million to the Australian War Memorial run by an ex-Liberal Party leader who courts donations from, and sits on the board of one, weapons manufacturers; the $423 million to beach-shack registered ‘security firm’ Paladin.
Then there is the $8.2 billion that has been spent with nothing to show for river health under the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, including that $80 million on non-existent water that may or may not have flown downstream to Cubbie Station if there was a flood: see Anne Davies’ extensive body of work here. The ten billion+ dollars spent on off-shore detention, including $187 million to re-open and then close the cages on Christmas Island for no reason other than pre-election campaigning here.
The mortal injury that is Robodebt costs as much to administer as it recovers from welfare recipients, if you only count the dollars. The program has seen over 2,000 people die after receiving notices, according to the department that administers the program. These notices only go to working people of working age. They are not dying of natural causes, and certainly not of old age.
At $5-6 billion annually, the ‘franking credits’ cash given to comfortable retirees is more than federal funding for public schools. And, despite constant claims to the contrary, negative gearing almost exclusively benefits well-off households. All that foregone revenue is a lot of public housing not built. The public cost of property owners, via negative gearing and rent assistance, pension asset and CGT exemptions, was estimated at $36 billion a year in 2013.
Then there is what passes for climate policy. I have written so much about this, including this campaign. It is desperately disheartening to keep repeating the political facts. In brief:
The Abbott government repealed the price on carbon and replaced it with ‘Direct Action’, or paying big polluters to modify their plant and equipment. Emissions have increased ever since. Turnbull left this demonstrably ineffective nonsense in situ while his hapless environment minister, the now-Treasurer Josh Frydenberg, fiddled around with a ‘national energy guarantee’, which took out the Turnbull prime ministership but was never legislated. It is now Labor policy. Morrison re-branded the demonstrably ineffective free money approach as a ‘climate solutions’.
Does taking billions of dollars from welfare recipients and First Nations people and giving it to mining interests and landlords sound like a government with no platform?
One more thing. Last year, the Orwellian-named Fair Work Commission – which the Coalition, as with other federal statutory bodies, has stacked with political appointees – cut penalty rates to some of the most insecure, underemployed, casualised workers in the country. A recent McKell Institute report found that if the Coalition is re-elected, some $2.87 billion will be transferred from these workers to business owners and shareholders.
As any economist can tell you, the multiplier effect of $2.87 billion spent by low-paid workers on essentials in their local communities is vastly more beneficial to the Australian economy than $2.87 billion in the pockets of people who have enough disposable income to spend money on shares and overseas holidays and luxury imports.
In addition, PAYE waged workers pay tax before we see it. There are little or no tax deductions available to casualised workers in the retail and hospitality sectors. Business owners and shareholders, on the other hand, enjoy access to a huge array of tax minimisation schemes. So government revenue will also decline as a result of this transfer of wealth upwards, from low-income to well-off, because all low-income workers meet all their tax liabilities in full; while business owners and shareholders are invited, by fiscal policy settings, to evade and minimise at every opportunity.
The 2019-20 budget, with its fabricated future bottom line, has sunk without a trace. And that is even with Treasurer Josh Frydenberg, as part of his budget sell, releasing a picture of himself as a young man, half-naked on a bed. I am not joking. I wish I was.
But it serves as a handy metaphor for this election. The public are poorly served by a campaign where the emperors are fully clothed and legacy media pretend they are naked, yet here we are.