Thus Spake Mungo: Airy fairy election promises

Mungo, speechless

Mungo receiving the Echo Award for the Most Underpaid and Over Qualified Australian Journalist at the Echo 30th Birthday bash in Mullumbimby on Saturday.

So we now have competing ten year plans for what will be, at most, a three year parliament. And for this reason alone neither of them is worth the paper it is largely not written on.

When – if – they mature, they will be three elections away, with all the changes that this entails; even in the highly unlikely case that a single government survives that long, there will be retractions, backflips, broken promises and claims that of course the circumstances have altered and therefore the legislators must do the same.

The pie in the sky scenarios being promoted by both major parties are not just wishy-washy – they are totally airy-fairy, pure puffery.

But of course it is far more basic than that. Even that eternal fount of optimism, the commonwealth treasury, has to admit that the future is far from certain, and if things go wrong — as they are more or less bound to within a decade – all bets are off and we will be in deep doo-doo. So the pie in the sky scenarios being promoted by both major parties are not just wishy-washy – they are totally airy-fairy, pure puffery.

Which is, no doubt, why both Malcolm Turnbull and Bill Shorten are talking down their immediate benefits: nothing much will happen in the first four years, leaving plenty of time to more unlikely promises before the next time the voters are dragged to the polls. And both sides reckon that they will deliver budget surpluses in 2020-21.

Well, they might, but if they do it will be a matter of hope triumphant over experience. The last two treasurers, Wayne Swan and Joe Hockey, both promised early surpluses and the targets continued, remorselessly, to recede; the deficit has in fact trebled in the years since Hockey famously declared a budget emergency and became far worse after he announced the end of the age of entitlement. So no-one is likely to lay down the champagne in anticipation of when the figures come around in four years time.

The point is that the forecasts are pointless; they are mere spin, designed partly to inspire confidence, which is not a bad thing, but mainly to pretend to the punters that the situation is totally under control, that there is no reason for alarm, let alone for panic. Because of course if there was, the leaders would have to do something about it, and in the election contest this is simply not on.

While it is highly unlikely that the answer lies in hung parliaments with minor parties and independents cobbled together in hastily formed coalitions, it is tempting to believe that they couldn’t do any worse than that in the last few lots.

So we see Shorten belatedly tweaking spending cuts while Turnbull waffles and Morrison mutters about how something may (or may not) happen after July 2 is safely out of the way. And each side goes along with the fantasy that it, and only it, has the solution and the other is wasting money, attempting to bribe the swinging voters and avoiding the real issues. It is hard to deny that at least a large part of the second contention is right – on both sides.

In the circumstances the public has every right to remain cynical and disengaged; the drift away from the major parties is accelerating, and while it is highly unlikely that the answer lies in hung parliaments with minor parties and independents cobbled together in hastily formed coalitions, it is tempting to believe that they couldn’t do any worse than that in the last few lots.

It is now more than decade since John Howard started hurling the proceeds of the mining boom to any willing voters who asked for them and since then there has no serious attempt to repair the damage. Obviously the GFC did not help, and nor did the decline in commodity prices; but these could have been, and should have been accommodated if properly and honestly structured budgets had become the norm.

Instead, we saw ambushes, broken promises, and a continuation of the handout mentality to the rent seekers from both major parties. Most of them have done very nicely, thank you – until their own largesse was at least partially removed to make way for the next lot of carpetbaggers. And so it has been, and so it is.

This is not to say that some, at least, of the proposals suggested by Turnbull and Shorten are not worthwhile. Company tax cuts are intrinsically desirable, although the contention that they are some kind of economic philosopher’s stone is of course absurd. Education, health and renewable energy are obviously important priorities, and supporting them should be applauded: but equally obviously, their effect on the economy is at best indirect and long term.

To their credit, both Turnbull and Shorten are finally acknowledging that there are problems, and that they are more likely to get worse before, if ever, they get better. But that is about all they are doing; most of the time they are wafting through the marginal seats, distributing beads, mirrors and other trinkets to the eager recipients on the one hand while mercilessly blackguarding the opposition on the other.

It has been a most unedifying election campaign, and we still have the three long weeks of it to endure. Shorten at least keeps telling us that his plan will eventually be fully costed well before the fateful day, in plenty of time for the government’s enforcers to fall on it with shrill screams of outrage and deliver it to the Murdoch press, which, after a brief turn at mildly criticising Turnbull, has fallen (or been pushed) into line to bash Labor and everything it stands for, or that it can be imagined to stand for. Turnbull, when asked about his figures, simply refers doubters to go back to his budget – which is no answer at all, given the way things have developed since and are still developing.

So for the weary voters, it will come back to a simple question: which of the unloved and untrusted leaders can they bear to put up with for the next three years, and is there any point in trying to alleviate the pain with a touch of seasoning from new and untried ingredients? You pays your money, if you have any left, and you takes your choice, such as it is. And in the end, you are stuck with the old truism: whoever you vote for, a politician always gets in. Good luck.

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