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Labor has no credibility on the budget repair task
When it comes to the task of repairing the federal budget, it is hard to take Leader of the Opposition Bill Shorten and Shadow Treasurer Chris Bowen seriously.
In the Australian Financial Review last week, Bowen pretended to be concerned about the budget deficit, saying “…the deficit is blowing out again under Joe Hockey’s watch in the upcoming budget.”
The best answer to that claim will be the budget that Joe brings down in a few weeks’ time.
But there are at least three reasons to view with great scepticism comments from any Labor figure on the question of budget repair.
The first is the record of inept budget mismanagement by the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd Government – and here it is worth remembering that both Shorten and Bowen were key figures in that government, with Bowen finishing up as Treasurer.
The Rudd-Gillard-Rudd Government inherited a strong and healthy budget – with surpluses in 2006/07 and 2007/08 of $17 billion and $20 billion respectively.
But once Wayne Swan, and subsequently Chris Bowen, got their hands on the policy levers, surpluses quickly disappeared. The next six years saw a grim and growing run of deficits reaching almost a quarter of a trillion dollars in total: - $27 billion, - $54 billion, - $48 billion, - $43 billion, - $18 billion and - $50 billion.
The second reason that the Labor Party cannot be taken seriously on this issue is its grossly irresponsible behaviour concerning measures it had planned when in government to implement. These measures, delivering combined savings of $5 billion over the forward estimates, were included in the costings Labor took to the 2013 election.
For example, Labor included in its 2013-14 budget, delivered in May 2013, a series of savings measures for higher education delivering total savings exceeding $2 billion, such as converting Student Start up Scholarships to income contingent loans.
Joe Hockey therefore included these measures in his budget brought down in May 2014. After all, if Labor had already promised to introduce these measures, it could naturally be relied upon to support them if the Coalition legislated to implement them – couldn’t it?
Well, it turned out that, no, Labor could not be relied upon. It has reversed its position on these measures and now refuses to support them.
If Labor cannot even bring itself to offer a minimal degree of assistance in the budget repair task, by being prepared to support measures which in government it said it would introduce, then it has no credibility in talking about the budget repair task.
Perhaps the third and most fundamental reason why Labor has no credibility on budget repair is that, if the Labor Party seriously considers that budget repair is a worthwhile policy objective, it has the power in its hands to achieve that objective. There are 25 Labor Senators in the 76 seat Senate; the Coalition has 33 Senators. Together, that makes 58 votes – a comfortable majority.
To achieve budget repair, all Labor has to do is support the Coalition’s budget repair measures.
Or it could come forward with its own measures – and there could be a serious dialogue, as befits serious national political parties, about how to achieve the budget repair task.
Instead we have Labor claiming to be concerned about the budget deficit – but failing to engage on measures that would do something about it.
For the sake of our nation and our people, there is a serious job to do on budget repair. The Abbott Government is methodically getting on with the task. It’s about time that senior figures in the Labor Party – purportedly a serious political party which holds itself out as the alternative government of our country – showed a similar degree of seriousness in engaging with this issue.