Budget replies are traditionally bland bookends to the main event.
They often come across full of sound and fury. In reality they are mostly ‘gotcha’ critiques of government giveaways or dull tactical efforts to unspool government claims to Budget rigour.
Bill Shorten’s reply to this year’s Budget is different.
Of course, a major aim of the Labor leader’s reply was short-term and tactical.
A good deal of it is aimed to dismantle key planks of the Government’s election-driven Budget, ahead of the imminent start of the federal campaign.
The Labor leader’s tax cut package is adept, if predictable, politics, potentially outmanoeuvring the government’s own expansive package by putting the onus on (in Shorten’s words) ‘bigger, better and fairer’ relief for millions of low-income earners.
His major play on skills and training, as well as significant financial help for cancer sufferers, will likely enhance Labor’s core electoral strengths in health and education.
The delivery itself, for a leader often seen as wooden and spin-driven, was perhaps one of his best in a set-piece.
It bordered on prime ministerial, and both the substance and style of the reply will put further pressure on the Government facing an uphill battle to stay in office.
But more significant were the narratives the Opposition Leader didn’t touch on.
Shorten didn’t dwell on squaring Labor’s big-spending promises with the usual explanations of fiscal responsibility and affordability.
Raising taxes on high-income earners as well as axing tax privileges for the well-off to pay for expensive spending promises were the main rationales offered, as though these were self-evidently good and proper steps to take.
Five years ago, this blatant ‘soak the rich’ stance would have seen Labor wilt within days under a torrent of criticism from mainstream media and echoed by the public - that they were economically and fiscally unfit for government.
In fact, they wouldn’t have ventured to try it.
After all, the last time they were in government Labor was all but undone by furious campaigns by the Coalition and corporates (that morphed into grass-roots public revolts) against their proposed mining and carbon taxes.
All this coincided with the high point of the paradigm that has dominated politics and policy making in Australia since the 1980s - that what is good for the market interest is good for the public interest.
The Coalition will spend every moment until polling day tripling down on this well-trodden theme, supported by their ‘back in black’ surplus boast.
Shorten’s Budget reply was effectively a homage to the word ‘fairness (‘a fair go action plan, ‘intergenerational fairness, ‘a fair share of national income’ and ‘fair wages’ were variations on the reply’s meta-theme)
Why? Because fairness in Australian politics and policy making has become the new black.
The market-knows-best paradigm was dramatically undermined by the Royal Commission into the banking sector with its revelations of big banks’ predatory dealings with ordinary Australians.
These scandals however were a tipping point for longer-term trends that have discredited the standing of market mantras, and their attendant theme of fiscal rigour.
Average workers have been seeing their wages stagnate in recent years, this against the backdrop of widespread perceptions that large business continue to enrich themselves with excessive pay and healthy profits.
A constant feed of reports highlighting how some of Australia’s largest companies pay little or no tax likewise undermined the corporate mantra of community responsibility.
Then there’s the huge opinion shift both globally and in Australia against growing economic inequality tied to business excess.
In short, the foundations on which politicians and their parties have argued for nearly three decades that market and fiscal interests are in synch with the wider community and their aspirations, have effectively unravelled.
Some label the shift ‘populism’. In effect it’s a rational response by a growing numbers of Australians, particularly the young, to the ‘unpopulism’ of a paradigm seen as not delivering on its core promise of broad-based prosperity and opportunity.
This is what Bill Shorten’s reply is really about – putting even more distance between Labor and the Coalition on claiming ownership to a new mantra.
As such it’s not just a run-of-the-mill Budget reply. Rather it marks another significant transition from one paradigm to another, fought and framed around new political principles and narratives in which ‘investment in prosperity’ is replaced by ‘investment in fairness’.
This article first appeared in Election Watch.
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