Budget facepalmer

The medieval theatre of the set-piece nonsense of lock-ups, Treasurer speeches and Opposition replies are over and it’s down to the horsetrading to get the budget through. Until June 30, the balance of power in the unrepresentative swill of a Senate remains stubbornly with the Labor and Green alliance. The much vaunted elimination of the carbon and mining taxes still hasn’t happened and Labor and the Green can afford the budget similar treatment, by echoing the Abbottesque-howl of “broken promises” and reject every negotiation between now and the end of June.

After July 1 the numbers in the Senate will change. Labor-Green will lose the balance of power and the government can look to six of the 10 independents and minor party seats to get their budget – and their broader agenda – through. The inconsistently brilliant operator Clive Palmer oscillates between acting contemptuous – including finding parliamentary theatre so dull that it sends him to sleep – and then revealing his hand with his willingness to ditch carbon pricing and demanding retrospective payments for previous carbon taxing expenditure.

Sitting alone in the green chamber, Palmer can hold the stage but in the Upper House his strength will be revealed if three Palmer senators and his patsy Ricky Muir dance to his tunes. This is what the current government is betting on as it launches its strange ‘war on everything’ budget where war is one of the few winners. Attacking normally supportive vested interest groups such as pensioners, large families and motorists is expensive political capital for the first year of government.

Fiscal prudence is a good thing, but to say Australia is living beyond its means is meaningless until we fully examine what those means are. Joe Hockey’s budget presumes a crisis but neither he nor Abbott can successfully say why this is so. Shorten exposed that with his facts and figures about what state Labor left the economy in September. Palmer went straight to the point and labelled the emergency a fraud.

If say, the entire budget was put at the mercy of solving the problems of climate change, then a Prime Minister would have a good case to sell to the nation. Such a notion still lies far outside Australia’s political Overton Window, the view vigorously policed by a media more willing to ridicule than to assist, and a host of Murdoch apparatchiks wanting to impress the boss.

Murdoch’s flagship The Australian wants to destroy the Greens at the ballot box and his journalists are nitpicking Palmer’s career. His tabloids built up Rudd to smash Gillard and then Abbott to smash Rudd. We should be destroying Murdoch at the ballot boxes and launching campaigns NOT to vote for whoever they are recommending. What’s good for Murdoch, is only good for Murdoch.

The man he anointed, Tony Abbott, is now a rabbit in the spotlight, agonising over his every word between a mess of ums and ahs. I heard him described last week as first postmodernist PM (surely that was Kevin Rudd?), someone who swaps ideologies and convictions at whim. It is hard to know what he believes apart from three word slogans and being a weathervane. It is hard to imagine what influence he has in a heavyweight party room full of masculine ideologues other than getting the occasional “captain’s pick”. Quaint cricketing analogies worked for John Howard because he loved cricket. Abbott sounds like a dill when he says it. His “picks” like PPL, which on face value is a good thing, end up hated by the left as inferior to childcare and by the right as too expensive.

The deficit was the excuse, but making government smaller is an avowed aim of the Liberal Party. Apart from the innate belief private sector will do everything better (excepting police and defence forces) and the downsizing of pesky organisations partial to inconvenient truths, they also want to reach into Menzies’ playbook to create a nation of “lifters” not “leaners”, a variant on the similarly catchy “hand up” not “hand out” philosophy. Despite the 1950s language, this is no bad thing. In our most disadvantaged community, the Indigenous community, there are many voices saying that is what they need. Noel Pearson and Marcia Langton are saying end the ‘sitdown money’ and instead give the communities the means to look after themselves.

This appeal to personal dignity, also works at the wider level where people who are not contributing to the economy should be encouraged to do so. The problem is Hockey leaves those on the bottom with no dignity at all. His approach, is all stick and not a skerrick of carrot. The leaners are not given anything to lift. The government knows motivating people by taking away their allowances rarely works, which is why it won’t bring in many new income-related taxes. But while it understands that wealth creation by the well-to-do needs a bit of leeway, it does not offer the same privileges to the less well off.

No one can say how things will pan out when Palmer becomes kingmaker. The ultimate sanction of a double dissolution would leave him in an even stronger position. The government may hope he is on their page as a former LNP member with similar economic outlooks. But as the actions of Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott showed, there can be much cantankerousness as well as honour and wisdom in independence. There will be much bluffing to come. But Palmer is holding four aces and willing to gamble them to gain an even better hand.