15/05/2015 - 04:58

Political careers on the line

15/05/2015 - 04:58


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While the economic wisdom of the state and federal budgets is still being debated, it’s clear the authors of both documents had one eye on their own political futures.

UNDER PRESSURE: The budget sales job will go a long way to determining Joe Hockey’s political future. Photo: Attila Csaszar

While the economic wisdom of the state and federal budgets is still being debated, it’s clear the authors of both documents had one eye on their own political futures.

IT is now painfully apparent that the federal and state budgets were about far more than setting the economic agendas for the next 12 months, or even laying the groundwork for the re-election of both governments.

In the federal arena, the sub plot is the futures of the treasurer, Joe Hockey, and even the prime minister, Tony Abbott, following the emergence of Social Services Minister Scott Morrison as the government’s new rising star.

While the positions of Premier Colin Barnett and Treasurer Mike Nahan are not under threat at the state level, their budget news is grim. They will rely on the invisible hand of the Commonwealth Grants Commission, which contributed to the first budget deficit in 15 years, to assist in the recovery.

Under the existing commission formula, the collapse in iron ore prices will be reflected in increased GST reimbursements, but not until 2016-17.

In years past, voters had to wait on budget speeches to learn what the next 12 months held for them. The hip pocket nerve was paramount. ‘Beer, cigs up’ was a shorthand way of analysing the impact. Soft pre-election budgets often attracted the headline ‘Vote now, pay later’.

But all that quickly changed. We now have pre-budget announcements; and there were plenty of them this year.

Enter Mr Morrison, with the challenging job of winding back expectations linked with the age pension. Ever since Paul Keating introduced universal industry based superannuation in the 1980s, federal governments have been trying to reduce reliance on the pension. The alternative was a ballooning social welfare budget.

It has taken a long time for the message to sink in, not only in the community but also in Mr Keating’s old party, which, in emulating Mr Abbott in opposition, is always – understandably – seeking the political edge.

While avoiding the politically sensitive area of superannuation itself, Mr Morrison has tackled the anomaly of relatively wealthy people also qualifying for the pension. He has said the unthinkable – the pension is not a right, it is a safety net.

That will take a while to sink in; sections of the welfare lobby will see to that. But if Mr Morrison can work his way through the social welfare can of worms, his political star will continue to rise.

Mr Hockey’s future could well rest on the results of his significant stimulus to small business, which he described as a big employer and big innovator.

Dr Nahan is also in the business of winding back the sense of entitlement. State budget speeches are traditionally longer and more detailed than the now carefully crafted 30-minute federal document. That compares with the pre-television packaging days when speeches from treasurers such as Harold Holt and Billy McMahon took about 75 minutes.

Dr Nahan cut benefits to seniors, placing a cap on some and applying a means test to others. But seniors were thrown a bone with extra assistance in the sensitive area of housing.

And new roads and cycleways were prominent in the government’s pre-budget news, honouring the pledge to tackle congestion on the roads.

Convincing voters that budgets contain a credible plan in these uncertain times is crucial, not only for the nation but also political careers. Just watch Mr Abbott, Mr Hockey and Mr Morrison at the federal level, and Mr Barnett and Dr Nahan closer to home, as they accentuate the positive.

They’ll all be watching the post-budget opinion polls as well.

Pearson praise

HOW quickly fortunes can change in politics; just ask Colin Barnett.

First up, the premier was a villain for his public suggestion that up to 150 of the state’s 274 remote Aboriginal communities might close after the Commonwealth refused further funding, dropping the financial burden into the lap of a state treasury already in dire straits.

Then Mr Barnett called a news conference to unveil a whole-of-government strategy to confront problems in some isolated communities, including inadequate health and education services, and domestic violence. He acknowledged some positive initiatives when Geoff Gallop was premier, and promised extensive consultation with Aboriginal leaders.

At the news conference, Regional Development Minister Terry Redman also revealed that he had visited the Hope Vale community in Far North Queensland to see how Aboriginal groups can operate effectively.

Hope Vale is one of the projects involving the nation’s most influential Aboriginal spokesman, Noel Pearson. Mr Redman’s visit meant the state government had been consulting the Aboriginal leader.

Significantly, Mr Pearson lent his support to Mr Barnett’s approach via a glowing endorsement in The Australian newspaper.

“It is very good that Barnett has announced the roadmap forward,” Mr Pearson wrote. “Many indigenous leaders in Western Australia share Barnett’s conviction that reform is imperative for these communities.”

It’s still early days of course, and the attempts to resolve a highly sensitive social issue could easily fall apart. But the signs are promising.


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