The Government has released its latest stimulus package. The Opposition knew it was coming. So what did it do to contain the positive political advantage the package is already bringing to Kevin Rudd and his Government? Let’s look at what it said before the package was released.
What did Malcolm Turnbull say? In an interview on Sydney Radio 2UE on 2 February, knowing Turnbull’s preference for tax cuts, Steve Price asked him: "What level of tax cuts would you look at? I mean what rates would be slicing into?" Turnbull said: "Well Steve you’ve got to make sure that the cuts are ones that provide real incentives to work and to invest. At this time the most effective places to cut income tax will be to provide incentives to low and middle income earners. Now that benefits all tax payers of course – if you lower tax rates at the lower thresholds everybody benefits. So there is an across the board benefit but it’s particularly important to help low and middle income earners." He went onto say that Mr Swan's "...position has been so contradictory. They seem to be in a state of real confusion, Steve. The Treasurer says tax cuts are out of the question and attacks me for suggesting that they could form an important part of any fiscal stimulus. And then a day or two later he is saying he is going to have tax cuts, but apparently he is still trying to suggest that they’re different from what we’re talking about. It’s very hard to follow what Wayne Swan is on about." So the message was that the Opposition favours tax cuts, but the Government doesn't and is confused, and Swan seems not to know 'what he’s about’. Turnbull did not elaborate on the pros and cons of tax cuts. The real message was that he had the wisest approach, and the Government was confused.
On 1 February in an interview with Helen Dalley on Sky News, Julie Bishop was more forthcoming on the value of tax cuts. (See Peter Martin’s account). She said: ”...any stimulus package should include tax cuts, broad and sweeping tax cuts that will increase the tax base and increase tax revenues.” The next day, asked for clarification, she said: “There is substantial evidence to show that tax cuts, including lower marginal tax rates across all tax brackets and cuts to corporate tax, increase productivity by providing incentives to individuals and businesses to work, invest, take risks and pursue entrepreneurial activity. The new growth in jobs and output will expand the tax base and thus tax revenues. It has been the experience in Australia and other OECD countries that reducing tax rates and expanding the tax base increases tax revenues. This requires reductions that are durable, credible and wide-ranging and that help reduce the distortions taxes create to incentives to work, save and innovate." This sounds like Reagan-style economics. Why didn’t Turnbull give the same reasoning?
On yesterday’s ABC’s AM, Joe Hockey was sent out to front the media. Asked by Lyndal Curtis if it is time for the Government to stomp on the accelerator and spend up big? he replied: "Well it's now time for the Government to be honest with the Australian people, to have a consistent message and to reveal a plan. I think what the Government's doing is taking the Australian consumer, Australian households, Australian workers on a rollercoaster ride. And the rollercoaster ride is undermining confidence." So the first slogan was: ‘the Government is undermining confidence'.
He reinforced that by reference to the Government 'talking up inflation' last year (a time-weary chestnut), again undermining confidence. Then Hockey insisted that telling the public that revenues were falling undermined confidence, and expressed astonishment that Rudd would try to build confidence with its stimulus package. Like the rest of the Coalition, he seems to be having trouble coping with the idea that on the one hand a Government has to be honest about the situation, which may induce despondency, while building hope and confidence by unveiling a package to address the situation. The two go together; why would a Government embark on a $42 billion stimulus if the situation was not bad? When Lyndal asked: "Isn't this just the Government being straight with people? Telling people when things are bad?” Hockey replied: "Absolutely not, they're not being straight with people. Because for example the $115-billion figure which Kevin Rudd grandly announced yesterday included something that was announced before Christmas. So why would he announce it again? Simply to undermine confidence. And Kevin Rudd is desperate to blame someone else for what's happened.”
When Lyndal reminded him: "...but there's a global financial crisis." Hockey replied: "Yes, well of course, absolutely. I was about to say that. I mean of course there's a global financial crisis, but the message today has to be hope. Hope that we can get out of this, hope that there is a way, hope that there is a solution. There has to be a plan. But instead, today we'll see a stimulus package that rolls together all of Kevin Rudd's old initiatives and takes a few of Malcolm Turnbull's as well. He'll roll them all together and he'll claim that they are going to stimulate the economy, they're going to create jobs. Well, you know, it's all spin and Australians see through that." Although Joe didn't know the actual stimulus package figure then, I guess that wouldn't have stopped him from calling $42 billion 'all spin'.
On and on it went, a rambling reiteration of the slogans his media minders had fed him – Rudd is undermining confidence, is not honest with the people, is ‘all spin’. It really was pitiable. They would be better to keep Joe under wraps until he gets his lines right.
Three interviews – three different messages. The Coalition seems not to have its PR story together, although Turnbull asserts the Coalition has been hard at work over the break. It’s not clear what it was working on – certainly not on a consistent message.
The day was capped by Peter Costello’s appearance on Lateline. The transcript is still to be posted. If Costello, or Coalition supporters thought this marked his re-emergence as a political force, as Tony Jones hinted in his introduction, it illustrates the monumental level of delusion that afflicts Coalition ranks. Some pro-Coalition bloggers even labelled Costello’s performance as brilliant, his best ever, and urged him to return. Yet on display was the same arrogance, the same smirk, the same self-aggrandisement, the same sneering dismissal of Rudd’s views and his Government’s approach, the same avoidance of answering questions, the same refusal to say what he would do, the same ‘let me make this point’, and the same disingenuousness when he pointed to the reversal of surplus to deficit over the last six months without acknowledging that the economic environment had changed radically over that time. In his desire to paint Rudd and Labor as once again rapidly getting the budget into deficit in typical 'Whitlam-esque' style, he talked almost as if the GFC had not occurred. Every now and again, as Turnbull flounders, the spectre is raised of Costello rising phoenix-like from the ashes in which he has sat for over a year. This appearance should dampen that notion permanently
This morning only Joe Hockey was sent out - to his old mate Kochie on Seven’s Sunrise to represent the Coalition’s position, namely that it hadn’t made up its mind how it would respond to the Government’s legislation. Later this morning however it did announce it would oppose the legislation. The die is cast. We might now get some inkling of what the Opposition believes should be done about the GFC. But then again...