Last Sunday night's leader's debate for the Australian Federal election was disappointing at a whole host of levels.
To begin with – both leaders heralded their party's commitment to low tax and low expenditure as a proportion of GDP; with Rudd attempting to outdo Abbott on this theme. Though at least Rudd questioned Abbott's commitment to cutting Company Tax at this time and under current conditions. Still: neither side faced up in a truly substantial way to the challenges of an ageing population, a growing population, and a declining Chinese minerals boom. Though Abbott made the frankly absurd allegation that it was the carbon and mining taxes which were to blame for falling Chinese demand. Neither leader fully faced up to the massive infrastructure deficit and the fact that any Australian government will be confronted with the dilemma of increasing tax or cutting expenditure on a large scale. Abbott postured as 'the infrastructure Prime Minister' – But there is no sense of HOW he could possibly pay for the host of initiatives he has committed to – which amount to about $20 billion in cost so far.
Increasingly in his choice of language Abbott turns to the extreme US model of de-valorising tax and social expenditure generally. This is an approach which holds the prospect of encouraging US-style inequality, social dislocation, homelessness and poverty. Apparently Abbott has ditched 'Christian Democratic Social Welfare Centrism' in favour of a harsher, crueller, punitive and less generous regime when it comes to social services, industrial rights and welfare. If he wants voters to think otherwise he needs a clear and strong reorientation of his arguments and language. (and the policies which flow from this)
In response to the contradictions between Abbott's infrastructure promises, and his failure to propose concrete tax or savings measures, Rudd did (quite rightly) point to the future prospect of Abbott increasing and/or expanding the scope of the GST. But Rudd did not outline his own comprehensive response to the aforementioned challenges either. Abbott insisted that the GST will not go up without a mandate. Perhaps they are thinking of saving that for a second term. (in which case why would you 'give them a foot in the door'?; especially when it would be very likely for them to 'go a second term') Certainly Liberal State Governments have long argued for an increase in the GST, including its extension to health and food. Yet if the money is not coming from the GST – then again, where IS it coming from?
Crucially, Rudd failed to deliver a potential 'knockout blow' during the debate – which could have been achieved by more consistently interrogating Abbott on that theme: "where exactly will the cuts come from?" Voters have a right to know; and indeed MUST know if they are able to make an informed decision. And if they cannot make an informed decision in voting for Abbott – then they should not vote for him at all.
Furthermore: leaving announcements too late should not be acceptable for voters either. If Abbott leaves the release of policies until too late it means he is trying to avoid scrutiny. On policy it shows "he has something to hide."
We know the Abbott cuts will be in the tens of billions should he win: especially given his existing commitments. For example, restoring the Private Health Insurance Rebate for the wealthy, as well as Parental Leave on full pay for women on $150,000/year. And we know in this context Abbott intends to dump the mining tax and emissions trading, and substantially cut Company Tax as well. And to add to the fiscal pressures Abbott would- face – he has unambiguously established his desire to radically expand Defence expenditure.
Labor has claimed the Liberals' 'budget black hole' is around $70 billion. But even if this is slightly off-target, what else do voters have to go on given the Liberals' failure to provide Treasury-approved costings with only weeks to go before election day? Abbott is claiming there will no 'slashing' of health, education and jobs under a government he leads. Yet interestingly he does not mention welfare at all. How far do projected cuts have to go before Abbott imagines it warrants the verb 'slash'?
Abbott has talked about his support for 'social solidarity' – but cuts to welfare, as well as punitive welfare programs based on labour conscription would indicate something entirely different. (to be fair, though, Labor itself has cut welfare coverage for the disabled and sole parents; and as a consequence may lose some support to the Greens)
There is a broad claim that Abbott's tax cuts will stimulate investment. But this neglects the infrastructure deficit and the consequent 'bottlenecks' and their impact on productivity. Abbott's chosen path of wide-ranging tax cuts would also neglect the increasing social cost – and the cost to individual tax-payers – from ever-expanding 'corporate welfare'. AGAIN there's the question – 'where is the money coming from?'
To elaborate on the 'corporate welfare' argument; we speak here of corporate tax cuts at a time when the GST is being put up for discussion as a means of redressing the infrastructure deficit. If corporations are not paying their fair share to access infrastructure and services they benefit from, and ordinary taxpayers are 'picking up the slack' (either through their taxes; their pay and conditions; or through degraded social services and welfare) – THAT is 'corporate welfare'.
Moving on, though: neither side had any new announcements when it came to aged care. Abbott talked of 'cutting red tape' but gave no concrete impression what this would mean 'in the real world'. Could he actually mean a relaxing of standards amidst a widely recognised crisis in high intensity care? Though at least Rudd was substantial insofar as he was on top of existing policies. And at least Rudd got behind aged care workers – recognising the value of their work.
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