Daniel Elkington

Tuesday, 12 May 2015

The Federal Budget from The Chamber

I’m currently in the middle of perhaps the only four days in my life when I’ll be living across the road from the Prime Minister. So, on Federal Budget day, I decided I may as well use this rare occurrence. At 5am this morning, I got up, crossed the road, and waited for Tony Abbott to emerge, ready to see how well he was looking on the day of his second budget. I had no idea what time he would come out, but suspected that he would come out the front door, get into the white car sitting out the front with a chauffeur and perhaps a staffer, and drive towards Parliament House. Phone in hand, I was ready to take pictures of the occasion.

Unfortunately, my expectations were not met. After two hours of waiting with no Tony Abbott emerging from the door, I concluded that the white car was not the Prime Minister’s car after all, and gave up, going back home. Not having one of the exclusive tickets to the budget lockup, I would have to be content with watching Treasurer Joe Hockey’s speech from the Chamber.

In the House of Representatives there are three levels. At the bottom is the floor, where the politicians are. Up above, on the first level, are the three public galleries on the South, West and North side, and the Press Gallery on the East side. That's the level I usually sit at when I'm visiting. Even higher is the galleries on the second floor, that have glass sound-proof walls separating you from the rest of the chamber. Usually these are where particularly rowdy school groups go. At one point there was a plan to put people with face coverings there. And that's where my ticket let me sit tonight. It turns out virtually all the seats in the main public gallery were reserved for special visitors.

While I was further away from the politicians and unable to see as much detail, I had a much wider viewing angle of the chamber. Normally there are always a few of the MPs not visible no matter where you sit, but I could see every MP in the chamber tonight. The audio wasn't as good as normal because I had to rely on speakers rather than the raw audio of the chamber, but there aren't many interjections during the budget speech, so it didn't matter too much.

One question I wanted answered by coming to the budget in person rather than watching it on TV was which of the MPs would be the first to arrive into the chamber. Which of our politicians is the most enthusiastic and passionate about this important speech and document that will set the political tone of the next few weeks and months?

I was quite surprised to discover that it was Clive Palmer, who turned up 15 minutes before the budget speech. Independent Cathy McGowan, who sits beside Palmer, was next, arriving five minutes later. The various other politicians filed in over the next few minutes, even Bob Katter who hadn't bothered to turn up to Question Time earlier in the day.

At 7:30 precisely, Joe Hockey stepped up and began to speak. As he said his first sentence, some chamber attendants delivered some physical copies of Budget Paper Number 1, placing them on the centre table for other MPs to take and read if they wanted. Last year some Labor MPs immediately grabbed a stack, handed them out, and began reading while Hockey spoke. Not this year. The two neat stacks of budget papers remained untouched for the duration of the speech.

Labor MPs were reasonably well behaved, remaining quiet for the majority of the speech, only making limited noise when Hockey mentioned "fairness". Most sat and listened attentively, whilst a few took notes and others browsed Twitter.

The Coalition MPs were also well behaved on the whole. The main group behind Hockey, who were most likely to be seen in the TV footage, focused solely on the Treasurer as he spoke. Around the sides and at the back however, there were a number who were taking notes, and a few tapping away on their phones. I now wish I'd paid more attention to precisely which were on their phones, because two of them texted to Latika Bourke that they thought this was "an election year budget". She was one of the three journalists in the press gallery, and happily tweeted out the texts of the (unnamed) Liberal MPs while the speech was going. The only Coalition MP I noticed who was perhaps visibly unhappy was Phillip Rudock, who had his arms crossed. He was recently sacked as Chief Government Whip by Tony Abbott. Tony Abbott looked a little nervous, often tapping his foot on the floor.

As for the cross bench, Adam Bandt took notes and browsed the budget papers on his tablet, Andrew Wilkie took notes on his laptop while using his phone at the same time, Bob Katter took notes on a small notepad, and Clive Palmer took notes on a big notebook. After taking one page of notes, Palmer started on a second, but then suddenly took his phone out of his pocket, looked at it, and bolted out of the chamber a few minutes before Joe Hockey finished! Not only was he the first one in, but he was also the first one out! (I later found out that he was on Sky News at 8:14, so he may have been rushing to get there on time.) Glancing around, Bob Katter saw that Palmer had left, so he moved back a seat to sit next to Independent Cathy McGowan, and discussed the budget with her.

Overall, I thought it was a very good speech from Joe Hockey. I like how he put the budget in context by talking about the global economy, and built the suspense for a while before revealing the new measures. The speech lost points for appearing to link terrorism to asylum seekers, but that's sort of expected from this government, and Hockey didn't waste too much time demonising Asylum Seekers.

Rating a speech is very different to rating a budget however.

Government budgets fall into three broad categories. The worst are those that mostly contain poor initiatives, where an observer would talk about the budget by saying “I didn’t like how the government did x, y and z”. The best budgets those where the government mostly puts into place initiatives that are really needed, and the budget is defined by the good things the leadership has done.

The third category falls somewhere in the middle. It describes budgets that don’t do all that much in the way of horrible things, and even have a lot of nice, good measures. But the policies that are actually needed at that particular time, the things that really need to be done, are simply ignored. It is in this category that I would place the 2015/16 Federal Budget.

Last year’s budget on the other hand was remarkable by the bad things that were implemented. Making young unemployed people wait 6 months before receiving assistance, slashing foreign aid, slowing the rate of growth of the pension, and making poor people pay to visit a Doctor were just some of the horrible decisions made. I’m a big believer in governments giving little or no assistance to those on high incomes, and instead helping those in most need; the poor. The 2014/15 budget, whilst taking the small step of a temporary tax increase on wealthy Australians (which really should have been permanent), seemed to aim the vast bulk of its harsh measures at the people who could least afford it. That, to me, seems to follow the ideology of selfish rich people who believe that success and income is directly proportional to effort, which is simply not the case. I’m sure that there are many construction workers, garbage truck drivers and jobseekers who work, and have worked, just as hard as the top CEOs. That the latter group are in a role where they get paid so much more than the former is mostly just down to chance.

This year the budget was much more on the right track. That said, there were some things I did not agree with. The further cuts to foreign aid, particularly a huge cut to Africa, were cruel and unnecessary. Continuing to include money for the East West Link, a bad project that the Victorian State Government won't be building, is just ridiculous and illogical. Stopping Federal Government funding to the Refugee Council of Australia, which was a tiny $150,000 a year for the budget but did so much good in an important area, seems to yell "We don't like refugees". I also don't like how the budget increases the amount that the government subsidises childcare for wealthy families to $10,000 which applies to families on income of $165,000 upwards with no limit. These families really don't need this assistance to put their children into childcare when there are other families doing it tough.

However, the budget did give much more childcare assistance to poorer families who really do need it. The new tax arrangements for small businesses should assist the economy and make it easier for small businesses to employ more people. Beginning to go after profit-shifting multinationals who avoid paying tax, and extending the GST to digital goods is a logical move to raise more revenue. The funding to help young people and the long term unemployed to get jobs is needed with the unemployment rate as it is. On a macroeconomic level, the budget is relatively stimulatory for the economy, which is needed to boost demand and jobs in the slow economic climate. Somehow I suspect that the government in its heart really wanted to cut harder, and the main reason why it's much nicer than expected is because of polls and Abbott's job as Prime Minister, but ignoring that and rating the budget on its own merits, these are good policies.

If you were to measure the budget based solely on what the government actually put forward, you would have to conclude that it was a good budget. However the thing that bothers me about tonight’s announcement isn’t so much about what the budget does, but what it doesn’t do. The most pressing issue of our time, Climate Change, hardly rated a mention, apart from an extra year of funding for the near useless Direct Action. The government doesn’t seem to be interested in implementing the essential and inevitable measures needed to combat this phenomenon, and the longer they wait, the more costlier and difficult it will be. I doubt I will ever be able to rate a Federal Budget as “excellent” until Australia once again has a proper, long-term plan to do our part to mitigate this global problem. There are other things this budget should have been doing, such as cracking down on unfair superannuation concessions, funding public transport projects and a much larger increase in our refugee intake to take our share of the world’s displaced people, but they all fall secondary to the obvious hole that is this government’s Climate Change action plan.

Still, compared to last year, the budget is up a notch from "doing bad stuff" to "not doing enough good stuff". Hopefully whoever is doing next year's budget will go to the next level of a excellent budget that puts in place the policies the country really needs.

This morning as I waited outside the current residence of Tony Abbott, I was bracing myself to be disappointed. Disappointed that I would never get to see the Prime Minister as I waited outside in the cold, and disappointed that the evening's budget would be filled with more terrible policies. I was perhaps wrong on both counts. Whilst I mentioned previously that the Prime Minister never stepped outside into that white car, there's something else that I didn't mention.

At 5:35am on the morning of Budget Day 2015, as I stared intently at the doorway of the Prime Minister's residence, I heard a man's voice saying "a couple of points not far..." before trailing off. Looking up, I saw two male cyclists riding past in front of me. One of them on the far side had been speaking to the other, who suddenly turned his head and looked at me. And I looked back at him.

The man on the bicycle, slowly pedalling past, looked remarkably like Tony Abbott.

I'm not certain it was him. I was taken by surprise and would have needed a few more seconds to confirm it. But in all the early morning photos of Tony Abbott riding a bike around Canberra that I've seen, he's always accompanied by a male staffer. A white van and another car were following close behind the two cyclists, and it is well known that a Federal Police security team follow Tony Abbott wherever he goes. Perhaps I was one of the first, on budget day, to see Prime Minister Tony Abbott choosing to ride his bike to Parliament, rather than take the car. If only he realised the environmental benefits of riding his bike to work, and applied the same principal of supporting the environment to his policies.

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