The Devil's In The Details – And There Were None


For months now, the dominant critique from the Opposition has been that "this is a bad government."

It’s time to turn the blow-torch back. If this is indeed a bad government, it is matched by an equally poor Opposition.

Last night’s budget reply speech by Opposition Leader Tony Abbott was perhaps the best example yet of the parlous state of contemporary politics. There were no costings. There was little in the way of policy. Indeed, there were scarcely any numbers mentioned at all. This was simply not a credible alternative vision for the nation’s finances.

Instead, we got some well-honed slogans and a plaintive cry for a new election.

Perhaps it’s time someone reminded the Opposition that we had an election less than a year ago. They lost. Tony Abbott and the Coalition may genuinely believe they should be the government of Australia. But they are not.

And last night’s reply speech shows why they don’t deserve to be. Credible oppositions work hard to present an alternative vision to the electorate, complete with reasonable efforts to cost and describe their policies.

This Opposition doesn’t do that. Indeed, it arguably never has. Last year’s election costings — the so-called "$50 billion of savings" — were nothing but fabrications, as Treasury discovered when they were finally submitted for analysis, just 48 hours before the election.

The Opposition’s policy costings during the election campaign were laughable. As Peter Martin observed at the time, the so-called "savings" included amateur mistakes like confusing capital and recurrent expenditure. Martin pointed out that the Opposition counted the savings from "the cut in the government’s interest bill from the proceeds of selling Medibank Private" but didn’t count the cost of "the dividends it would lose from selling it."

It’s not as though we aren’t interested in what the Opposition thinks about the budget. If it wants to, the Opposition can use its numbers in Parliament to delay passing it, threatening supply until the Greens assume the balance of power in the Senate in July. But both Joe Hockey and Tony Abbott have consistently refused to say which of the Government’s budget measures they support or oppose.

Abbott and Hockey want to have it both ways: arguing that the Government has been a profligate spender that will never return the budget to surplus, while simultaneously excoriating it for its minor cuts to so-called "middle-class welfare".

The refusal to use the budget reply to present a meaningful alternative to the Government’s policies makes it all the harder to take this Opposition seriously. It also ultimately demeans our parliamentary democracy, which requires an effective opposition to function in the best interests of the electorate.

This Opposition may be rhetorically savage and politically canny, but it is also superficial and irresponsible. In policy terms, it just doesn’t take the Australian people seriously.


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Ben Eltham is New Matilda's National Affairs Correspondent.