Home Australian News Tony Abbott’s 2014-15 budget wasn’t that bad in one crucial respect

Tony Abbott’s 2014-15 budget wasn’t that bad in one crucial respect

Tony Abbott’s 2014-15 budget wasn’t that bad in one crucial respect

If there’s one subject of universal agreement among Liberal veterans of the Abbott years lining up to offer their take to the ABC, it’s that the 2014 budget was a disaster and where it all began to go horribly wrong for Abbott. It’s a view shared by the media and political class in general.

And, politically, it was a disaster, particularly around the spectacular array of broken promises — about the only person who doesn’t think it was one long list of broken promises is Peta Credlin. Not for nothing did Sarah Ferguson begin her budget night interview with then-Treasurer Joe Hockey by asking: “Is it liberating for a politician to decide election promises don’t matter?”

Other things helped: Labor had rediscovered its mojo under Bill Shorten after the disasters of the Rudd-Gillard years, and it was ready to punch on against a prime minister it suspected was far more fragile than his 90-seat election win made him look. That photo of Hockey and Mathias Cormann celebrating with cigars was a shocker. And in trying to replicate Howard and Costello’s hardline 1996 budget, Abbott and Hockey demonstrated they were not a patch on their predecessors.

Despite News Corp trying desperately to breathe life into the debacle, within weeks much of the budget and its host of controversial cuts was DOA, although many of the latter were to hang around as what even the then government described as “zombie measures”.

But while it might go down in history as up there with Fightback! as a lengthy political suicide note, there were some virtues to that budget — and, uniquely, virtues that those responsible never wanted to embrace.

Abbott and Hockey were determined to be seen as committed to a draconian austerity budget because that was what Australia needed. Abbott, hilariously, compared himself to the “fiscal fire brigade” whose mere appearance on the scene made everyone feel better. The waste of the Labor years was over, the adults were back in charge and the “age of entitlement”, as Hockey put it, was done.

Except the 2014 budget wasn’t any sort of austerity budget — it was a big-spending budget. And that was what Australia needed.

The economy was slowing significantly in 2013 and 2014 after the mining investment boom that had sent the Aussie dollar to over parity with the US dollar and pushed unemployment down to 5%. It caused then treasurer Wayne Swan to make the humiliating but correct decision to stop constantly cutting spending in search of the surplus he and Julia Gillard had promised over and over again. In the end, Swan would only get the budget deficit down to $18 billion for 2012-13, and forecast a similar deficit for 2013-14 in his final budget before he and Gillard were removed by Rudd in 2013.

Once the Coalition was elected, they engaged in the traditional trick of loading as much spending as possible into 2013-14 and blaming it on Labor (to be fair, Swan had got the 2012-13 deficit so low by pushing some spending into subsequent years). The Coalition blew the deficit out to $50 billion in the 2013 MYEFO and said a “line in the sand” had been drawn on revenue writedowns (spoiler alert: it hadn’t).

To that point, they got away with it politically. But the 2014 budget, despite its draconian reputation, didn’t alter the fiscal settings much: it bumped up receipts a tad (they would, yes, come in below forecast) and increased spending, though not by very much, over the 2013-14 “look at the mess Swanny left us” MYEFO settings. In particular, this allegedly horrific austerity budget forecast a $30 billion deficit, way above the deficit level Labor had achieved in 2012-13.

That is, the fiscal fire brigade arrived, said it was appalled to learn things were even worse than they’d heard, and… lit some more fires. The deficit would actually end up hitting $38 billion — $20 billion more than Labor.

Nor did a budget notorious for its fiscal rigour actually change much in the forward estimates. The 2014 budget projections for subsequent years for both revenue and spending looked an awful lot like the ones left behind by Labor.

The thing was, however, pumping extra money into the economy, much more than Labor had been, was exactly what we needed. Unemployment was already on the rise when Labor lost in 2013. By June 2014 it had topped 6%, and it would stay there for another year. Without Hockey pumping extra tens of billions of dollars of deficit stimulus into the economy at the end of 2013 and in 2014, unemployment would have been significantly worse. And if the Abbott government had been foolish enough to actually implement its “fiscal fire brigade” silliness, it would have led to much worse joblessness from 2014-16.

Problem is, that wasn’t the narrative Abbott and Hockey wanted. They wanted to be the fiscal he-men, the leaders capable of making the tough decisions, and repeat the success of the Howard government in both establishing their reputation for fiscal rigour and Labor’s for indiscipline. But in reality, they were ensuring employment didn’t fall into a hole by the old-fashioned method of spending like drunken sailors. They didn’t keep their jobs, but a lot of Australians did as a result.

Was the 2014 budget better than we remember it? Let us know your thoughts by writing to letters@crikey.com.au. Please include your full name to be considered for publication. We reserve the right to edit for length and clarity.


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