Last night on ABC’s 730 program, the Australian Treasurer demonstrated that he has a lot of changing still to do.
Mr Hockey insisted the government would press on with a stringent Budget full of cuts. He bemoaned the total government debt and the legacy current generations are leaving behind. His catchphrase of choice with respect to cuts was this:
“We have no choice!”
But the loudest message was that he had not fully understood the events of recent weeks. He appears to think that the Government’s problems are all about Tony Abbott, because he insisted that all he needed to do was better explain his policy choices to the electorate.
Of the two – Abbott and Hockey – it is Abbott who got closest to the fire and Abbott who has learned the most. Abbott has spoken about listening more, to both the public and the party room. Mr Hockey may think that is yet more spin. But I doubt it is. The 2015 Budget is going to be designed with a lot less guidance from Hayek and a lot more from Roy Morgan. The problem is that Joe Hockey doesn’t realise that yet.
So Mr Hockey is going to have to adapt. Adapt or perish. If and when he adapts, in some small part of his being he may wish he’d been rolled as Treasurer on Monday.
But in his 730 Report interview he said several times “the customer is always right.” Let’s generously assume that motto means he can and will adapt.
So what will he do in this new, constrained environment where ideology is out and the Budget is worse than it has been for a long time?
If commodity export prices keep falling, Hockey could beat Wayne Swan’s record of highest Budget deficit ever ($54.5 billion in 2009-10.)
The new, chastened, post-realisation Mr Hockey will be faced with a set of unenviable choices. He can let the deficit blow out, he can cut spending, or he can raise more revenue.
The most unenviable part of his dilemma is that he will probably have to do all three. Suffer the ignominy of a great big budget deficit, trample all over his own principles by raising taxes, and risk the wrath of the electorate by making more cuts.
Mr Hockey’s task in the next few months is to make this something other than a political suicide note.
After surprising the hell out of the electorate with his first budget, he won’t be allowed make the same mistake again. You can be pretty sure that the key ideas in the document to be released on the second Tuesday in May will have been given a thorough airing.
Cuts will be thin on the ground. Reinforcing the message that the Coalition slashes and burns will not be welcome in the party room. That leaves a gaping hole of a deficit.
Unless he can somehow arrange to include tax increases. If he wants to stop the deficit increasing, Hockey’s best option is to look at tax expenditures. You can cut tax expenditures and simultaneously claim you are not levying new taxes. (A tax expenditure is just a big exemption to tax, so cutting a tax expenditure raises more revenue.)
As you can see, the numbers involved are real. Many many billions. GST and the family home are probably no go areas. But some of these tax expenditures – on superannuation and capital gains – overwhelmingly help the Coalition’s older, richer, higher marginal tax rate base.
Politically, removing or changing them may be the best option, because the Government has lost the centre, and needs to regain it. Tax hikes that hurt working families will be off the agenda in 2015.
This will go against almost everything Joe Hockey believes in, except his belief that his government should win the next election. But as I wrote last year, Joe Hockey is likely to resolve his cognitive dissonance in favour of an election-winning strategy. There’s always another choice.