Last year Bill Shorten’s budget reply turned the Liberals pale, as he lashed out at Abbott’s cuts and promised to block the worst attacks in the Senate. This year the Labor leader delivered a pathetic, uninspiring speech that showed why he’s widely considered useless.
While Abbott avoided the scatter gun attacks of the last budget, many cuts remain in place and the rich continue to get away scot free. Labor had an opportunity to spell out an alternative. It failed.
Shorten mimicked big business criticism, attacking Abbott from the right for not doing enough to cut the budget deficit. He complained that the budget “drops the ball on reform, change and fiscal sense”.
Labor accepts the same conservative approach to economic management as the Liberals. They have refused to propose the kind of serious taxes on corporations and the rich necessary to generate the money to reverse cuts, fund services, build renewable energy and create jobs.
Shorten attacked Abbott for cutting $80 billion from schools and hospitals. But he was careful not to commit to even restoring the funding if Labor were to come to power, or delivering the full schools spending recommended by the Gonski review.
Shorten complained about Abbott’s failure to fund infrastructure such as public transport, affordable housing and energy.
But instead of promising the money needed to fund it, Shorten proposed appointing independent experts to assess projects.
And he reaffirmed Labor’s unity ticket with Abbott on spending hundreds of millions of dollars sending troops to Iraq, a war that is deepening the humanitarian catastrophe in that country, at the cost of cuts to social services here.
Shorten is equally committed to funding Islamophobic “national security” programs and said not a word about the billions going to the military and new weapons.
Shorten offered nothing in terms of policies that could boost living standards or improve workers’ lives. In fact Labor promises to make cuts itself, but tells us they will be “fair plans to improve the Budget bottom line”.
At the centre of Shorten’s approach is Labor’s concern for managing capitalism. He was speaking with the goal of appealing to business, discussing the need to provide business greater “confidence” to invest—and reap greater profits.
Shorten talked up his support for helping small business, and even tried to outdo Abbott. He went so far as to propose a bigger tax cut for small business—1.5 per cent was not enough, he proposed a 5 per cent instead.
Apparently this is what Labor thinks is “the future”. Some vision, that. The corporate tax rate has been cut steadily since it sat at 49 per cent in the mid-1980s to 30 per cent today.
Small business has always been a core supporter of the Liberals, but Shorten would rather chase their vote than propose measures for health and education.
Instead of proposing higher funding and more teachers for schools, Shorten went instead for technocratic tinkering to increase the focus on software coding and science in the curriculum. Why? Not because Shorten is worried about the quality of education, but because he’s focused on the needs of business. He said, “Productivity is the most important catalyst for our economy.”
In the aftermath of Shorten’s speech the Liberals lined up to attack Labor over how it would fund its promises.
The two efforts to raise money Labor announced before the budget, repeated in Shorten’s speech, inch hesitantly in the right direction. But they are so modest that it’s clear Labor isn’t prepared to take on corporations and the rich.
One involves cutting back on superannuation concessions, designed to save $14.3 billion over a decade. But there are $15 billion every year in superannuation concessions for just the top 5 per cent of income earners—people earning over $180,000 a year.
Labor made plenty of noise in the weeks before the budget about cracking down on multinational tax avoidance. But it has suggested changes that would raise just $2 billion over four years. The Tax Justice Network report on the top 200 Australian-based companies alone says making them pay just the existing 30 per cent tax rate would raise $8.4 billion every year.
Left to its own devices, Labor could be the only thing that saves Tony Abbott at the next election. And if this is the best alternative it can offer, it’s clear unions and the left will need to be the real opposition to Abbott and build the movements for change.
By James Supple