The nation can’t lay the blame for the financial blowout it’s facing solely at the feet of Morrison, Frydenberg and Cormann, as this year, the whole planet is suffering through the COVID-19 pandemic, which has blown the cogs off of the entire global economy.
Gone are the days of the Liberal Nationals prophesying fabled surpluses. Now, it’s all about stimulus. And the ruling party has also stopped banging on about the debt and deficit crisis.
Back when the Coalition took power in September 2013, PM Tony Abbott chastised the outgoing Rudd government for leaving behind a gross national debt of $273 billion.
However, last Tuesday’s budget predicts gross national debt to hit around $872 billion this financial year.
During his budget reading speech, treasurer Frydenberg spruiked the benefits of his government’s wage and welfare pandemic subsidy packages, saying, “We could do this because we entered this crisis from a position of economic strength.”
Although, according to economic journalist Alan Austin, the Morrison government bottomed out the gross national debt to a new low of $568 billion last December.
The emerging financial crisis is stark, and it’s unfolding on the back of several other crises that can’t be solved with fancy figure adjustments.
And the way the Morrison government is going to apply future spending and reforms reveals it’s no longer fit for purpose.
COVID-19 has certainly drowned out mention – and to a large extent even memory – of the devastating bushfires that engulfed 20 percent of mainland forest over the last summer, which the scientists and the fire chiefs all confirmed was caused by changing climate.
But the Morrison government lives in an alternate universe, where escalating weather system collapse is of no concern. And as Tuesday’s budget confirmed, the nation won’t be looking to alternative energy to save life on Earth – rather it will be turning up the gas and propping up coal.
Writing in the Conversation, Queensland University economics professor John Quiggin points out that the treasury has allocated $52.9 million to its gas-driven economic recovery and it’s investing an unknown amount – perhaps $11 million – to refurbish a NSW coal-fired power station.
The push for gas has emerged over the pandemic period. It began with establishing a corporate advisory body – now embedded in government – to steer the economy during the crisis, and it culminated in the PM announcing the opening up of five gas fields and infrastructure last month.
The Morrison government – with the nod from federal Labor – is riding on some fallacy that gas is a clean alternative that won’t lead to the country burning to a crisp in the future. Although, the truth is the methane involved in gas extraction is 80 times more atmospherically destructive than carbon.
Frydenberg’s budget further outlines that the government is set to invest $50 million in carbon capturing and storage technology. So, it appears that despite the Coalition shrugging off carbon emissions, it’s now going to spend big on storing it underground next to the nuclear waste.
“There remains substantial uncertainty around the global and domestic outlook,” the budget reads.
This is something of an understatement as the WHO announced a record one day increase in COVID-19 cases around the globe on Thursday. And over a million have now perished.
Currently at 6.8 percent, the unemployment rate is predicted to peak at 8 percent by the end of the year, and it won’t be dropping back to 6.5 percent until the June quarter 2020, according to the budget. And this gradual improvement is predicated upon the COVID crisis coming to a close.
The budget overview states that the deep recession is due to “ongoing international and domestic border closures” and social restrictions in Victoria. It predicts an easing of containment measures will bring economic recovery, however the WHO’s latest report doesn’t bode well for opening up.
And the government is also relying on the non-existent COVID vaccine to save the day. It’s providing $1.7 billion to secure 84.8 million doses, when Oxford and Queensland universities develop it. And there’s also $24 million set aside to purchase needles and syringes to administer the illusive vaccine.
The thing is, the last destructive virus that swept through Australia was HIV/AIDS, and there’s still no vaccine for that. And as US anthropologist Wade Davis points out, the fastest ever developed vaccine was for mumps, and that took four years.
Cutting your nose off…
At a time when governing politicians are indicating that they don’t know what to do besides passing policies and making budgetary decisions that favour the transnational companies they’re on the payroll of, they’re also choosing to erase the ability to think outside the box going into the future.
Two days after the budget was delivered, the government passed its contentious Job-Ready Bill, which takes a carving knife to tertiary education, because what better time to decapitate the nation’s thinktanks than in a period of ongoing multiple crises.
Job-Ready is framed around the idea that students studying STEM subjects are needed to get the economy up and running, while those studying the humanities contribute nothing to society, and there are just way too many lawyers to warrant producing anymore.
Following on from this, humanities fees are doubling, law degrees are being hiked, while STEM fees are set to come down. However, the Morrison government has succeeded in making fees higher overall, while cutting the costs of federal funding to the entire student populace.
Not only is the Coalition defunding universities, but it’s running its old ideological war against the humanities, which doesn’t add up. As Sydney University linguistics academic Dr Nicholas Riemer told Sydney Criminal Lawyers last month, “multiple Liberal Party politicians did arts” at university.
If 2020 should have taught Australia anything, it’s that those governing are no longer fit for purpose.
Trying to hearken back to a 1950s Menzies Era ideology cannot work, when the developmental direction this has taken us in over the following six decades is now cooking the planet and making it dangerous to stand next to your neighbour without wearing a mask.
And the evidence set out in Greenpeace’s 2019 and 2020 Dirty Power reports makes it clear that the Liberal Nationals government and the Murdoch press are set on driving the vehicle straight over the cliff laughing all the way as they go.
Droughts, bushfires, killer viruses, the worst economic downturn in living memory, with authoritarian policing to glue it all together… it seems something’s got to give.
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Paul Gregoire is a Sydney-based journalist and writer. He has a focus on human rights issues, encroachments on civil liberties, drug law reform, gender diversity and First Nations rights. Prior to Sydney Criminal Lawyers®, he wrote for VICE and was the news editor at Sydney’s City Hub.