Shorten’s budget in reply: will it reshape voters’ memories?

Opposition leader Bill Shorten attacked the government’s budget as ‘ideological’, but his own vision in the battle of ideas is far less clear. AAP/Alan Porritt

Opposition leader Bill Shorten was emphatic in his budget in reply that the Abbott government’s first budget was an “attack” on the Australian way of life. In his speech on the floor of parliament last night, Shorten accused the government of lacking “decency”, “honesty” and “humanity”.

But despite Shorten’s strong rhetoric, what was striking about the speech was its silences. Shorten directed his focus on systematically addressing the litany of “broken promises” and the spending cuts designed to create what treasurer Joe Hockey calls a nation of “lifters not leaners”. Shorten’s (and Labor’s) response gives some indication of its political and electoral strategy to defeat the Abbott government.

Yet paradoxically, despite his rebuke that the Abbott government’s first budget is “ideological”, Shorten’s own vision in the battle of ideas was far less clear.

The policy perspective

Politically, Labor wants to build its case that Abbott was elected on a “safe and cautious” platform but has since betrayed the electorate. Labor hopes that the government’s proposed changes to welfare and the GP co-payment will drive fear into one of the core voting groups the Coalition needs to attract: older people.

Yet the electorate have both selective short-term and long-term memories, and this line of attack might prove problematic for Shorten.

Julia Gillard’s ill-fated “no carbon tax” commitment perhaps lingers in the public’s memory far longer than the fact Labor introduced both the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) and the Better Schools (“Gonski”) reforms.

The NDIS was a crowning achievement of the Gillard government – but who will remember that? AAP/Julian Smith

The electorate might have broadly welcomed the NDIS and education funding reforms, but neither had time to “bed down” and make an impact on Australians’ everyday lives. It was easier for the Abbott government to cut back on the Gonski schools funding because voters are unlikely to miss something they never really had in the first place.

The Abbott government committed to the schools funding program for only four years, whereas the bulk of the funding was due to arrive in years five and six.

Economic credibility

Selective memory also hinders Shorten’s own message on economic credibility. His speech extolled Labor’s record in office, trumpeting its low inflation and triple-A credit rating. But this is a one-eyed account and, worryingly for Labor, it suggests the party has not yet learnt one of the main reasons the electorate turned to Tony Abbott and the Coalition: to restore stability in the economy.

While Shorten might be correct about Labor’s macroeconomic record when it left office, many Australians were far more concerned about a sluggish job market, a multi-speed economy, a slowing mining sector and rising cost-of-living expenses. The issue here of short-term memory is that Labor feels it was never properly thanked for saving Australia from the worst of the global financial crisis – and no amount of Shorten’s pleas will change that.

But where the public’s memory might serve to strengthen Labor’s standing is on the issue of the welfare cuts to young people. No amount of rhetoric from the government can hide the severity of these “heartless” reforms. It is telling when even business leaders such as the Business Council of Australia’s Jennifer Westacott suggest the measures are “too tough”.

Here, there are uncanny parallels with the Workchoices reforms, introduced by the Howard government but which ushered Labor in from the wilderness in 2007. Workchoices and the changes to youth welfare are both examples of political over-reach. Shorten is correct to assess this as “purely ideological”.

Labor gained political capital when parents could see how workplace agreements were playing out for their teenage children. There is clear concern that the Newstart changes are punitive. But Shorten will have to hope that the public will forget Labor’s own late changes in government to Newstart for single parents.

The battle of ideas

The strongest part of Shorten’s speech was in trumpeting Labor’s undoubted greater social achievements, especially Medicare – which received rousing applause from the onlookers in Parliament House. Invoking Gough Whitlam, Shorten channelled Labor’s historic commitment to education.

Here we come to the battle of ideas, and also Shorten’s dilemma.

Crudely, in times of economic crisis, the electorate will often prefer Liberal governments to run the economy. But after a period of social neglect, Australians will install Labor governments to implement necessary public goods: Medicare, Bob Hawke’s war on child poverty, the NDIS.

Australians look to Labor to implement necessary public goods, such as Bob Hawke’s war on child poverty. AAP/Dean Lewins

Today, economically, Australia is in uncertain times. Shorten will need a stronger economic vision if he is to ensure that Abbott’s is a single-term government.

Shorten invoked Australia as a home of “great social democracy”. Yet, Labor – most keenly in the Hawke-Keating years – yielded ground to the neoliberal brand of capitalism sweeping the globe. Modern Labor is still wrestling with this legacy. So while attacking Abbott’s “ideological” budget, it is true that Shorten’s own party allowed political space for this to happen.

It is striking that Labor (and to some extent the Australian public) is prepared to embrace the “globalised” economy when it suits, but this means that Shorten ignored perhaps by far the strongest cuts to help the most vulnerable people – the foreign aid budget.

And this leads to Shorten’s silences. While strong on attacking the cuts, he said very little about Labor’s strategy for economic growth. He deftly ignored any mention of the debt levy, which is a “new tax” Labor seems likely to accept.

Labor had the opportunity – and for a while in Rudd’s first term, the political capital – to implement structural reform to Australia’s tax system. Yet its cherry-picking of the Henry tax review meant that Labor let this opportunity go begging.

As leader, Shorten has yet to convince the wider public that he has a genuine alternative vision for Australia. His budget response was an opportunity for leadership. Shorten seemed rather leaden at first, but gained more pace and conviction as the speech went on. It was a decent speech, heartfelt in places, although lacking a slogan that encapsulates his agenda.

As Labor seeks to build its strategy against the Abbott government, it will wonder what the public will remember and what it will forget. Will it remember the government’s spending cuts in 2014, or the inevitable tax breaks in three years’ time?