I’m starting to wonder if the trouble with our politicians is that they’ve evolved to do politics but not economics, making them unfit to cope with the economic threats we now face.
On the one hand, they’ve been able to leave the management of the economy to the independent Reserve Bank, whose tinkering with interest rates – up a bit, down a bit – has successfully kept the economy growing for 28 years.
On the other hand, the pollies have been locked in a decade of unprecedented political instability where, since the demise of the Howard government in 2007, no prime minister has been safe from attack – from their own side.
In such an environment, with monetary policy (interest rates) so successfully managing the economy, the budget ceases to be “fiscal policy” and becomes just an instrument of politics.
Because you’re eternally looking over your shoulder trying to spot the next colleague holding a dagger behind his back, you use the budget primarily to shore up your support within the party, rewarding the base and punishing its designated enemies.
Be slavish in feeding the 24-hour news cycle. Keep up the pressure for ministers and their departments to provide a continuous flow of minor “announceables”. Remember, any vacuum you leave will be filled by your enemies (external or internal). If you run out announceables, just slag off your (official) opponents.
Of course, if the punters understood what you were up to, they wouldn’t be impressed. So when you’re trying to shore up the support of big business by cutting the rate of company tax, you keep claiming it’s a “plan for jobs and growth”.
When you’re using an income tax tax cut to buy some popularity at the election, you pretend that economic growth is driven by lower taxes.
The worst of it is, since the things your side really cares about – cutting taxes, preserving tax breaks favouring high income-earners, cracking down on the leaners and loafers on social welfare – are economic measures, you convince yourself you’re really into economics.
And running a budget surplus – that’s economic isn’t it? (No, not when your forecasts of a strong economy have proved way too optimistic and you’re counting on a freak improvement in iron ore prices to get you over the line. Then, it becomes an indulgent stretch for political kudos.)
You don’t actually know enough economics to realise economics is about rolling back rent-seeking and increasing the efficiency with which resources are allocated, at the micro level, and managing the economy through the ups and downs of the business cycle, at the macro level. All the rest is politics.