Values and Tradeoffs

My op-ed in today's Daily Telegraph talks about why it's vital that the Coalition start to release policies, so we can have a real debate over ideas and values.
The real cost to voters of Abbott in the Lodge, Daily Telegraph, 24 June 2013

Former New York governor Mario Cuomo once said that politicians campaign in poetry, but govern in prose. A corollary is that while politicians campaign in ‘and,’ we govern in ‘or.’ Each decision to invest in one area makes it harder to devote resources in another area.

In this sense, the federal budget is more than a set of numbers, it is a statement of a government’s values. A government can never invest as much, or cut taxes by as much, as it would like to. Governments must decide between worthy causes. In these choices they reveal their values.

Labor’s choices are fully outlined in the budget papers. We are making long-term, smart investments in schools and infrastructure. We are delivering once-in-a-generation reforms to improve care for people with a permanent and severe disability. And we’re paying for these critical policies with $43 billion of responsible savings. The budget papers show that these savings fund our priorities not just over the forward estimates, but well into the future.

Yet in the Opposition Leader’s budget reply speech – and subsequent statements from his economic team, we’ve seen plenty of sloganeering, and precious little policy.

The Coalition has promised to repeal the carbon price but copy Labor’s assistance to households. But he offered no costings – a tactic reminiscent of Mitt Romney’s bogus claim in the last US election that he would pay for tax cuts to the rich by closing unspecified ‘loopholes’.

In fact, Mr Abbott has refused to endorse the government initiatives to close down actual tax loopholes being exploited by multinational companies, instead preferring to attack the superannuation savings of 8.4 million workers and reduce funding for schools.

Recognising the need to choose between competing priorities – making appropriate ‘trade-offs’ – is the starting point of responsible economic management.

If Mr Abbott had nothing to hide, he could have his policies costed by the independent Parliamentary Budget Office and release them to the community. And indeed, if his policies were as good for Australians as he has claimed, that’s what he would do.

It’s worth remembering the origins of an independent budget office. At the last election, the Coalition claimed that Treasury had become ‘politicised’. They thumbed their noses at the Charter of Budget Honesty (which had been legislated by the Howard Government), and had their costings done by a private accounting firm.

These costings were later found to contain an $11 billion black hole. The firm was fined by the Institute of Chartered Accountants for breaching professional standards.

Despite the creation of the independent Parliamentary Budget Office, little seems to have changed.

The Opposition’s Finance spokesperson, Andrew Robb, has claimed to already have Coalition costings in his drawer. No one knows who has performed these ‘costings’. No one knows why they remain unreleased.

Simple maths dictates that the Opposition cannot raise spending, cut taxes, and pay down debt faster. To circumvent this, Mr Abbott is currently promising that his post-election cuts will be determined through a mysterious ‘Commission of Audit’. This is the same trick Queensland premier Campbell Newman used to justify 14,000 job losses, including savage cuts to health and education.

A costings hole of $70 billion equates to around $3000 for every man, woman and child in Australia. It is reasonable to conclude that if Mr Robb won’t open his desk drawer, it probably contains a secret plan to raise taxes or dramatically cut services.

The belief that the government should radically cut back on services has been advocated by two leading right-wing thinktanks: the Centre for Independent Studies and the Institute of Public Affairs.

I disagree vehemently with such brutal cuts, but it is a legitimate viewpoint to take to an election. Indeed, democracy is at its best when it is a vigorous contest of ideas. Yet such a contest can only occur if the community is fully informed about the competing visions. As long as Mr Abbott refuses to release his costings, democracy is the poorer for it.

Andrew Leigh is the federal member for Fraser, and Parliamentary Secretary to the Prime Minister. His website is

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