No explanation as to why any election promises were broken: Treasurer Joe Hockey. Photo: Andrew Meares
It was an austerity budget and an austerity media conference by Joe Hockey. No elaborate charts and graphs, no PowerPoint presentation, no laser pointers. It may have been Hockey’s first budget as Treasurer, but there was to be none of the all-dancing, all-singing choreography employed by the likes of predecessors Wayne Swan, Peter Costello or Paul Keating to prove the genius of his figuring. There was, too, another, sharper departure from the past. This was a double act, something unheard of among notoriously egocentric treasurers.
Hockey was accompanied by his trusted cigar-smoking sidekick, Mathias Cormann, Finance Minister and acting Assistant Treasurer. It was as if, somehow, the budget presentation had devolved into an episode of Boston Legal, Denny Crane and Alan Shore taking the evening air and mulling the meaning of life. Or perhaps Hockey simply felt he needed back-up in this period of broken promises and ”contributing”.
Poor Arthur Sinodinos. Might he have been granted this unusual honour if he had not been laid low as assistant treasurer, forced into the unforgiving glare of NSW’s anti-corruption commission instead of the TV lights in the budget lock-up? He and we will never know, for Joe and Mathias appear to have become so inseparable in the lead-up to the budget that Arthur has been cut from the script altogether.
In deference, perhaps, to lean times, Hockey said he would spare the crowd of media a long preamble, the like of which the assembly had expected from previous incumbents. Glory be, true to the Treasurer’s word, he and Cormann offered little beyond rehearsed lines about the importance of structural reform and the need for everyone to contribute towards a better future. Tough guys, it seems, don’t blab.
Nor, apparently, do they need fancy stage settings. Just the standard Liberal blue background imprinted with the modest words ”Australia’s Economic Action Strategy, Budget 2014”, a pair of microphones and four Australian flags. If this was indeed some episode of Boston Legal, it was a low-rent version, and the producers had scrimped on the script.
There was, of course, not a glimpse of a self-satisfied cigar as Hockey and Cormann explained that they had promised a ”contribute and build budget”, and that they had delivered it. Less keen were they to offer an explanation about breaking election promises about no new taxes.
”The most significant promises we made were to fix the budget and improve the economy, and that’s what we have done,” said Hockey. The pain that would have been inflicted on future generations if tough decisions had not been taken, added Hockey, would have ”been awful”. More awful, he took care not to say, than the pain he was actually inflicting.
He was overly keen to present his wrangling with the cost of running the nation as the work of an honest broker bowed beneath the weight of responsibility, knowing the consequences. ”We’re being upfront with the Australian people, my God,” he expostulated.
Anyway, he had resisted ”going harder” during the first one and two years for fear of detracting from growth. As for taking the axe to all sorts of bureaucracies, why, the federal government had to take responsibilities for the things it ran and fix duplication. The states ran hospitals and schools and Canberra couldn’t be seen as some sort of ”honey pot”.
Hockey and Cormann took some umbrage to the suggestion that young unemployed people would be left with nothing to lean upon now they were being denied unemployment benefits for the first six months. Many unemployed, said Hockey, got redundancy payments and there were things like family tax benefits and concession cards and loans if they started a trade.
The young, added Cormann, would ”earn or learn”. And with that, they were gone.
It was the shortest and least fancy budget lock-up presentation in memory, which seemed a tad in conflict with Hockey’s declaration that the budget papers contained ”once-in-generation reforms”, but perhaps that simply made it in tune with straitened times.