No self-control in budget
Kevin Rudd has come full circle. Before the 2007 federal election, he was a fiscal conservative. During the global financial crisis, he was a social democrat. Since budget night on Tuesday, he's a fiscal conservative again. (Not to forget once upon a time, the Prime Minister owned up to being a "Christian socialist").
Doing the rounds of post-budget interviews on Wednesday, the PM stressed the economically conservative credentials of the budget. The lines from Treasurer Wayne Swan about this being a "no-frills" budget that had nothing to do with politics reinforced that theme.
Much of the media have uncritically accepted Rudd's and Swan's rhetoric. Measured, prudent, and responsible have been descriptions of the budget.
There's a sense from some commentators that even though the PM might have been joking about being a fiscal conservative in 2007, three years on he might now be serious.
This sort of sentiment is a product of journalists' wishful thinking, rather than a hard-headed assessment of the government's track record.
Commentators are yearning for a return to the days of Keating and Costello as treasurers. When Keating and Costello talked about reform, you could at least be reasonably sure they believed in what they were saying, even if they didn't always deliver it in the form they promised. The significance of the press gallery welcoming Rudd's supposed new fiscal conservatism is the gallery's hope that this is a precursor to the government developing, and then sticking to, some sort of reform agenda.
Journalists are tired of making excuses for a leader and his cabinet that twists, turns, and backflips according to what the latest opinion polling says.
(The charmed treatment Julia Gillard receives from the press is partly explained by the media's frustration with her colleagues. Gillard is one of the few ministers who appears to have thought about a plan for what she wants to achieve in her portfolio, and who has then bothered to explain it, and who has remained committed to it for more than five minutes. That strategy has got the indulgence of an admiring press gallery, which is how she's been able to survive the scandal of her school construction program.
Anyone else administering a $16 billion program the way she has would have been sacked. But when you're the Deputy Prime Minister, who has confronted and defeated teacher unions over literacy testing, you're judged to a different standard).
There's not too much that's fiscally conservative about this budget. An economically prudent government would not be pinning its hopes on escaping a budget deficit via a new resources tax.
Especially if it is a tax that defines a "super profit" as anything earned over the long-term bond rate. And especially if is a tax the likes of which has not been implemented anywhere else in the world.
Bizarre is the only description that can be given to the comments of the deputy governor of the Reserve Bank who was reported as saying the super profits tax might be a good thing because it could cause some resource projects to collapse and therefore reduce inflationary pressures on the economy.
Presumably the deputy governor would welcome a recession because that would also reduce inflation. (Thankfully, Swan had the decency to say he disagreed with the deputy governor).
There are two sides to fiscal conservatism - the taxing and the spending. And it's difficult to see how an administration that plans to spend $43 billion on a broadband network without having done a cost/benefit analysis can claim with a straight face to be fiscally conservative.
The government is nothing if not creative in the way it justifies the tag of fiscal conservatism for this budget.
The claim boils down to the fact that the government hopes its higher taxes on resource companies will help deliver a budget surplus of $1 billion in three years' time.
Based on this reasoning, it doesn't matter how much spending and taxes increase - if there's a budget surplus, no matter how tiny, and no matter how far into the future, the government will qualify as "fiscally conservative".
Rudd and Swan think they deserve plaudits for planning to spend only 99.99 per cent of the massive rise in revenues anticipated from the resources boom. That sort of thinking is like that from a seven-year-old caught with his hands in a packet of chocolate biscuits who says to his mother he should be praised for his self-control because he only ate most of the biscuits, not all of them.