The battle to capture voters’ moral outrage

Oath-breaker or tough-minded pragmatist? The political winner after Tuesday's budget will be the one who can convince the public the other's transgressions were far worse.

Should moral outrage be given much consideration in today’s budget? If, as expected, the Abbott government has broken its promise not to introduce a new tax, there will be plenty of it.

But does it matter? When John Howard came up with the handy core/non-core-promise distinction in 1996, he was essentially saying that the national interest must come before following to-the-letter promises made on the campaign trail.

To an extent, Howard, the great pragmatist, was right. Only the very foolish or disinterested (the very rich, for instance) would put jobs, economic growth and general well-being second to notions of ‘honour’.

It is worth remembering, however, that Prime Minister Abbott was quick to label Barry O’Farrell’s recent resignation as a decision of “honour and integrity … the like of which we have rarely seen in Australian politics”.

O’Farrell had made an anti-corruption stance a key part of his election platform, and so having been caught red-handed -- actually red-wined and red-faced -- accepting a $3000 bottle of Grange, he had to go.

Some have remarked that Abbott’s claim to be leading a government that “keeps its promises” means he should show just as much ‘honour and integrity’ as O’Farrell and bow out if the tax promise, and a few others, are indeed broken in today’s budget.

He won’t, of course. And Abbott and Hockey are actually playing a game of competing outrages with Labor.

On the one hand, Labor leader Bill Shorten is reading aloud from the Orthodox Book of Opposition, by slamming everything that looks like a broken promise, even if that includes policies he might quite like.

‘Get angry,’ he is telling Australians, ‘because the promise-keeper has broken his word’ -- not because Shorten doesn’t, in his heart of hearts, think taxing high-income-earners is wrong.

On the other hand, Abbott and Hockey are trying to whip up moral outrage over ‘Labor’s Mess’  -- the title of a truly blunt piece of propaganda published by the Liberal Party last week.

It’s a rehashing of every ‘debt and deficit’, ‘carbon tax broken promise’ or ‘boats’ speech voters were treated to for three years as Abbott ruthlessly picked the Gillard government apart.

Yes. We heard. We voted. You won.

But which of the two packages will excite the most outrage in voter-land? That an anti-lie campaigner lied, or that the Labor government took on gross debt that is now equivalent to $13,625 per citizen (or $7,834 in net terms).

Labor claims the debt saved us from the GFC, whereas ‘Labor’s Mess’ tries to argue that there essentially wasn’t a GFC after all.

It reads: “The global financial crisis was isolated mostly to the northern hemisphere. As the Reserve Bank Governor, Glenn Stevens, said in 2010: ‘It was really only a global crisis for six or eight weeks, I think. The rest of it is mainly a North Atlantic story.’”

The retirees who trudged back to work to boost their ravaged retirement savings would beg to differ.

There is, of course, that other source of voter fury -- the great carbon tax lie of the 2010 campaign. You know, when Julia Gillard said before the election “there will be no carbon tax under a government I lead”, only to say after creating an ETS that the trading-scheme’s fixed-price period “functions a bit like a tax”.

Lie. Lie. Lie. Lie. Lie!

Except that it wasn’t. Journalists knew full well, and told their readers/viewers/listeners, what was being proposed in 2010. My own pre-election coverage of the idiotic ‘citizens' assembly’ plan to approve the ETS is reproduced in full below for old times’ sake -- and to serve as a reminder of the level of carbon-pricing detail we were aware of at the time.

Before the election, it was clear that the CPRS was to be re-born under a Gillard government -- and the CPRS model always had a one-year fixed-price period that the Greens managed to convince Gillard to extend to three years.

So it was a lie of sorts, but not a biggie. Not as big (if the ‘debt levy’ becomes reality) as saying “What you’ll get under us are tax cuts without new taxes,” which is what Abbott said pre-election.

July 23, 2010– Labor's hot-air solution

There was quite a scuffle at Julia Gillard’s climate change policy announcement this morning. While Greens and Liberal protest groups chanted on the University of Queensland lawns outside, Gillard continued speaking calmly as one student -- a lanky young man in a business shirt (don’t know yet whether he was Green or Liberal) -- got to within a few metres of the podium before being wrestled from the room by federal police.

But let’s not let that altercation distract from what would happen to the climate change debate under Labor. Julia Gillard has promised, in effect, to brow-beat the nation into aligning 'Australian common sense' with her government’s views.

The CPRS may have been put aside until 2012, but in the meantime Labor will take a sample of Australians "drawn from age groups, parts of the country and walks of life” and constitute a 'citizens' assembly' to consider "over 12 months the introduction or a market-based approach” to carbon pollution reduction.

"I will support a rigorous process to establish consensus,” Gillard said. Poll position imagines the hapless citizens being herded into a giant greenhouse in which the temperature will be slowly increased until they reach a consensus on the many measures that Labor has already decided on their behalf.

The Liberal/Greens-rejected CPRS legislation WILL be the basis of the citizens’ discussions; all new coal power stations WILL be carbon-capture-and-storage-ready; businesses WILL be given carbon reduction baseline parameters to follow straight away to reward the companies that act early – never mind that the citizens' assembly is still discussing who should act and how, because the Assembly WILL end up ratifying the Gillard government’s views. They won’t be released from the greenhouse until they do.

This is shrewd politicking on an important issue, but it is far from honest. By taking the high ground on consulting 'Australian common sense', a Gillard government will simply bombard the citizens with ‘facts’ until the CPRS can only be opposed by what Gillard referred to today as those with "extreme views that will never be changed”. We already have a citizens' assembly, of course -- in a representative democracy it's called the parliament.