Government members applauded in the right places during last night’s Budget. They chorused ‘hear, hear’ and nodded approvingly as the millions and the billions began to add up.
But the enthusiasm was distinctly restrained. It sounded like the beginning of the end, not Josh Frydenberg’s ‘next stage’ of a master plan begun nearly six years ago by the vanquished Tony Abbott.
Up the back of the House of Representatives chamber, Abbott attended to his paperwork. The ghost of elections past. Down the end, Julie Bishop looked on quietly. There was a sepulchral air about Peter Dutton, seated a short distance from the man who outfoxed him in August last year. Kelly O’Dwyer enjoyed one of her last parliamentary appearances. As the cameras briefly highlighted various ministers, it was hard not to wonder what they were thinking.
A day later? It’s probably faded into obscurity already. You never know your luck in a six-week campaign but it smells like 2007 and 2013. The die is cast.
The absurdity of the budget is difficult to get away from. Much of it won’t be fully legislated before the parliament gets up for the last time tomorrow. After five prime ministers and five treasurers since April 2013, a projection of a budget surplus of 1% of GDP in 2025 is a little hard to take seriously. New tax scales phasing in over three parliaments seems equally tenuous. Wake us up when it’s happened.
Budgets are inherently political, as they should be. They are guides to both philosophy and concrete aims, setting a framework by which the electors can assess a government’s performance. But this one is merely a pre-election campaign speech. It asks us to ignore so much of the turmoil that has embroiled this government. It didn’t work for Rudd-Gillard. Too little, too late.
Elsewhere this week, a comedian won the first round of presidential elections in Ukraine, seemingly reflecting frustration with the government. The drift to entertainers and celebrities as serious political figures continues apace, as questions continue to be asked about the health of democracy.
The evidence is equivocal.
In Turkey, the autocratic President Erdogan was reassuringly rebuffed in local elections. Perhaps the authoritarian drift can be held back.
However, in the United States serious observers have begun—remarkably—discussing the possibility of an electorally defeated Donald Trump refusing to surrender the presidency.
Extrication from a constitutional and political crisis of this magnitude would be fraught with myriad dangers. Insurrection and violence would threaten. Trump recently referred to his support amongst the military, the police and the bikers. Even if empty boasting, the dreadful possibilities are obvious. It would end up a test of the acceptance of civilian authority. Worse, it could simply be a test of strength. Do we dare to trust Facebook and Google to pick a side?
Across the globe, there is a sense that the dictators are back, be it in Turkey, Hungary, Poland, Brazil or the Philippines. The authoritarians in Russia and China have tightened their grip. Nationalist, nativist and aggrieved parties with a limited commitment to democratic ideals are on the rise in western nations. The surveillance state thrives, notably, but not only, in China.
Even in working democracies, the zeal of narrow partisanship prevails. Anger and aggression have cowed what we once called civil behaviour. Worse, politics has become more tedious as the stupid take their place alongside the serious. Don’t go out for the next six weeks in Australia.
Of course, democratic politics has always been, as the cliché has it, ‘robust’. It has in-built stability and resilience. It can still throw up the party, the man or woman for the times. We make too much of the popular perception of politicians as venally self-interested. We focus too much on the whinging and the wilfully ignorant. A good election cures many ills.
And yet … Is this what the 1930s felt like? Swaggering authoritarians and corrupt braggarts, contemptuous of democratic order whilst selling a phony message of strength and order, abetted by Quislings and appeasers, and admired by fringe group chancers grasping for influence.
For the generations that grew up during the Cold War, it is alarming to contemplate the state of our world. In just two years, an American president can lay siege to NATO, reignite trade wars and destabilise the security arrangements that have governed us for three-quarters of a century.
Still, nothing stays the same. All we learn from history is that nothing lasts forever. Even in Britain, beset by the never-ending Brexit, perhaps a reordering of the party system may result, as occurred after the repeal of the Corn Laws in the 1850s. After all, political parties have no automatic right to exist. The great Liberal Party gave way to the Labour Party in the 1920s. Perhaps we are witnessing, in George Dangerfield’s immortal phrase, the ‘strange death’ of Conservative or Labour Britain.
And that’s why the Budget—and, no doubt, the looming election campaign—is so disappointing. The changing shape of the world barely registers amidst the avalanche of numbers. Trends in global trade mean more than anything Frydenberg talked about last night. Ditto the rise of China.
If all politics is local, the Brexit imbroglio brings it all together. Political parties riven by entrenched divisions. A parliament that knows what it doesn’t want but can’t find anything it supports. An electorate getting a harsh lesson in how its economy really functions. A people’s referendum has foundered on the complexity of trading arrangements, the intricacies of transnational supply chains and the array of regulations that govern health and safety and standards of all kinds.
None of this came up in last night’s Budget. We shouldn’t expect it to. But it won’t come up in the election campaign either. Our democracy may or may not be ailing, but it is certainly sleeping.