28 May 2016
by John Kelly

Scoring the Treasurers’ Debate

The National Press Club Treasurers’ Debate held yesterday was one where the average voter, having watched it, would have come away feeling the wrong man was in the job.

Despite a quite articulate but very long winded opening address by Scott Morrison we still don’t know what the Coalition plan is to manage the economy, should they be returned to government on July 2nd.

Chris Bowen, by contrast, seemed to have the nuts and bolts locked down. Perhaps that is why he looked the more relaxed.

It is difficult to judge Morrison’s competency level. He appeared to be on auto-pilot for much of the 90 minute discourse. The problem is, he said nothing new. He appeared defensive and was heavy on slogans, e.g. jobs and growth, living within our means, fiscal responsibility, balancing the budget, blah, blah, blah.

But that wasn’t what those of us who watched on television wanted to hear. We wanted substance, something with grit, something that told us, in words of one syllable if needed, where we were going, how we were going to get there and how long it would take.

None of this was forthcoming. It was all a bit blurred, with Morrison making vague references to co-investment, trade agreements, the importance of small business, instant tax write-offs, and tax reform.

There was a good deal of discussion on the credibility of both parties’ 10 year plans, except that 10 year plans never eventuate. By year 3 or 4 the changes to the original plan are so dramatic, they make the original unrecognisable.

I guess I was asking too much of Morrison. He was toeing the party line, wearing blinkers and perhaps in fear of saying something like, no cuts to health, no cuts to education, the ABC or SBS.

He did make one point though. He seemed to give himself a pat on the back for enabling “older Australians” between the ages of 65-75 to contribute an additional $250,000 to their super fund. As a 71 year old, I wondered who in that bracket would have the resources to do that.

I suspect most Liberal initiatives are predicated on the basis of how few of us will actually benefit, how little they will need to give away.

Chris Bowen, on the other hand, was full of optimism. He did have a plan. He cited Renewables, Science and Technology and the NBN as Labor’s future growth path. But, of all the contributions a Shorten government would make to a growth economy, it was education that sat at the top of the list.

Education at whatever cost, returns a future dividend, a fact Morrison was forced to acknowledge. Having outlined Labor’s intentions, he then turned his attention to how the government hides its lack of substance behind scare campaigns, sloganeering and general negativity.

Bowen called on the government to display greater honesty in their costings and give the Parliamentary Budget Office sufficient time to review them as part of the Charter of Budget Honesty; unlike three years ago when they submitted their budget costings just two days before the election.

When both men were asked by Mark Kenny of The Age to state their big plan for the next three years, all Morrison could offer was his May budget, one that was challenged by both Bowen and moderator Chris Uhlmann for its highly optimistic projections.

Bowen, on the other hand made no apologies for insisting education was the key to a nation’s continued prosperity. On balance, Bowen was the more convincing, across more detail and less defensive.

Interestingly, neither wanted to talk too much about the national debt. That was a relief. The national debt, so called, is a red herring. It doesn’t exist except on paper. But neither was going to be so brave as to say that.