Petrol money

This is the budget of an oblivious friend offering at the last minute to chuck in a little bit for petrol money. On every possible front it is a reminder of how little the Morrison government has done in office. On some points, there is a late attempt to fix things – not with any meaningful reform, just a bit of cash. For others, there isn’t even that.

“Mr Speaker, over the last three years Australians have been tested. Drought, fire, floods. A global pandemic for which there was no playbook,” Treasurer Josh Frydenberg said in his budget speech. “Despite the challenges, our economic recovery is leading the world. This is not a time to change course. This is a time to stick to our plan.”

That plan is for less money to climate projects. Less money for the arts. Less money for public schools. It’s a plan for a witless country, served by an inept government.

What Australia has endured over the past three years is not the trials of sickness and disaster but of a leadership completely ill equipped to meet challenges or govern responsibly.

Their answer to this is a little bit of cash. No vision, no ideas, just an oily wink and a roll of money slid across the table.

Scott Morrison is promising one-off payments not because the economy needs immediate stimulation but because the money has a one-off purpose: his government’s re-election. As one Liberal put it: “Whatever happened to the seriousness of fiscal policy? Now it’s just a political platform, if not a stunt.”

Even in a budget as feckless as this, there is still cruelty. The drive to be elected jostles with the compulsion to be mean. That is the story of Morrison’s leadership.

Take one example. Over the next three years, more than half a billion dollars will be chiselled out of public education. There is no money for straining and dilapidated classrooms. Meanwhile, an extra $2.6 billion will flow into private schools over the forward estimates.

This is a perfect description of the broken, unequal country the Coalition has spent almost a decade building. The priorities are so wrong, so distorted, that it is hard to believe they are real. This is a budget that looks at a problem and sets about finding ways to make it worse.

The arts are another example, singled out for punishment by a government that doesn’t believe in beauty. After the destruction wrought by Covid-19, after two years in which most artists have been unable to perform or show work, the government has cut hundreds of millions of dollars from the sector.

Funding for new work will go from $159 million a year to just over $20 million. Funding for music will disappear entirely. Instead, there is more money for fossil fuels and gas. There is more money for defence. Those are the miserable facts.

After all this, Morrison asks one question in a budget intended to clinch his re-election: Would $250 be enough?

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 2, 2022 as "Petrol money".

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