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Grattan on Friday: Peter Dutton warns of threat to ‘working poor’ in budget reply lacking a big picture


Peter Dutton had to paint a big picture in his reply to Thursday night’s budget – to look like an alternative prime minister. He didn’t succeed.

With the Liberals under 40 scoring poorly, Dutton should have been speaking to these voters in particular. But his address was more of the same from a coalition unable to renew and regroup.

The bar would always be too high for Dutton. This week’s budget, whatever criticism may be leveled at it and however things turn out in the coming months, has been an elusive target for the Liberals.

Dutton pointed to the formidable problems Australia is grappling with: very high inflation, a housing and rent crisis, crippling utility bills, millions of people on the decline.

But he had no regulations, much less more convincing than those of the government.

He risked accusing the government of “crush”, dividing the welfare recipients (who have benefited from the budget) and the low-wage working people. The cost-of-living allowance “is aimed at Australians on welfare benefits, but at the expense of many, including the working poor of Labour”. The budget “hurts working Australians”, he stated; “even worse, it threatens to create a generation of working poor Australians”.

Dutton ticked off budget items that the coalition either agrees with or disagrees with. But he left the fate of JobSeeker’s $40 a fortnight hike up in the air, arguing that it would be better to increase the amount the unemployed could earn rather than increase the base rate. Interviewed later, he wouldn’t confirm that the coalition would support the $40 increase, but it’s hard to see her opposing it when push comes to shove. Nevertheless, he has made himself vulnerable to obvious attacks.

Dutton was responding to concerns, which are likely to increase, about the impending large net migration influx (often a post-pandemic “catch-up”). Labour’s “big Australia approach” would exacerbate Australia’s cost of living and inflation problems, he said.

“In five years, net overseas migration will increase our population by 1.5 million people,” he said. “It is the largest wave of migration in our country’s history and is taking place in the midst of a housing and rent crisis.”

Read more: The day after the night before – Chalmers and Taylor on the budget

Still, Dutton didn’t say what his alternative would be – his statement that a coalition government would “manage migration wisely” is a statement of intent, not policy.

He had numerous known coalition lines and sentiments. “Under a coalition government I lead, your taxes will always be lower.” “Taxation is the killer of aspiration.” “Labour spends recklessly, cuts carelessly, and saves insufficiently.”

But his policy offers were small beer: a ban on sports betting during the broadcast of matches; health commitments; imposing greater responsibility on large digital companies to stop scams and financial fraud; the recovery of the giro debit card. A personal priority was a pledge to double the size of the Australian Center to Counter Child Exploitation.

What was missing was an ambitious initiative on a central issue. While it is still relatively early in the term and Anthony Albanese showed that it is useful to hold back policies, Dutton is in a different situation.

He is confronting a popular government, not one on the slide. And voters won’t be drawn to an opposition that can’t project what it stands for, or whose values ​​seem out of sync with the times.

Notably, Dutton is not yet committing to one key fiscal measure in the budget: the amendments to the Petroleum Resource Rent Tax, which is expected to raise $2.4 billion. The government is hoping for support from the opposition, rather than negotiating with the Greens, whose leader Adam Bandt said on Thursday his party, given the chance, would fight to get the companies to pay “a fair share of the tax”. “.

The Greens’ aggressive response to the budget underscores the challenge facing Labor from an increasingly assertive electoral competitor.

This came in a week in which wider animosity between Greens and Labor exploded in the Senate.

The Greens sided with the coalition to prevent the government from voting on legislation for its $10 billion Housing Australia Future Fund on Thursday, the interest from which would fund social and affordable housing.

Read more: No, the budget doesn’t make further rate hikes more likely

Senate Majority Leader Penny Wong lashed out at Greens housing spokesman Max Chandler-Mather (who won Griffith’s Queensland seat against Labor last year), accusing him of “prioritizing media coverage of stunts and obstruction over housing for women and children who fleeing domestic violence”.

“This man’s ego is more important than housing for women fleeing domestic violence and elderly women at risk of homelessness. What kind of party are you?” she said.

The Greens and coalition also worked together to push for a longer Senate probe into family law legislation.

In response to the budget, the Greens have predictably delivered caustic assessments, declaring that they have not gone far enough to help those in need.

Ahead of next year’s budget, this pressure from the left will only increase.

Read more: Budget 2023 at a glance: major measures, cuts and expenditures

The government’s economic integration advisory group, which was a key player in forcing the overall (modest) increase in budget at JobSeeker, will produce another pre-budget report. This will inevitably lead to further increases in social benefits.

Assuming the government failed to comply with the full recommendations, this would be manna for the Greens. And there will be a new round in the discussion about the phase 3 tax cuts. If these are not recalibrated, the Greens will have more ammunition.

In preparing the 2024 budget, the government could be drawn between doing more on social services, fulfilling its promises on tax cuts and, with a view to elections in May 2025, doing something substantial for Central Australia.

The latest election, which added three more seats to the Greens’ representation in the lower house, bringing them to four, and increased their number in the Senate from nine to 12, was a stark reminder to Labor that the threat from the left was looming is. .

It is perhaps telling that in budget week the government was rather complacent in the face of a weak opposition, but agitated by the small party.

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