If this isn’t a “budget emergency”, what is?

The Morrison Government’s big spending budget is sparking concerns over Australia’s debt. With election campaigns looming, will we see Labor take notes from the Coalition’s 2013 election strategy? (Image Source: Australian Associated Press)

By Tyson Ruch | @tysonruch

In the lead up to the 2013 Federal Election, Tony Abbott and the Coalition were able to make the national debt a key talking point of their election campaign.

They saw the rising debt figures and pounced, blaming Labor’s economic mismanagement.

In an election campaign ruled by easily-parroted slogans, the Coalition claimed Australia was in the midst of a “budget emergency” despite Labor managing to see Australia through the global financial crisis (GFC) relatively unscathed, with low unemployment figures and low debt levels compared to other advanced nations.

Tony Abbott promised that he and his Government would “end the waste”, reduce government spending and pay down the debt.

The scare campaign worked, too. The Abbott-led Coalition won the election easily, winning over 45 per cent of the vote while the Kevin Rudd-led Labor party had their lowest primary vote since the 1931 election.

The promised budget surpluses were never delivered, and Australia’s national net debt exploded under the leadership of the Coalition, more than doubling in their two terms in power.

The 2021-22 Federal Budget handed down last week shows a drastic change in sentiment from the Coalition’s catchcries about the debt in 2013.

They’ve pledged to spend big in areas such as aged care, the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS), mental health and women’s safety, as well as providing tax cuts for low-and middle-income earners.

This cash-splash, which has been described by some as an atypical Liberal budget, has Australia headed towards a net debt of just under $1 trillion by 2025, a net debt-to-GDP ratio of 43.8 per cent, and won’t see a surplus for at least 10 years.

It’s easy for the Coalition to blame the economic issues created by COVID-19 for not reducing debt or getting into a surplus, but this was the path they were heading down even before the pandemic.

The Labor party spent big in response to the GFC, spared Australia from the worst of the GFC and avoided recession, but the Abbott-led Coalition called Labor’s measures a “budget emergency” and won the 2013 election with this as one of the key talking points.

Just eight years later, the Morrison-led Coalition are heading towards a debt four times the levels left by the Labor party and yet there has not been talk of any “budget emergency”.

For all the fuss they kicked up in 2013 about Labor going into debt during a global recession, it would be easy to imagine the Government would be looking to wind back spending to get their far-more-drastic-than-2013 budget issues under control, but that is not what’s happening.

Could it be that the “budget emergency” was just a stick to beat Labor with in 2013?

This level of spending in the Budget, and the Coalition’s apparent amnesia about their 2013 election rhetoric, isn’t surprising though as this is likely to be the last Budget before the next Federal Election.

According to the latest News Poll, Labor leads the Coalition on a two-party preferred basis 51-49. Spending big now might be enough to sway some voters and win a third successive term in office, even if it means a bigger budget blowout.

It will be interesting to see if Labor fixates on the debt and deficit created by this government on the campaign trail like the Coalition did in 2013, but after the lack of attention shown on this during their 2016 and 2019 election campaigns, it seems unlikely.

This doesn’t mean Labor aren’t afraid of a using good-old scare campaign of their own, though.

When Labor used their own simple-slogan approach in 2016 with the “Mediscare” campaign, it wasn’t enough to swing the election, but they did win back a significant number of voters from the disastrous 2013 results.

As unpopular as scare campaigns are with voters, they will likely be a part of the discourse in the leadup to the 2021 campaign and beyond because they work.

Hopefully, this time voters will remember the rhetoric of past elections and block out the slogan-covered billboards they see on their way to work, but I’m not holding my breath.

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