No trumpets for salesman Jim Chalmers

“Stronger foundations for a better future.” As slogans go, it doesn’t sound all that thrilling.

It’s the sort of thing a car manufacturer’s new CEO might come up with to try to steady the rattled nerves of shareholders after the company’s previous administration produced such a lemon.

Treasurer Jim Chalmers is trying to sell his budget to a rattled nation.

Alex Ellinghausen

Still, Treasurer Jim Chalmers recognised this is no time for thrilling slogans.

Translated, “stronger foundations for a better future” is an admission that things are pretty bad, underpinned with the solemn pledge – by which you can read “hope” – that all will be better as the company re-builds those “foundations”, which could mean anything.

Chalmers, of course, was trying to sell his budget message to a whole nation of rattled nerves.

Out there in voter land, inflation imported from a war-struck world has prompted the Reserve Bank to repeatedly hike interest rates, sending the cost of living climbing, triggering fear and loathing in the housing market as mortgage repayments rocket skyward, and causing serious pain among renters forced to help pay the mortgages of landlords.

Little surprise, then, that the first of Chalmers’ dot points in his budget speech promised “cost-of-living relief that is responsible and affordable and prioritises those most in need”.

Fear and loathing has gripped the housing market as interest rates and rents rocket skyward.

Brook Mitchell

Weirdly, however, it wasn’t until the fifth dot point that the treasurer got to the announceable where you’d imagine he’d be blowing his trumpet with gusto.

That’s the bit where he announces “a surplus forecast for this year, with less debt and smaller deficits compared with recent budgets”.

Admittedly, it’s a slender surplus, forecast to be $4.2 billion, expected to last only a year before the books go back into the red to the tune of almost $14 billion.

Furthermore, the government had already spilled the beans about its achievement, ensuring the surplus got front-page treatment on the morning of the budget.

But it remains the case that this is the first surplus in 15 years, challenging the veracity of the Liberals’ boast that they are the better economic managers.

Chalmers, clearly, had judged that his speech needed the sober touch expected of a Labor treasurer intent on “seeing our people through the hard times and setting our country up for a better future”.

So, no trumpet blowing.

Why, the economy was slowing and would continue to do so for two years, and while unemployment would remain low, inflation was driving rate rises and eroding real wages, he said.

‘Stronger foundations for a better future’ is an admission that things are pretty bad, underpinned with the solemn pledge – by which you can read ‘hope’ – that all will be better.

And yet, there was a revenue windfall from lower unemployment (less dole and more income tax from jobs and wages growth) and higher prices for mining exports.

It allowed Chalmers to indulge in a little boasting.

Chalmers listed “modest, but meaningful revenue measures” that included “changes to the Petroleum Resource Rent Tax so that Australians receive a fairer return on the sale of our natural resources, sooner”.

Modest indeed. The increase in the rent tax will be $2.4 billion over the next four years – so small that even the oil and gas companies have accepted it without much complaint.

Chalmers is something of a veteran at this sort of thing.

Back in 2010, he was chief of staff to then-treasurer Wayne Swan when Kevin Rudd, having proposed a “super profits tax” designed to raise tens of billions of dollars a year, was ousted as prime minister after a full-frontal assault from furious mining companies.

Swan’s office, with Chalmers at the helm, swiftly drafted a more miner-friendly Minerals Resources Rent Tax for Julia Gillard’s new administration. It was later axed by the Abbott government, having raised just $200 million in its final year of operation.

Might Chalmers, preparing his “stronger foundations for a better future”, have paused for a moment to imagine what he might have done with all those hundreds of billions from the still-born super profits tax?

All in the past, of course, for a treasurer with a budget to sell “for a better future”.

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