Maybe those who complain about a boring election campaign are condemned to an exciting election finish. Many in the establishment – particularly the business establishment – have convinced themselves the country is off to hell in a handcart, but it doesn’t have to be like that.

The nation won’t be ungovernable provided Malcolm Turnbull is willing to negotiate with the minor parties when necessary – hardly a new experience for governments, which rarely have a majority in the Senate.

Surely Turnbull will use this opportunity to find Morrison “a job to which you’re better suited”.

Nor does it follow that the government will be unable to hasten the budget’s return to surplus.

Illustration: Simon LetchIllustration: Simon Letch

As a study by the Australia Institute has demonstrated, much of this year’s budget can be legislated, particularly with a little compromise.

In any case, the budget is not the economy. And, contrary to any casual impression you may have absorbed, the prospects for the economy remain reasonable.

Brexit is bad news for the Brits, and adds to Europe’s many problems, but it’s not big enough to greatly affect the rest of us. The US economy is gathering speed.

Malcolm Turnbull speaks to the media in Sydney on Sunday.Malcolm Turnbull speaks to the media in Sydney on Sunday. Photo: Peter Rae

The messy election result won’t have much effect on the economy. Business loves whingeing about “uncertainty” – when it’s got nothing else to do or say, that’s what it does – but the period of transition from the mining investment boom is getting towards its end and, as it does, the rest of business will be getting on with it.

The economy has been growing at a rate that’s about average, and the best guess is it will continue doing so. It has been creating additional jobs and this should continue.

For all that, however, there are messages for politicians on both sides from this election. How well they listen will determine how well we are governed over the next three years. (Don’t fall for the one about how we’ll be back to the polls in no time. The more-excitable always say that at times like this.)

The first message comes from the continuing decline in people voting for the major parties. The proportion of voters giving their first preference to a minor party reached almost one in four.

This is not surprising when you remember how standards of conduct have fallen: the broken promises, the scare campaigns, the negativity and automatic opposition to whatever the other side says, the statements that are true in some sense but have been crafted to mislead.

The plain fact is that the mainstream politicians have forfeited our trust and lost our respect.

Many of us have concluded they’re all liars, and we tune out whenever they start slagging each other off, or arguing about who has the bigger hole in their costings. They could save themselves much energy if they learnt not to bother doing this.

The message for the government is that it must broaden its appeal if it wants to attract a comfortable majority of two-party-preferred vote.

Any lapse into infighting between Abbott and Turnbull supporters will be the final proof the Coalition is no different from Labor.

The Coalition campaigned on its plan for jobs and growth (which boiled down to a cut in the rate of company tax), while Labor campaigned on the public’s worries about cuts to government spending on education and health.

Labor’s success in this argument explains why it did so much better than expected.

The Coalition suffered from the lingering resentment and suspicion provoked by Tony Abbott’s first budget, which attempted to fix the deficit almost solely though cuts to the spending on health, education and welfare depended on by low and middle income-earners, while protecting the earnings of businesses supplying services to government and the tax breaks enjoyed particularly by high income-earners.

Many of those measures were abandoned, though some remain “zombie measures”, rejected by the Senate but still on the government’s books.

The memory of that deal-breaker budget was kept alive by Scott Morrison’s insistence that the budget had a spending problem, not a revenue problem. (Surely Turnbull will use this opportunity to find Morrison “a job to which you’re better suited”.)

BadIdea2The message for the Coalition is obvious: it must switch to budgeting for all Australians. That means tax increases as well as spending changes that seek genuine efficiencies in contracting with business suppliers (drug companies, for instance), not just cost-shifting to the public.

The message for Labor is that its strategy of not being as obstructionist towards the government as Abbott in opposition was towards it, and of making itself a big target in the election by proposing “positive policies” (such as limiting negative gearing), worked well.

So now is not the time to revert to Abbott-like spoiler behaviour – if I wreck the joint they’ll have to give up and hand over to me.

When they combine, the two sides can get anything through the Senate. Labor can win itself voter respect for being sane and sensible without bowing to the government’s every wish.

It can help with the compromises. And when the government’s fighting the good fight against powerful interests (such as the two big pathology companies, and the Coalition greedies making spurious claims about retrospective super changes) it can resist the unworthy temptation to take advantage of it.

With Labor now hopeful of winning next time, any budget nasty it helps the government fix now will be a problem it won’t have to fix then.

Ross Gittins is the Herald’s economics editor

Originally published in the SMH 13 July 2016

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