In politics one of the cheapest and most cynical things you can do is to stand far away from the scene of the crime – to leave the country while your deputy delivers bad news, to let underlings do the sackings, to pretend core responsibilities have nothing to do with you.
In Australia, the flawed federation facilitates this act – it’s all that much easier to duck accountability when the lines of accountability are blurred.
This week’s budget presents just such a case.
While media commentary focused on the pure numbers – who’ll be taxed and who’ll take the cuts – the reality of this budget is far more complex than that.
The debate so far is exactly the one which the Abbott government wanted us to have. It mightn’t be pretty but it’s a long way from the scene of the crime. Over months now, the government has framed the budget as one simply of tax changes and welfare cuts. They’ve sought to present a “budget emergency” (in a nation that has a AAA credit rating) and have argued repeatedly that the age of entitlement has to end.
The debate might not be going well for them but in focusing on income distribution – like the fact that someone on $190,000 a year will pay $200 a year more in tax while a 23 year old unemployed person will lose $2,340 in Newstart allowance – the media is at least covering the government's preferred ground.
The big story of the budget though is in the things the treasurer has entirely left out. Having for months argued that core public service responsibilities were nothing to do with it, the Abbott government has now cut $80 billion from health and education funding.
The clear strategy is to force the states to call for a rise in the GST. That might be politically smart but Australians could ponder the ethics of adopting such a tack.
Public health and education are core government responsibilities. Less than half the population has private health insurance and two thirds of all Australian students are educated in public schools. To cut their funding is not to play around the edges – it is to attack the fundamentals of services on which most Australians rely.
The $80 billion cut is from a long term funding path. The Labor Government, in an attempt to create service security, had committed to funding growth over the next ten years. With this budget the new government tears up those agreements, returning health and education funding to the states to CPI increases for the foreseeable future.
This decision will have a real human cost.