Inside the Canberra ‘bubble’

Conservatives dismiss anything they don’t think relevant – or is perhaps too relevant – as occurring in the ‘bubble’- whether that bubble is in London, Washington or Canberra.

But they do have a point. With a few notable exceptions most Gallery journalists have to thrive on the droppings of political staff briefings or pre-releases of speeches or announcements which they only get if they accept the angle on which the briefings are based.

What can we make then of an article in The Age – formerly a Fairfax publication – but now according to the in house style guide a Nine Network one? This specific example was a piece in The Age (25 January 2019) by Shane Wright. Wright is, according to The Age website a ‘senior economics correspondent’ for The Age and the SMH.

The article started off by saying increasing jobs growth in Victoria were a boost to the Morrison Government’s electoral chances in Victoria. Now, ‘as any ful knows’ as Private Eye says, this is nonsense both politically and economically.

First, in terms of economics: a senior economics correspondent ought to have a good grasp on the makeup of jobs and jobs growth in the States. Second, in terms of politics: someone opining on politics ought to have some knowledge of recent political history and ongoing major disagreements between States and the Feds.

The reality is that improved job figures in the States – particularly Victoria – are due to heavy investment in infrastructure and social spending. Indeed a cursory inspection of the jobs figures show that much of the recent national growth around the country is due to States’ spending.

In Victoria this has been achieved despite receiving less Federal Government infrastructure funding – in both relative and absolute terms – than NSW has under the revolving door of successive Liberal PMs.

The Feds, for instance, are still holding back significant funding which was intended for the East West tunnel (a State and Federal thought bubble) – and refusing to re-allocate it to projects with better economic pay offs than the East West which would deliver fewer benefits in dollars than those proposed to be spent. This was a project similar to the UK plan to build a fast rail connection to the Midlands. That project promises that the economic benefits would be manifold – for instance it would save business people commuting time. As one critic said – has no one in the government heard of wifi and computers? However, the Big Four accountants and their consulting arms have been shoulder deep in fees to make it all seem like a great idea. For more on this see the blog’s review of the book Beancounters.

However, as for the politics of all this, if you can remember back beyond your last briefing by a staffer you would recall that this infrastructure spending and its impact on jobs and the economy was a key theme in the recent Victorian State election. Even more, the Andrews Government promised that it would increase debt funding to undertake even more infrastructure funding.

The Victorians had obviously learnt the lesson from the Clinton and Obama years when the Democrats tried desperately to be economically ‘responsible’ by paying down debt; helping banks; and, staffing their offices with neo-liberal refugees from the big investment banks. But all this sacrifice was in vain when the Republicans then squandered the savings on tax cuts for corporates and the rich taking debt into the trillions just as the Liberals in Canberra doing.

A few Democrats have caught on to this and are now saying – never again – but most Australian senior economic correspondents are still advocating the old neo-liberal medicine – if only for Labor – while ignoring the rapid escalation of debt under conservative governments.

The benefits of infrastructure spending will be a key campaign theme for Labor in Victoria in the Federal election as it was in the recent State election – a theme which has already proved successful and will probably be successful again in May.

So, sadly the Canberra bubble is seemingly not enclosing just the politicians – it is also those reporting from Canberra – who misread basic economic data or constantly cast any new data in the context of imagined impacts on elections or leadership.

Perhaps some of The Age and SMH staff should just leave the economics to Ross Gittins and go back to what they do normally – focussing on intra party disputes, day to day political tactics and what politicians wear on their head. Or even better bring back Tim Colebatch to do the politics and complement Gittins’ economic commentary.

PS. The blog has to say, nevertheless, that The Age is still worth reading for things other than Ross Gittins, Tony Walker and Adele Ferguson. A prime example is Anson Cameron’s column in the Saturday Age (26 January 2019) on the Murray-Darling when he says: “Has there ever been, in the history of this planet, such a far-reaching environmental catastrophe perpetrated to serve so few? The Al Saud family springs to mind. But we have allowed a cabal of cotton farmers at the top end of the river to ruin a 1500 kilometre long ecosystem.” After you read the article read Cameron’s novel – The Last Pulse – which depicts strong measures to address the problem.