Go for a debt deal

Bill Shorten should take a long hard look at Labor leaders Luke Foley in NSW, Premier Daniel Andrews in Victoria and Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk in Queensland. None has a plan to pay down debt, none has money to spend, and each has wrong plans to enhance productivity.

Foley wants to cancel the WestConnex road tunnel in Sydney, Andrews has cancelled the East West Link in Melbourne and Palaszczuk has cancelled support for a coal rail line from the Galilee Basin to port in north Queensland, which incidentally runs east west. These are all pro-green cancellations. Pity earlier Labor administrations hadn’t cancelled their respective “green” desalination plants — all mothballed.

If the Abbott government cannot get its act together, the same formula will apply to Shorten. He will be in the cancellation business. Australia will be going backwards.

Tony Abbott and Joe Hockey made shortsighted decisions in opposition. They opposed measures to means test access to family allowances and private health insurance: kneejerk responses. Shorten should not be similarly shortsighted.

Shorten must realise the task of winning government has changed. In a more volatile electoral climate, it has become more likely — obvious since 2007 federally and earlier at the state level — that governments can be dismissed after one term, or soon thereafter.

The reward from the strategy of lying low is diminished. Governing without a plan and in debt becomes a combination of events management and crisis response. The desire to win is enormous, but the purpose of governing cannot be ignored. To be a bad prime minister is more damning than to be a good opposition leader.

The solution is to bring the plan forward: clear one issue now, namely debt. It would be very smart for Shorten to propose a grand bargain. Clear the debt issue from the agenda through a compact between the major parties. Get the legislation through the Senate and bypass the Greens and independents.

This is not a starry-eyed proposal that relies on goodwill — far from it. It is a hard-nosed proposal built on self-interest. If Shorten wants to govern, as opposed to occupying the seat, he must consider a grand bargain to get debt under control.

The ABC’s Fact Check has confirmed Hockey’s claim that Australia “cannot continue to go on borrowing $100 million a day as a government just to pay (its) daily bills” is accurate. Fact check demurs on the assertion the nation is at a “tipping point”. Clearly, borrowing is sustainable, to a point.

Economists make the point to Fact Check that borrowing to invest is better than borrowing to consume, but clearly the government borrows for both. Covering borrowings by higher taxes simply has someone else pay for overconsumption. Saving by cutting investment is also wrong.

While Labor is obsessed with taking other people’s money to spread around, the Coalition cannot repay Labor’s debt without some of Labor’s “equity” measures. In truth, Labor and the Coalition need each other. Otherwise, there is not much point in governing.

Abbott, or his replacement, will insist on pain for Labor supporters; Shorten will insist on pain for Liberals. The bargain will disadvantage both, but, if the disadvantage is equal, neither will lose relative to the other. Job done, they can get back in the trenches ready to recontest the fight for government.

Shorten has a window to take an unprecedented measure that carries little risk of losing the opportunity to win government. The great reward will place Labor (and to a lesser extent the Coalition) in a responsible position, free to return to do what it loves: tax and spend.