Just under two weeks until Budget. The office inbox is flooded with the first anti Budget campaign. Campaign tactics are simple. Enlist people to email, text and write to MPs expressing outrage at the government’s attacks on human rights and fairness. Give your ‘slacktivists’ some standard words via a preconfigured website, with options to personalise. Ensure people can complain with a few simple key strokes. The emails roll in in their hundreds, sometimes thousands. The first time, it was unnerving. Now it’s old hat. It’s often the same anger, coming from the same keyboards. Where do these people get the time? Their bitterness is often palpable, but it’s a short, sharp hissy fit. I console myself that I got into politics to focus on good policy for the vast majority, many of whom would never think to contact a politician. But marginal seat colleagues remind me I have the luxury of a relatively safe seat.
A week until Budget. The leaks are coming thick and fast. Pension eligibility, healthcare savings, closing tax loopholes. On Wednesday I do a regular fortnightly video interview with Fairfax. I’m getting my head around the latest Budget leaks as the interviewer calls. The interview’s fine, but it’s funny how quickly the narrative changes. Last year we were a bunch of heartless ideological warriors. This year we are compromising Australia’s future by not committing to a budget surplus date. More confirmation that mainstream, well communicated policy is the only answer.
Healthcare policy is and will always be a battleground when budgets are stretched – it’s a huge spending item, growing rapidly. I am acutely conscious that the tax increases necessary to support historical spending growth would cripple the economy. Few issues matter more than healthcare in rural parts of my electorate where the population is older, not wealthy and not in close proximity to medical specialists. Our new Minister represents one of the biggest rural seats in Australia, so she gets this, and she has a steady, thoughtful approach to policy development. She also has one of the tougher jobs in Cabinet: to reformulate health policy, deliver comparable savings to last year and avoid upsetting the powerful AMA. I’ve been relatively active in this area and so I have a reasonable handle on where we are going. And it was all going well until the pharmacists get upset. Backbenchers typically piece together new policy proposals from various sources – time rarely allows for real time consultation from the ministers along the way. I speak to colleagues, pharmacists, staffers and journalists and the picture becomes clear. It’s not long before the immediate impasse is temporarily diffused, but it doesn’t stop some. A Canberra pharmacist assures me via Twitter that he (or she?) will bring down the government (#bringdownthegovernment). I don’t respond to hecklers from over the border. I’m pretty confident that in Goulburn, Cowra and Grenfell (towns in my electorate) the doctors, pharmacists – and the broader community – prefer a conversation over a hashtag.
A new battle has started – this time with Medicines Australia, the industry lobby for big pharma. It is baulking at the savings we are after from the PBS. There’s a polite complaint letter in my inbox from two cycling buddies. An exclusive leak to the Australian that morning reminded us that the mining industry brought down Kevin Rudd, and mentions war chests. They may not be activists and they’re not using hashtags, but they sure have money. I remind myself again that I am here to make the right calls, not the easy ones.
Budget Day. Thankfully, our narrative is shifting beyond addressing ‘unfairness’ towards opportunity, prosperity and growth. I know instinctively that the focus on small business is good policy and a winner in my electorate. A minister calls about a major local infrastructure announcement which is fantastic news. I pick up the phone to push for a front pager in the local paper while juggling media calls, party room meetings, dinner guests arriving and getting my head around new announcements. In Question Time, the opposition rejects every savings initiative, and stays silent or in support of most investment. It’s easy to spend other people’s money.
I reflect on modern politics. The Athenians experimented with forms of direct democracy. Over two thousand years later many voters have lost trust in representation and would prefer to ‘vote’ on every issue. They have unprecedented access to the information. But they get it in soundbites, or 140 characters, and if they read a paper, they read the one that caters to their taste. It’s rarely the full picture on either side. Their inability to get across the details of every issue makes sustainable direct democracy as unrealistic as ever. On the other hand, well resourced, vested interests really can engage in a timely way. They are skilled at manipulating both pollies and the public debate. They almost live in the corridors of parliament house; prodding, poking, pushing. One of the most encouraging emails I have received was from a constituent at the time of the last leadership crisis. ‘Angus, I want you to know that I put my trust in you to do the right thing. I happen to have a view, but I know that you are closer to it than me. As my elected representative I have faith in you that you will make the right decision on our behalf.’ In my former life I learned that good reform is rarely sexy and not about big announcements. It is most often evolutionary and incremental. It starts with a plausible narrative and a sensible plan and builds over time. The key is to build trust with mainstream Australia. This is now the most important job of parliamentarians.
Angus Taylor is the Liberal member for Hume and a Rhodes Scholar