<i>Illustration: Simon Bosch</i>

Illustration: Simon Bosch

We live in the age of cynicism. It is a bipartisan gift from our major political parties. Moral outrage is used to hide moral cowardice, with the assumption that voters are too ignorant or self-interested to notice.

When Opposition Leader Bill Shorten spoke in response to the federal budget on Thursday night, he delivered a trenchant message: ''I rise to speak on behalf of millions of Australians who feel shocked and angry. Shocked by the brutality of this government's attack on their way of life ... a budget turning Australia into a place that most of us will not recognise – colder, meaner, narrower.''

His speech was couched in moral rather than political terms. He used ''lies'' three times, along with ''betrayed'', ''brutal'', ''phoney'', ''capricious'', ''unconscionable'', ''incompetent'', ''cowardly'', ''blackmailing'', ''cruel'', ''destructive'' and ''heartless''. Rising to a crescendo like an evangelical preacher, he even invoked the terms ''wicked'' and ''wanton''.

True, the Liberals have overcooked the budget emergency. As Shorten said: ''The legacy that Labor left behind – low inflation; low interest rates; net debt peaking at one-seventh of the level of other advanced major economies; a triple-A credit rating ...''

But in the age of cynicism, Shorten’s speech was itself replete with cynicism. To make the case that  Labor is defending truth, competency and fairness, he needed to lay out an alternative for funding his moral high ground, which envisages no cuts to anything.

He did not. In 33 minutes of highly accusatory rhetoric Shorten offered not a single sentence about how to fund the mountain of unfunded obligations Labor had left behind. Not a word about what taxes it would impose, what costs savings, efficiencies, sacrifices and hard choices it would make.

What Shorten conspicuously omitted from Labor’s Shangri-La ''legacy'' was that after inheriting the strongest budget position of any of the world’s 20 largest economies, Labor ran up debt at a rate faster than any of these major economies and created a legacy of huge costs. These costs, locked into legislation, are only just coming on stream. They included the national broadband network, the National Disability Insurance Scheme and the Gonski education reforms, and are in addition to the rapid rises in healthcare and welfare payments for an aging population.

Shorten did not even try to offer an alternative route in the real world, a road map of funding his promises when the government is already spending $1 billion a month servicing Labor’s debt. This debt was used for spending sprees that did little to raise productivity, infamously the ''cash splash'', the border protection debacle, the gold-plated, centralised, feather-bedded building national program for schools halls and the similarly afflicted home insulation program.

Shorten’s budget reply was also personally insulting, describing the Treasurer, Joe Hockey, as ''Foghorn Leghorn ... a low-rent toe cutter ... [and] blackmailing coward''.  

This is Labor’s high ground. This is its moral alternative. Remember that when the Coalition went to the people in 1998 for a mandate to introduce the GST, Labor fought like dogs against the tax. But when they came to power they said not a word against it, because there was no other way to fund their policies and survive politically.

Despite the intensity and grandiosity of Shorten’s rhetoric, he will not be making the key decisions about the fate of the first Coalition budget. Rather, it will be in the hands of seven minor party senators and the independent senator Nick Xenophon, all elected to Parliament by a protest vote against the major parties.

None of them is named Clive Palmer.

Bob Day, the Family First senator-elect from South Australia, told me last week: ''I expect to have a constructive relationship with the government and with my fellow senators.'' He does not see the three Palmer United Senators – Glenn Lazarus (Queensland), Jacqui Lambie (Tasmania) and Zhenya (Dio) Wang (West Australia) – as being as combustible as their leader.

Day is also a former Liberal. He told me leaving the Liberals turned out to be a liberating experience. His top economic priorities are fundamental tax reform, with lower taxes; slashing federal-state duplication; ending welfare churn, and cutting red tape that hinders work creation.

His chief ally on economic policy is the Democratic Liberal senator-elect David Leyonhjelm from NSW, the purest libertarian to be elected to the Senate in years. He, too, makes Hockey look like a big government spendthrift. He believes the government could work its way out of debt and deficit much faster if it were truly liberal in its policies.

As for the Palmer United senators-elect, Lazarus was nicknamed ''the Brick'' in his rugby league days, which is saying something in a league of raging bricks. He has his own national profile, and won almost 10 per cent of the primary Senate vote in Queensland. Another, Lambie, is a former Liberal, ex-Army, who regards the Greens as dangerous.

The government needs the votes of six of the eight protest-vote senators to defeat the Voldemort scorched earth alliance – the alliance that dare not speak its name – between Labor and the Greens. These protest senators look set to remove the most indefensible element of an austerity budget, Abbott’s paid parental leave scheme, and the deeply unpopular, regressive, counter-productive $7 medical service fee. They are also likely to knock out the diesel tax rise.

Here is the irony: these measures would salve some of the self-inflicted political wounds in the budget. It is thus possible that a more politically survivable budget comes out of the Senate than the one that goes in, bypassing Labor and the Greens. Such is the effect of protest votes in the age of cynicism.

Twitter: @Paul_Sheehan_