'Nobody likes to pay more or get less, so plenty of measures in the federal budget will attract criticism.'

'Nobody likes to pay more or get less, so plenty of measures in the federal budget will attract criticism.'

No doubt tomorrow night all Australians will have something to grizzle about. Nobody likes to pay more or get less, so plenty of measures in the federal budget will attract criticism. But any ‘‘I’m getting less so this is wrong’’ stuff should be ignored. We need to look at the substance of each item. Is it fair? Is it constitutionally sound? What do we suggest instead of this or that measure?

Debate about the efficacy of individual measures is fair enough so long as it doesn’t slip into being a substitute for assessing the overall package. In that context we might ask, ''Can we just do nothing?'' ''Do we really need to pay down debt?'' ''Do we need to reduce the burden we leave on the shoulders of our kids?'' My answers are no, yes and yes.

Without carrying the responsibility of being Treasurer, we can all spout off our opinions. For example, if you have untaxed superannuation earnings and the fact that they are untaxed allows you to get a health card, I wish you no personal harm but I do hope the budget shuts down that opportunity – as recommended by the Commission of Audit. While the commission left tax matters to the separate and continuing tax review, it did plainly point out the need for something to be done about super tax concessions. I hope the government acts on that.

For indigenous Australians, I hope to see a massive clean up of a plethora of small programs that mean a plethora of non-indigenous people monitoring them. All the savings found from cleaning up that bureaucratic smorgasbord or nightmare should go directly to indigenous Australians by way of vouchers for education. Good intentions just aren’t enough. Education is the key and the more choice we can give to more indigenous Australians to take advantage of it the better.

The now infamous paid parental leave scheme should be cut back, dramatically. The savings, leaving the tax on high-turnover businesses in place, should go into more and much more flexible childcare. If ever there was an example of how Canberra can get it wrong, childcare is it. Just ask anybody who works irregular hours or night shift. We have to acknowledge and help all those families who have been shut out by a system designed in Canberra that just doesn’t work for so many Australians.

There’s a lot more I would like to see. Years and years ago people went on the pension at retirement and generally lived another 10 years or so. Now we live for a further 20, 25 or more years, so the cost per person has gone up dramatically. Added to that, there are many, many more baby boomers about to go on the pension. If that isn’t bad enough, people now plan their affairs in order to get it! The old idea of taking it if you need it has almost disappeared.

There will be a lot fewer people of working age to support all the payments, so something has to give. While the government promised not to change pensions in this term, I would like to see it  legislate now to make some change for the future.The value of the pension should not only stay but be maintained. Any pensioner should be able to buy the same basket of goods in the future that they can buy today.

However, pensions grow not just with inflation but are hooked up to general growth in male wages. We do this by indexing them to Male Total Average Weekly Earnings. What I would like to see is pensions linked to all earnings, which includes women’s wages. Over time this would produce significant savings. Pensions would maintain their real value and continue to grow, but not as fast. That seems to me to be a very fair call.

There are two reasons we need to curtail spending. One is demography – more older people living longer, and fewer people of working age to support them.That’s nobody’s fault.

The other is that we have very substantial debt. We all need to have debt at some stage,but we all know the sooner you pay it off the better. On our current spending pattern we will never pay it off, and it will just grow and grow. Former Labor prime ministers Bob Hawke and Paul Keating agree spending has to come back.

I can think of plenty of things I would rather do with $12 billion a year than waste it in interest. Some commentators say that because plenty of other countries have higher debt, we are not doing too badly. It is an argument that accepts mediocrity with a smile, and we should never accept that from our government. Surely we want to be the best. Planning to be mediocre is a terrible thing.

More importantly, we need to future shock-proof the economy. When the global financial crisis struck, the Rudd government could easily turn on the fiscal tap because we had no debt. The fact that many think they turned it on too hard and sprayed your money around unwisely and indiscriminately like monopoly money out of a water cannon is, in one sense, irrelevant. The capacity was there.

But what happens now, when we have very significant debt, if there is another GFC? What about a Chinese spring? Would you bet your house that the world economy is stable? How’s Europe looking? It’s hardly a model of stability.

If we had to handle another crisis with all the existing debt, it would be very bad news.

People who are prepared to just hope things get better should not be in charge of anything, let alone our economy. Bill Shorten has been criticising the Audit Commission as being just a mouthpiece for big business. Perhaps he missed the stuff on superannuation, ignored the call for more and more flexible childcare, and forgot to look at the recommendation to put the savings in Indigenous affairs into education vouchers directly to indigenous people. He probably put the recommendations on Vertical Fiscal Imbalance in the too-hard basket.

Shorten is all over the shop. He loves the union movement one day and distances himself the next, likes Rudd, then Gillard, then Rudd. When he’s commenting on the budget, remember this: Shorten was part of the government that created the problem; he hasn’t got a clue about the solution.

Amanda Vanstone is a columnist for The Age and was a minister in the Howard government and a member of the Audit Commission.