It shouldn't go unnoticed just how quickly and easily the Morrison government has done an about-face on government spending and budget discipline.
Gone are the days of budget debt and deficit "disasters", "emergencies", and "crises", "austerity" and "expenditure restraint", of the obsession with achieving a "budget surplus, of being "back in the black".
How easily, indeed overnight, their rhetoric/spin on our economy switched from "Strong Economy" and the election commitment to "Make it Stronger", against the boast of some 29 years without a recession, to how we had to accept that we are now moving into recession with rising unemployment.
The government has loosened its purse strings, some are saying now "spending like drunken sailors" although, of course, drunken sailors are spending their own money, their accumulated pay on their limited shore leave, while our government is spending our money, and more.
The government has loosened its purse strings, some are saying now "spending like drunken sailors" ...
Of course, the public has easily accepted this switch - many had never accepted the need for austerity, and had felt a budget surplus was a failure by government to spend their money effectively on essential services.
Moreover, it was easily recognised that with the medical/health imperative to "crash" our economy by way of "lockdowns" and "social distancing" to contain the spread of the coronavirus, the government needed to spend to cushion the impact on households, business, and on the overall economy.
All accepted and understood, but it is of concern just how enthusiastically they are spending, with almost daily announcements targeted at one group/industry or another, with absolutely no consideration as to how it will all be ultimately funded, and with little actual idea as to its likely effectiveness. Anomalies are emerging, for example, identifying those casuals and others that don't "qualify" for the JobSeeker or Keeper allowances, sole traders who miss out on business handouts, and so on.
The government is hoping that it can quickly and effectively target spending and other support directly to those most impacted but then, also just as easily, reverse that spending when the virus is "under control" - Morrison is at pains to insist that increased spending is "temporary" not "structural" and will be reversed when our economy "snaps back". But to what?
Disengagement from lockdowns of our borders won't be easy, given that overseas travellers, cruise ships etc have been the major source of infection so far - as an island we can isolate. But, equally, lifting restrictions on hospitality and entertainment venues, and allowing people to leave their homes, risks accelerating domestic contagion.
Also, some of the spending "benefits" will be very difficult to reverse. Many will soon be considered a "right", such as the increase in Newstart just won't be accepted as temporary; try to suddenly abandon free childcare; many businesses just won't "snap back".
For most of the time I have been engaged in public policy since the early 70s the imperative has been to constrain government spending, and minimise tax increases, by both sides of government, in the name of good fiscal and debt management. The only significant exceptions, before now, were Howard/Costello squandering the revenue flood from the mining boom, and the Rudd government's response to the GFC - both took many years to bring under control.
It is tough to control government expenditure, especially given the reluctance to share the burden with increased taxation. You may recall Treasurer Lynch's "Razor Gang" as an initial attempt to rein in the profligate spending of the Whitlam years - seen as excessively "draconian" at the time, but soon accepted as inadequate.
I recall the subsequent annual Budget Cabinet deliberations on budget repair in each of the remaining years of the Fraser government - long days into the early hours, scrutinising line-by-line budgets for each portfolio, attempting to scrounge out "savings", making electorally unpopular "mistakes" in some areas, but still never achieving the desired degree of budget repair.
Even when tax increases were fallen back on, and declared as "surcharges" and "temporary", they needed to be made "permanent" in the course of the budget year. Also recall Abbott's "budget repair levy".
In what will certainly be our deepest recession since the Great Depression, the government must seize the opportunity for reform across most areas of government, reassess priorities, and build a sustainable basis for longer-term recovery and budget repair.
John Hewson is a professor at the Crawford School of Public Policy, ANU, and a former Liberal opposition leader.