Political capital is precious and usually exquisitely fleeting. As a politician you've got to use it while you've got it. This goes as much for questions of lockdown as it does for blowing the budget - and in more humdrum times, for big changes such as the goods and services tax, gun control, the republic.
In this vein, it may well be that Australia arguably had one chance at eliminating the coronavirus and has blown it. Advocates of an eradication strategy are arguing it ever more forcefully while even now beginning to concede it might already be too late. If it is too late, that's not only because of the racing tendrils of the virus branching fast through the veins of Melbourne, but also because of the reflexive hate that America has unleashed on the world. At the same time as the US hates on China's thought control, it tumbles its own legions of automatons off the production line, theirs equally brainwashed but in a cult that elevates individualism no matter how ill-informed, not matter how ill-judged, no matter how ill-thought.
A tough lockdown aimed at eradication not only risks political failure, it risks fanning this mood in Australia. This also sits behind the reluctance to mandate masks. With the example of the US hanging like a pall, Australia's political leaders are running scared, doing everything they can to avoid allowing the coronavirus to become sunk in the culture wars. This isn't easy for the Coalition, still friends with the poisonous voices that are themselves multiplying through Murdoch's television channel, and friends also (and more reasonably) with the forces of market freedom. For the Liberals, big-state spending starts with a big breath in.
The coronavirus is said to find a country's weakest point - the slums or the crammed high rises, underlying health problems such as obesity and diabetes, political dysfunction, social disunity. Australia teeters in each of these categories, courting danger when it exempts Kerry Stokes from quarantine or hands giants of the gas industry a cosseted role in the plans for recovery.
Economist Chris Richardson neatly segued the idea that the virus will find out the weak spots to the economic sphere when he suggested the virus also finds the weak point in a budget. In Australia's case, he says, that was the amount paid to the unemployed - the $40 a day that people were asked to live on before the coronavirus hit. The government, perhaps horrified at the idea of throwing middle class Qantas staff into debased poverty, doubled the payment for the pandemic, but has faced universal calls, including from economists, to lock in a much higher rate than the old Newstart into the future.
This is the context in which Treasurer Josh Frydenberg delivered his economic statement on Thursday. Where there was no news on the future of the JobSeeker unemployment benefit beyond December. And no big new stimulus.
Frydenberg described the numbers as eye-watering, which they no doubt are, setting records in debt, deficit and spending. But the surprise in the numbers was the underlying modesty and restraint. This is not an all-out monetary attack. In fact, the government spend is rapidly shrinking and the figures are built on a quite perplexing optimism.
Is it that they don't want to spook the horses and damage whatever bits of confidence are emerging in the economy? Or are they still averting their gaze from the possibilities that Melbourne represents?
Consider the raft of at-best very very uncertain assumptions on which the numbers rest.
Treasury assumes the Victorian border reopens on August 19 to NSW and South Australia. Treasury assumes Victoria starts to reopen businesses by mid-September, and is back at full opening by mid December.
Treasury assumes the final step of economic reopening is in place everywhere except Victoria by the end of September. This is something we keep delaying, even in Canberra.
The four square metre rule and the 100-person indoor limit are lifted at the end of the year, according to the budget update.
Most heroically of all, local outbreaks are assumed to be contained so "on average, they do not delay the lifting of restrictions".
The economic statement was released as Dan Andrews was telling Victorians that another 403 coronavirus cases had been diagnosed, bringing its number for the past week to 2544. Since the beginning of the month, Victoria has diagnosed 5338 new cases of coronavirus.
In that context, the idea that the rest of the country is back to all-but normal by the end of September and Victoria before Christmas seems, well, like, how would they know?
If the virus doesn't behave as hoped, the economic impact is huge. Treasury says the April-May stay-at-home period cost $4 billion a week - and that's what it would cost if the country was forced into another bout of working from home with pubs and gyms closed and restaurants back to takeaway only. In the happier scenario on which its economic statement is built, Treasury says $2 billion of economic activity a week would return within a few months of stage 3 reopening.
The update does have some horrible hints. The unemployment rate and duration is devastating. And there is a list of numbers that spell pain in every word:
- The government will earn $27 billion less in personal income tax this year; we're only paying less tax for one unhappy reason.
- Unemployment benefits will cost $12 billion more over two years "largely reflecting an increase in the forecast recipient numbers".
- Family Tax Benefit payments will increase $600 million over two years, not because the payments have changed but because more people qualify "as a result of increased unemployment, reduction in hours worked and reduced workforce participation due to the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.
- Similarly the disability program will cost $570 million more, "largely reflecting an increase in Disability Employment Services client numbers" and payments to people with disabilities will increase by $530 million, "largely reflecting a higher than projected number of recipients and average payment rates as a result of the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on employment levels".
- Services Australia gets more money too, $510 million more, "largely reflecting a higher volume of claims to process as a result of the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on employment".
With that shuddering reality, expectations were set on the announcement of a new set of measures, beyond the minimal extensions to JobKeeper and JobSeeker announced earlier in the week, including the possibility of tax cuts. That didn't happen.
The shedding of habitual political stances that has come with the coronavirus and the pumping performance of Scott Morrison in the crisis has given the government political capital, and the opportunity for big reforms. This week's economic statement doesn't show him grasping that, and it may be they don't have it in them after all. Or it may be that we wait till the October budget and for now,the uncertainty has left Frydenberg and Morrison en pointe as much as it has the rest of us, suspended.