The Guardian • Issue #2060


What the surplus tells us

  • The Guardian
  • Issue #2060

Australian budget surpluses are funny things. Sometimes we pay a lot of attention to a budget surplus or a budget deficit, sometimes we ignore them completely. For the last Liberal-National Coalition government, the deficit was so important when they were in opposition that they painted a slogan about it on a bus and drove it around various electorates to draw attention to the “debt and deficit disaster.” Then the Coalition got into power and started adding to the debt and deficit as fast as they could, so it became unimportant again. When Josh Frydenberg thought he was about to have a budget surplus, he had special “Back in Black” mugs made to commemorate a surplus that never turned up. The anticipated surplus didn’t appear and became unimportant again.

Now a government budget surplus is with us. First thought to be $4.5 billion, it’s now more likely to be $19 billion. Is this an important thing? How much should this matter to working people and their families?

Labor quietly thinks the surplus is important, with Prime Minister Albanese describing the surplus as “a result of this government’s responsible economic management.” If approving 100 more fossil-fuel projects in the face of a climate-change-caused catastrophe is “responsible,” that’s news to us, but Albanese is talking about the economy. Like a lot of the Australian media, Albanese somehow thinks the economy exists in a different world to the environment.

Many commentators just assume that a surplus is a good thing, presumably because a surplus for an individual is a very good thing. Government surpluses are more complicated than that.

Surpluses come and go, and it’s true that a lot of what causes them is outside the government’s control. Albanese can’t control what people in China are prepared to pay for iron ore, or how much the Japanese need our gas.

We do not need to worry about government surplus, debts and deficits the way we worry about our personal finances.

We should care about the surplus because of what it says about the government’s priorities. Albanese can control how much he taxes the iron ore and gas producer profits (not much). He can control how much the government spends on subsidising fossil fuel producers (far too much). Or how much the government spends on keeping the “independent” school lobby happy (again, far too much).

This surplus shows that the government values looking “responsible” more than it cares about housing Australians. Our supposedly progressive government cares more about being “back in the black” than it does about keeping unemployed people out of grinding poverty.

The surplus would be larger in the future if the government hadn’t committed to the Stage 3 tax cuts, gifting over $330 billion dollars in tax cuts to people already on more than $200,000 a year.

We care about the surplus because that’s the workers’ money they’re holding on to when they talk about being “responsible.” That’s workers’ money they spend on tax cuts and nuclear-powered submarines.

The size of the surplus tells us what is and isn’t important to our ruling class. Our bourgeois parliament is headed by a party that spent $200 million on the federal Disaster Relief Fund, and (with the states) $11.1 billion on the fossil fuels that made the largest bushfires in Australia’s history possible.

Bourgeois governments of all stripes make nice noises about what’s important to them. A look at how we got to this surplus shows that what’s important to them isn’t Australian working people.

The Guardian can also be viewed/downloaded in PDF format. View More