The Coalition’s Big Lie

November 13, 2013

One day, they’ll write textbook case studies about it. Political genius, they’ll say – a master class in strategy, messaging and discipline. It worked a treat and delivered government to the Coalition.

I write, of course, of the Big Lie – the myth created and propagated by the Coalition that the Australian economy is in the mire as a result of what Joe Hockey calls “Labor’s economic and fiscal mismanagement”.

The Big Lie was a cornerstone of the Coalition’s political strategy over the last three years.

At every turn, Coalition MPs railed against Labor’s “reckless”, “scandalous” and “wasteful” handling of the economy

The choristers within News Corp Australia played their part to perfection, with a daily drumbeat of opinion pieces echoing profound concern.

That the Big Lie ran counter to all economic fact mattered not a bit. Its communication was so successful that many in the electorate came to believe it.

However, the sting may be in the tail. For the government, the challenge of the Big Lie is dealing with its legacy.

Having won government, the Coalition finds the economy is – surprise – in the same good shape it was before. Low unemployment, low inflation, steady growth, a triple-A rating.

As this reality sits uncomfortably with the Big Lie, the Coalition must navigate a delicate political shift and manage the inflated expectations of its supporters.

Mr Hockey has already begun this task. On his return from IMF meetings in the US, Mr Hockey commented:

There is no doubt that everybody is looking to [Australia] to provide leadership in the world economy next year in G20.

There’s a recognition that Australia has, for a long period, been prepared to deliver economic reform, so there’s a high level of anticipation and excitement.

Hardly the stuff of reckless economic management, then. The shift is showing up in the new government’s policy too.

When he decided to nearly double the Commonwealth’s debt limit to $500 billion, Mr Hockey reassured us that the Australian economy was “growing as it should be” – further revisionism of the Big Lie.

He justified the decision by arguing that “we are not going to allow Australia to become in any way as vulnerable as the United States”.

The implication that Australia needs the debt buffer to respond to shocks suggests that Mr Hockey’s response to any crisis will be exactly the same as what the Big Lie slammed Labor for – borrowing to stimulate the economy.

His Prime Minister Mr Abbott is finding the transition from the Big Lie harder.

When he told the Washington Post that Labor had been “scandalously wasteful” and a “circus”, he was talking down the Australian economy in the world’s biggest capital market, despite the fact that global capital managers continue to consider Australia a highly attractive place to invest.

In government, Mr Abbott needs to shift quickly from the Big Lie rhetoric to ensure his rhetoric does not become self-fulfilling.

The Coalition’s big business cheerleaders also need to adjust to the fact that since the Big Lie was never real, the Abbott government will not be able to deliver much of their wish list.

Judging by his comments last week, Maurice Newman, chair of Mr Abbott’s Business Advisory Council, has yet to accommodate this reality.

For all the hoopla around the Commission of Audit, the fact remains that Australia’s public spending is low by world standards, so there’s just not much fat to cut and little scope for the tax cuts craved by big business.

And since Mr Hockey has conceded there’s “just not a lot of money left in privatisations at a federal level”, there’s little joy for business there.

It’s the inflated expectations created by the Big Lie that explain the muted surprise of business commentators when retail giants Coles and Pacific Brands announced flat sales figures for the post-election period.

For all those who had argued that confidence would lift a lagging economy, the non-appearance of what economist Paul Krugman calls the “confidence fairy” has been a letdown.

And this is perhaps the biggest failing of the Big Lie – it papers over genuine challenges in the Australian economy.

To maintain our strong economic record and our quality of life, we need long-term strategies to manage the transition out of the mining investment boom and to deal with growing public anxiety about increasing casualisation of work.

The Coalition’s false argument that our economy has been poorly managed will only make these challenges more difficult when they are eventually faced.

There may one final twist in the Big Lie.

If the economy does dip in the face of these challenges, and the public cottons on to the fact that our recent years have been good ones, they’ll wonder why they were lied to.

They may even remember that “Ju-liar” was a cornerstone of the Coalition’s crusade against Labor, which put truth and integrity at the centre of its campaign. And if they do, they’ll realise who was lying and who wasn’t.