Thursday, May 21, 2009

Piers Akerman, Ken Henry, Treasury and belling the cat in an apolitical way

(Above: belling the cat).

You know there's always intelligent, rational debate to be had when you're accused of running a dirty political campaign, of working for shadowy masters, and of being paid huge sums of money (a salary of at least one shilling and thruppence) as part of an 'art of propaganda front' designed to run the country into the ground.

No, not this blog, that's Ken Henry, arch deviant and destroyer of Liberal hopes.

Ken Henry has been on the nose with the Liberals for awhile now - at least since a speech of his got leaked back before the last election, when he caused John Howard some grief over his plans for the Murray-Darling (if you want to trudge back over old ground, and get a little background on Henry, and a fine old slagging of Malcolm Turnbull as a twit, try Alan Ramsey's piece More than enough dirt under his fingernails).

Funnily enough Henry was the golden haired boy for a long time - he helped deliver the GST, was appointed head of Treasury in 2001, collected the AO in 2006, and generally was reckoned to be the model of a modern treasurer, apart from an eccentric concern for wildlife.

Take this report, back on the 7th March 2003:

On his recent visit to New Zealand accompanying the Australian Treasurer Peter Costello, the secretary to the Australian Treasury Ken Henry was asked why Australia was doing so well.

His answer was "good policies". When asked "what else?", he replied "good policies."

Why I'll bet you could almost hear Peter Costello purr as the cat ate the cream of good policies.

But Henry's always inclined to be fractious. There he was yammering in the early days about Australia's aging population and the need to do something about it, and he was also sceptical about housing (but whatever you do, don't say bubble).

Simon Crean: How does the PM explain the comments of the head of Treasury, Ken Henry, who yesterday identified the housing bubble and excessive household debt as serious risk factors for the Australian economy ahead, thus contradicting claims by the Treasurer that consumer debt was not a problem for this country?

PM, hasn't Ken Henry pricked the Government's housing truth bubble?

John Howard: The effect of the escalation in house prices has been to add to the net wealth of the overwhelming majority of Australians, Mr Speaker.
(Lateline transcript 17/09/03)

Now of course Henry is revealed as either a socialist, or a satanist, take your pick. Naturally Piers Akerman is furious. Treasured servant now a slave to politicians, he thunders.

Treasury secretary Ken Henry has outed himself as a political player with his unsubtle attacks on the Opposition’s Budget analysis.

Henry is meant to be apolitical. The Opposition has always been careful to ensure that its Budget attacks are aimed at Treasurer Wayne Swan, not the head of Treasury, who delivers the figures that Swan uses to make the Government’s case.

Oh that ever so careful, subtle, nuanced and caring opposition. That'd be Malcolm Turnbull calling for Henry to be sacked a while ago, I guess. And it seems there's major trouble in the ranks now that Henry has been revealed as a socialist stooge, cooking the books for that Whitlam-esque Rudd.

The politicisation of Treasury is disturbing to a number of Treasury officers, who cite widespread disquiet about the active role Henry has embraced.

Ah yes, the unsourced rumor, a sure sign that Canberra is working true to form.

Akerman is of course getting himself into a lather - along with the opposition - about the usefulness of Treasury figures and projections, but you hope to high heaven that Turnbull isn't reading Piers, because there are plenty of other ways to bell the cat, and they don't involve spreading FUD about figures which are merely projections, and likely to change as the economy either picks up or continues towards the gurgler.

For that you're better off turning to George Megalogenis in The Australian when he wrote Budget honesty in the eye of the beholder.

First he bells one cat, about the control that Howard and Costello exercised about the economy when in power:

Howard and Costello took middle-class welfare to absurd heights to win the 2004 election. In that year, they drove the handout line past 16 per cent for the first time on record. If Swan wishes to be remembered as a reformist treasurer and Rudd wants his Government to be seen as the one that got the balance right between public and private, then the next time either man reaches for the public purse, they should explain who will pay.

Then he rings another bell about another cat, still in the bag and forgotten by most of the pundits - an inquiry where there's no sign the minister in charge knew beforehand the answer the inquiry was designed to produce. Clearly they hadn't been watching
Yes Minister enough to work out the proper parameters of policy formulation.

The Henry tax review is due later this year. Turnbull may wish to see Henry as a serial stooge: a charge that is as laughable as it is insulting, but which many Liberals nonetheless believe to be true.

But what happens if Henry proposes reforms to middle-class welfare that Labor can’t stomach? There is nothing to stop Turnbull from picking up what the Treasury boss recommends.

The Henry report will be made publicly available before the next election. Turnbull should insist on this, just in case Labor has second thoughts.

Serial stooge, socialist versus apolitical figurehead? We shall see, but the notion that the Treasury has somehow never tried to have its fingers in as many policy pies as it could (especially if it meant knocking off expenditure) is one of the more quaint notions Akerman has managed to conjure up in recent times.

Treasury is a government department, accountable to its political overlords, but also a sainted unholy bunch of zealots, sanctified and righteous in their bureaucratic mission to run the country the way they consider a fit and proper way. You haven't been done over until a Treasury goon has worked you over.

The notion that this should only be done in the back rooms, to create a deluded notion of apolitical aloofness, rather than by contributions to debate, is one only an Akerman could cherish. Presumably he wants to go back to the mystic days when the Reserve Bank did all its deliberations behind closed doors, and only emerged after a puff of white smoke to announce the new pope, or the new interest rates, as the case might be.

In any case, Henry has always been available to the media for a little chat, and in the process he burned his Liberal masters, and if Labor is expecting him not to burn them, they might be a little surprised, if they step out of line. Not just yet perhaps, but further down the track.

We shall see, but if you get your political paranoia from a tabloid, don't expect it either to be perceptive or useful in understanding the way the game is played in the nation's capital. Jolly hockey sticks it ain't, and talk of Treasury as being apolitical is a bit like thinking priests in the Catholic church should keep their hands off children. A nice idea, but it just doesn't fly ...

No comments: