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The Canberra Times
The Canberra Times
Mark Kenny

Frydenberg goes for growth and hopes for the best

Treasurer Josh Frydenberg addresses the media on Thursday. Picture: Elesa Kurtz

Right as Josh Frydenberg stepped into Parliament House's "Blue Room" on Thursday, a massive leadership tremor shook the ground.

And there would be an aftershock, too.

With the Adelaide Ashes Test just hours from starting, the captain of Australia's first XI - sometimes joked about as the second-most senior position in the nation - was scratched.

The best bowler in the world, Pat Cummins, had been designated a close of contact of a diner (seated at another table) in an Adelaide restaurant the previous night.

Assumptions of a second straight triumph over the English, turned on a dime.

And around the time of that convulsion, news filtered through that Scott Morrison had been deemed a "casual contact" of a COVID-positive person, requiring him to pass a rapid antigen test and take other steps to keep his phoney election campaign on the road.

New Australian captain Pat Cummins is out of the second Test. Picture: Getty Images

The two shocks underscored the difficulty of planning anything remotely complex or long-term including election timing, and budget decisions during this rollercoaster of a pandemic.

Especially as Omicron explodes in the biggest states.

Treasurers usually insist that MYEFO statements are not budgets per se, nor even mini-budgets.

Yet coming just before an election, this one has enough good news and hidden spending in it to allow Morrison the option of coming out of the summer holidays and going straight to an election.

While next year's May budget has already been brought forward to March, Morrison could yet elect to skip parliament to avoid repeating the chaos of his final directionless fortnight.

Some $16 billion of "decisions taken but not yet announced" speaks to the extraordinary largesse in store for what will be a tough election for a crisis-plagued third-term government.

But if body language is any guide, Frydenberg believes in miracles as much as his boss.

He spoke of an Australian economy that was striding confidentially out of the pandemic without waiting for it to end.

Jobs growth booming with 180,000 more people in work now than at the start of the pandemic and a jobless rate currently of 4.6 per cent - that, as Frydenberg skited, was more than a percentage point lower than when the Coalition took office.

Frydenberg's answer to the precarious pandemic situation is to back capital and back growth in what he branded "a private sector-led recovery".

The statement has many rosy projections, not least of which is GDP growth of 4.5 per cent and wages growth jumping from 1.7 per cent to 3.5 per cent.

Then there's COVID-19 being manageable without inhibiting growth or requiring a resumption of restrictions.

Yet so much is fluid. Frydenberg acknowledged that when the last budget was tabled in May, Delta was not factored in - necessitating another $25 billion in targeted economic and health spending.

It's a topsy-turvy world alright. After the disgrace of sandpaper-gate, Steve Smith had supposedly ended his captaining ambitions. He probably believes in miracles too.

  • Mark Kenny is The Canberra Times' political analyst and a professor at the ANU's Australian Studies Institute.
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