View from the Street: Treasurer Stymied by Those Big, Complicated Numbers

By Andrew P Street
Sydney Morning Herald
March 3, 2016

And how far off are we from Abbott and Turnbull just sorting things out with their fists? Your news of the day, reduced to a snarky rant.

"Oh dear god, it's a tribiillion! Everybody, run for your lives!" Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

Pell in a Handbasket

Cardinal George Pell has wrapped up his testimony into the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, and it's fair to say that he's not exactly distinguished himself.

Among his testimonial highlights was admitting that he'd heard rumours that children were being raped by priest Gerald Ridsdale, but that "was a sad story and wasn't of much interest to me," as he memorably put in on Tuesday.

His marvellously selective memory had forgotten this quote a day later, when he railed against lawyer Jim Shaw for repeating the quote to him.

"I said nothing of the kind," Pell angrily responded to his exact words, "as I have endeavoured to explain this evening."

Shaw, oddly, begged to differ: "I'm quoting you from the transcript, Cardinal."

Pell wasn't having a bar of it: "I would like you to do so."

Shaw obliged: "I just did. 'A sad story and it wasn't of much interest to me.'"

Pell: "That's a selective quotation."

In Georgie's defence, how is he supposed to remember things he said on camera, under oath, during a Royal Commission, a matter of hours earlier?

After all, it's a sad story - he can hardly be expected to be interested.

He also explained that he accompanied Ridsdale to court - but, you see, only in the hopes that it would reduce Ridsdale's prison term. "I had some status as an auxiliary bishop and I was asked to appear with the ambition that this would lessen the term of punishment, lessen his time in jail."

But that was merely a prologue for his blithe admission that sure, a child had indeed gone to Pell and told him that he and other boys were being sexually abused by Brother Edward Dowlan. However, Pell didn't feel this information meant that he was obliged to do anything like "tell the authorities".

As he explained, "The boy wasn't asking me to do anything about it but just lamenting and mentioning."

And Pell did point out that "I eventually inquired with the school chaplain," but it's hard to argue that permitting laments and mentions adequately discharged the church's duty of care. If only the Catholic Church had access to some sort of handbook with useful tips like, say, open your mouth, judge righteously, and defend the rights of the poor and in need.

It'll be interesting to see what Pope Francis does about Pell's incredibly unsatisfactory performance, but reports indicate that Pell still has the Pope's very literal blessing. In any case, Frank's unlikely to be nearly as angry as God.

That's likely to a mighty brutal performance review, George. Don't wear your best frock.

Fight! Fight! Fight!

But back to Canberra, home of other tales of intrigue and edging around the very borders of plausible deniability.

And surely at this point we can openly ask "how long it's going to be before Tony Abbott just straight up stabs Malcolm Turnbull in the throat?"

Sure, challenging the PM to ramp up spending cuts rather than change taxation could have been a show of robust service to the party. Publishing a screed in Quadrant about how easily he'd have won the next election could be shrugged off as delusional face-saving. Doing a speech in Japan about how Australia should be ready to fight China is... OK, that's just weird.

But earlier this week Tony's old uni pal and foreign editor at The Australian, Greg Sheridan, mysteriously got access to classified defence documents confirming that Australia's new submarines will be delayed until the 2030s. And, as luck would have it, Tony was conveniently on hand to explain how "flabbergasted" he is by this decision to weaken our national defence, helpfully adding that he'd have totally had new subs ready by 2026-7.

The government has already called in the Australian Federal Police to investigate, although no-one expects them to actually find anything - not least because it would enormously embarrassing for them to do so.

So now the question is no longer about how much does Abbott want to emulate his unexpected hero Kevin Rudd; it's how much Turnbull wants to avoid emulating Julia Gillard.

Numbers are hard

That wasn't the only embarrassing thing that happened today for the government.

First up, there were reports that the embattled NBN Co has been quietly trialling fibre-to-the-premises broadband technology on the grounds that it's quicker, cheaper, and more reliable than the current strategy of using the existing copper cable network as per the then-Communications Minister-now-PM's plan.

And the idea that the already way-behind-schedule project was adopting a smarter model would be great news, obviously, were it not that this was the one that Turnbull rejected as being uneccessary and wasteful when Labor proposed it ahead of the 2013 election.

So the government must have been delighted when a report by BIS Shrapnel was released that warned that changes to negative gearing would smash the economy, the housing market and the rental market - exactly as the government had been declaring Labor's current suite of proposals would do over the last fortnight.

BIS Shrapnel associate director Kim Hawtrey made clear that the situation modelled in the report wasn't specifically regarding Labor's changes, and neglected to reveal for whom the modelling had been done (beyond that it was a private client), but on Thursday Treasurer Scott Morrison rose to the occasion, declaring the report "an indictment on Labor's policy" and that "What it shows is [Labor] just haven't done their homework on this."

And then, right on cue, the wheels fell off.

Zeros are confusing!

First up, there was an important typo in the report. And not buried deep in the figures either: it was on the very first page.

The report claimed that claimed Australia's national annual income was $190 billion. The actual amount is $1.9 trillion.

Sure, most people could be forgiven for not immediately going "well, that's obviously wrong." One person, however, that should be able to immediately recognise a claim suggesting that the economy was only 10 per cent as large as normal is the actual treasurer of Australia, possibly before going on record praising said report as being meticulous and thorough.

And then there's the actual number-crunching. As the Grattan Institute's chief executive John Daley pointed out, the report is based on certain assumptions regarding rent rises and investor behaviour that are, to be kind, idiosyncratic - sneering that the report "did not pass the giggle test… Voters should be asking themselves whether a responsible government would rely on this sort of nonsense in a public policy debate."

SQM Research also called bullshit, with managing director Louis Christopher also calling the suggestion that rents would shoot up by 10 per cent "hard to believe… We think the opposite would play out [as] there would be a moderate increase in supply."

Reports that Morrison is desperately agitating for all future economic reports to be declared classified on-water matters could not be confirmed by press time.

The cocktail hour: the glories of human ingenuity

Sweden's Martin Molin thought it might be a fun, quick project to build a machine that played music by dumping ball bearings on strings and glockenspiel keys using a hand crank.

It ended up taking 14 months, lots of Technics Lego a lot of hand-crafted wood (there are reportedly 3000+ internal pieces), 2000 balls and… well, the end product is freakin' amazing. And the music is also great!

Pour a cool one, turn up your speakers and marvel to this performance of the Wintergatan Marble Machine. And you were impressed when you made that Ikea bookshelf…

See you back here Sunday, friends, and cheers!








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