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Welcome to the Oligarchs Project

Promo Photo2I am a UNSW academic and author of the best selling Cambridge University Press book ‘How to Argue with an Economist: Re-opening political debate in Australia”.

I am doing a research project into the power of big business in Australian politics. The project has been crystallising my thoughts about what a post-neoliberal economics might look like. I will be using this blog to share my findings and thoughts as they unfold.

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Turnbull’s Budget Test: Will He Reign In the Big End of Town

The key test of this budget for the Turnbull government is whether or not they have managed to tame big business. The strength of the big business lobby politically knobbled the Liberals in their first term and pulling them into line is essential for the government to be viable.

For all the noise about the ideological differences between Abbott and Turnbull both were brought undone by the same forces in their first three years.  The backroom power of big business left them looking like bully boys for the big end of town, despite clear indications it was neither man’s personal inclination.

Prior to becoming Prime Minister Abbott was known as a big government conservative whose track record was to be economically interventionist and socially conservative. He was the man who tried to talk John Howard down on Workchoices because it would be seen as unfair. The disasterous 2014 budget with its reverse robinhood reputation was deeply at odds with everything we knew about his values.

Similarly Turnbull came to power acutely aware of the problems of that budget and arguing that it was crucial government policy was seen to be fair going forward. Despite his clear diagnosis of the problem every economic proposal he put up that required the big end of town taking it share of the pain was stymied.

For all their differences, both men are struggling with the same demon. It is the power behind the throne that seems hell bent on driving them to electoral oblivion.

This is the real problem that is making the Turnbull government a drifter.

Turnbull came to power hoping to centre his government on the economic reform agenda, and sidestep the divides between liberals and conservatives on social issues. But the difficulties in taming the backroom power of business has left him with now where to go.

Addressing the budget deficit and economic reform should be at the heart of the former business man’s political narrative. But unable to come up with a politically palateable agenda that secures backroom support he has been reduced to sabre rattling on 457 Visas and Australian values.

The real bar for tonight’s budget is whether there are any signs he has reigned in big business influence.