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OP-ED | 10-02-2024 06:47

Who crashed the omnibus?

The government must be considered the chief architect of the self-destruction of its megalomaniac omnibus bill.

The title of the novel L’étranger, which earned Albert Camus his Nobel Prize for Literature, has variously been translated into English as “The Outsider” and “The Foreigner” and there has been something of both about President Javier Milei in the past week. When he won last November’s run-off, this space ventured that perhaps the biggest challenge facing him was the outsider now having to move inside – in this week there is also something foreign about this devotee of Austrian economic theory choosing to spend the crucial day for the second reading of his omnibus reform bill at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, ignorant of the insular workings of local politics and ultimately indifferent.

Tuesday’s interruption of the omnibus bill, returning it to the committee stage which it should never have left before evolving into realistic legislation, was presented in many media as a defeat but it was more a case of the small boy picking up his marbles and going home. The possibility of translating the first reading of the previous Friday (approved by a 144-109 vote) into a second reading remained open but the libertarian government had evidently wearied of any further concessions with an emasculated bill already stripped of its core fiscal chapter and the remaining cash cows such as privatisations and trust funds risking extreme dilution if surviving at all – not to mention the even more uphill battle ahead in the Senate where the Kirchnerite caucus would only need the four fickle provincial votes to ensure total rejection. In short, the fate of the omnibus bill could almost be termed an abortion, an issue which the government now seems to feel more suitable for Congress.

If not quite snatching defeat out of the jaws of victory, the government must be considered the chief architect of the self-destruction of this always megalomaniac bill without monopolising the blame. The deputies as a whole were no better than the libertarian parliamentarians in failing to grasp the immense complexities involved with superficial, improvised, self-indulgent and often vulgar speeches skipping any substance to feed debate or any respect for parliamentary protocol in favour of posturing for the social networks or local sponsors. Finger-pointing got Argentina part of the way into this mess and it won’t lead the country out of it. The provincial governors do not deserve to be called “traitors” by Milei for not falling in line with his run-off mandate since all of them were also elected (some with bigger majorities than Milei, we could note) but they have entirely failed to produce a constructive alternative from their fragmented universe – which can be simplified into a quarter Peronist, less than a quarter Radical, two PRO and almost a half entirely their own men (not politically correct language these days but the fact remains that today’s Argentina has no female governors). Their chief bargaining-chip in negotiations of approval in exchange for federal revenue-sharing for the PAIS tax was completely brainless – the latter is a transitory levy which will disappear with the capital controls whose elimination is a precondition for a return to monetary sanity (whereas federal revenue-sharing would make PAIS permanent, since the governors would never let it go).

Ruby Tuesday is a setback leaving various options which could even include persistence with the omnibus bill were it not for President Milei’s quaint mentality. A parliamentary path could still lie ahead in dividing this over-ambitious whole into its parts, many of them promising much easier approval than others – a piecemeal approach with far more advance work than was evident last Tuesday could still yield several successes, all of them marking progress in the drive towards deregulation. Or, as seems highly likely, a Milei entering office as a transformational outsider could emulate his predecessors of the last four decades in ruling by decree, a tradition predating Kirchnerism. His omnibus bill may have run aground but the accompanying decree is intact – yet to be rejected by a bicameral commission yet to be formed. The other option already being hinted at is to call a plebiscite, trusting in that November mandate – an extremely risky move in months of steep recession and runaway inflation fed by devaluation and lifting price controls but we will reserve further comment until a decision is confirmed.

Milei will be meeting the Pope on Monday. When they conversed following last November’s run-off victory, Francis recommended courage and wisdom, to which Milei replied: “I already have the guts and I’m working on the wisdom.” It would be positive if Milei could now answer the two standard requirements of foreign investors by saying: “I already have the pro-market policies and I’m working on the institutional respect.”

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