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Budget? What budget? Spin rules in the world of politics

Budget? What budget? Spin rules in the world of politics
29 May
2:00

Yes, average earnings are just $61,968. Ordinary full-time total earnings, however, averaged $84,661 with growth of 2.2 percent. The government believes this (fiscal) point, together with growth prospects, is critical. It will switch the deciding voters in critical seats. Forget the unemployed and those just hanging on – they’ll never vote Liberal. Ignore students. Go for aspirational Aussies, on families, on the beloved ‘average Australian’, one partner earning more, the other reaping less. Do the numbers in critical electorates and hope, pray, they’ll stick with the government because they’ll be better off than those around them. Fuel their desire to pull away from the crowd.

Morrison’s tune sounds discordant. That’s because he’s personally spent so much time with the dog-whistlers he doesn’t know how to serenade normal people any more. His music jars. That’s because it’s pitched at a lower, self-interested note. His fiddling, slashing the tax-take and quarantining government give-aways to the richer half of the population lacks an over-arching theme. Morrison doesn’t care. He’s only interested in 51 per cent of the people. In marginal electorates Australia-wide. This budget does it.

Malcolm Turnbull lacks the ability to orchestrate any revival, but Shorten’s consistently proven he can’t pull away either. The government believes that the current gap in the polls (four points) is easily surmountable in a campaign. At least two percent will flip during a strong campaign; another two will baulk at changing government as they stand in the ballot booths with their pencils poised.

And don’t forget, we’ll have Mid Year Economic Fiscal O to demonstrate, however improbably, an even earlier return to surplus than predicted in the budget.

Why? Because the politicians are bequeathing two huge, dodgy legacies to future generations. Neither appear in the Budget papers, but they’ll be critical in shaping our options in the years to come.

First, the biggest fiddle of them all, massive dollops of “off-budget” spending. Projects that will never, ever, return a dollar but sound so good at the time (everything from the National Broadband Network to Melbourne’s Tullamarine Airport Rail-link). Need a political boondoggle to boost the vote in a wobbly electorate? Just create a huge project (think Snowy #2), plonk it somewhere marginal (Eden Monaro), add (borrowed) money, and wait for it to inflate your vote.

Federal budget 2018 - pie in the sky? Illustration: Joe Benke

Federal budget 2018 – pie in the sky? Illustration: Joe Benke

Photo: Joe Benke

Pause a moment and admire our politicians. They’ve taken a foreign idea (it’s worked in Japan for years) and made it our own. You have to respect a performance artist like our PM who can, with a straight face, convince the country that pumping water up-hill will both make money and solve our energy problems.

The second issue is just as significant. Quite legitimate spending decisions with unanticipated consequences. Go to the famous Australian Strategic Policy Institute budget brief. After 17 years of brilliant analysis from Mark Thompson urging the government to spend what it’s promised, Christopher Pyne’s finally laid out a plan to do exactly that. But this year Marcus Hellyer’s compiled a corker of a report, outlining a new problem. The commitment to industry has mutated into a behemoth. Shipbuilding, for example, will consume increasingly large amounts of the equipment budget regardless of the military’s need. We won’t be able to turn it on or off at will. It will lie there, gnawing away at capacity but keeping welders employed turning out a ship every couple of years, need it or not.

Pyne’s obviously aware of this; recent announcements suggest he’s now privileging innovation. The problem is the procurement cycle moves far more slowly than the one driving technological innovation. New missiles and ways of fighting are emerging rapidly and they’ll quickly render current equipment obsolete. Trouble is, the voters don’t understand this. They think ships and armoured vehicles, rolling off old-fashioned assembly lines, will defend the country. The truth is they’ll be outmanoeuvred or destroyed by missiles in the modern world. The critical flexibility and agility the forces need are jettisoned while massive equipment projects are locked-in for decades to come.

Of course, politicians of today don’t need to worry about that – that’s for future generations.

Today, spin rules. Crafting a broad, plausible narrative is less important than telling a personally appealing story about how individual voters will gain from what government’s doing today. Devil take the hindmost.

Nicholas Stuart is a Canberra-based writer

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