Wayne's wake-up call


Having a Budget lockup is more of a convention these days rather than a necessity. Last week’s Budget was the first for years that was market sensitive, but increasingly it’s all about making sure nothing upstages the Treasurer (whoever it might be) on his big day. After all it’s not very often that a politician gets to have half an hour of prime time television to himself.

To that end, we journos are locked away not only from our outside sources of communication, so we can’t report anything thus pre-empting the Budget speech, but we’re locked away from the Opposition, and more importantly their advisers. These hardworking and underpaid advisers spend their working lives studying the matters within their portfolios and they are a valuable source of information about the intricacies of various issues of which most of us only have a superficial knowledge.

Thanks to scratch

Thanks to scratch

Last year, the Opposition was in the same area as the media and they were able to get a few messages out of their own lock-up to a chosen few. This year, the Government made sure the Opposition was as far away as possible from the journalists amassed in the House of Representative committee rooms. Wayne Swan et al were housed in the Senate side of the House – same side as Press Gallery – knowing full well that the corridors would be pretty much deserted as the residents would be otherwise occupied.

All this means is that flows of negative counter-information are delayed by a few hours, at most, nothing more. By all accounts they really needn’t have bothered because for most of the afternoon we probably wouldn’t have got much sense out of the Opposition anyway.

The atmosphere in the room was grim. Even though the Opposition knew there was to be an enormous surplus it was the size and the targeting of Costello’s tax cuts that caught them unawares over and above everything else. The Opposition had their key economic decision makers in the room: the Leadership group, Jenny Macklin, Chris Evans and Stephen Conroy as well as Wayne Swan, Stephen Smith, Joel Fitzgibbon, Nick Sherry, Penny Wong and the only economist in the caucus, Craig Emerson.

Once the Opposition acknowledged the problem they faced, it was supposedly Fitzgibbon not Swan who voiced what most in the room were thinking – Labor should oppose the tax cuts. No one dissented – the problem was how were they going to handle it.

Last year under Latham, the Opposition condemned the tax cuts announced in last year’s Budget but nonetheless they allowed the legislation to pass. The tax cuts were due to come into force on July 1 but by adding this latest round to the same bill, Labor is now forced to block everything. A very tough sell indeed.

Costello couldn’t believe his luck as he watched Wayne Swan’s scratchy post-budget performance on the 7.30 Report from the ABC’s control room in Parliament House, last Tuesday night. A noticeably nervous and dry-mouthed Swan told an incredulous Kerry O’Brien that yes indeed Labor would fight the tax cuts.

As Costello exited the ABC to start his round of interviews he practically shouted down the Press Gallery corridor (Costello talks very loudly when he wants to be noticed or when he’s playing for the cameras) that Swan just ‘didn’t get it’. For Swan’s part, as he too embarked on his own busy schedule of post Budget interviews, he knew it was going to be a tough night as he tried vainly to push the line that Costello’s tenth budget was an ‘irresponsible document’. Mean yes, unfair possibly, irresponsible, at least fiscally, no.

There’s been much focus on Kim Beazley’s performance post Budget and other than the incessant bleating about how tough he now is and that he’s not frightened of making the tough decisions (I’m sure I’ve heard some else say that before!), on the whole I reckon the Big Fella hasn’t done too badly. Apparently he is still incapable of making any decision without asking half of caucus, but the Right of Reply speech the Leadership team prepared for him went a long way to restoring some of Labor’s standing.

However, Wayne Swan on the other hand has been very busy trying to convince colleagues and the media that he fully understands his brief. Pre and post Budget Swan has relied heavily on others, advisers and members alike, admitting that he is having trouble grasping some of the Budget’s complexities. To be fair it was Swan’s first Budget, and he is under resourced, but politics is not just about policy, it’s also about opportunity and the Labor Treasurer is caught in a proverbial rip and is in danger of being swept out to sea.

By Wednesday morning Swan was well and truly spooked. A couple of Labor frontbenchers – not Swan – suggested the Opposition challenge the Government to split the tax bill allowing the July 1 cuts to begin. Yet Beazley would have none of it. In the Question Time strategy meeting he supposedly flicked questions to his Leader wherever possible not wishing to engage Peter Costello – Swan did not ask one question of the Treasurer on Wednesday or Thursday something that did not go unnoticed. Swan’s defence was he wanted the ‘organ grinder’- read Howard – but many, including most on the backbenches remain unconvinced. Also, incredibly, Swan is the first Shadow Treasurer since 1996 not to take the Matters of Public Importance debate (MPI) the day after the Budget.

The MPI is an often-used tool to attack the Government – it’s a twenty minute gift to get stuck into a Minister about the pressing issue of the day. Mark Latham and Julia Gillard have turned the use of MPIs into an art form. Swan was nowhere to be seen; instead it was left to Fitzgibbon, keenly watched by Beazley, to deliver the Opposition’s immediate response to the House. Swan apparently had media commitments – pathetic.

The Gallery thought it was a story but the Opposition did it’s best to kill it and largely succeeded. But the media’s first instinct was right – it is a story. Swan has struggled and caucus is talking about it, mainly because many are surprised at his mediocre performances. Beazely staved off any sustained critique with his speech on Thursday night; and the Government’s Tasmanian forest package on Friday was also a welcome distraction (what is Paul Lennon like poncing about the Styx with the PM – but we’ll leave that for another time). Ever the media tart, Swan, was also absent from the four Sunday current affairs shows, also interesting – yet I suspect he wasn’t asked.

Perhaps things may have been different if Swan had a strong Shadow Finance Minister to help take up the attack, but Nick Sherry has been an utter waste of space since Latham conceded the position as factional pay-off. Fitzgibbon has done well with his attempts to neutralise some of the tax cut propaganda through some detailed electorate research that was handed out to News Limited’s Glenn Milne, but the main burden to take the fight to the Government falls to the Shadow Treasurer and to my surprise, Wayne Swan has been found wanting.

Swan has worked hard to woo the business community, endlessly seeking meetings and spending a lot of time in Sydney and Melbourne but they would have found nothing particularly assuring about his performances this past week. As far as the Press Gallery hacks are concerned, although they are lambasted by their critics as being insular and self-perpetuating, many of them have finely tuned antennas that can detect any weakness and they’ll be stalking Swan when he fronts for his appearance at National Press Club today where he will defend Labor’s rationale for blocking the tax cuts and expand on the notion of fairness in society.

There’s no doubt that Swan’s being scrutinised carefully by at least four people who would dearly love his job, Lindsay Tanner, Craig Emerson, Bob McMullan and by his one of his best mates, his ‘Glamour Twin’ Stephen Smith. At this point, the best advice I could offer Wayne Swan is watch your back.

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.