Restaurants are crowded, hotels fully booked and security is as tight as the production schedule. Commissionaires wait at the airport, while an army of journalists fly in, having beavered away for months to get the latest scoop a quote from the powerful or, better still, a leak from an un-named source.
You might think that I’m describing the lead up to an Academy Awards night. But this is Canberra, not LA and the crowds have descended on the nation’s capital for the biggest awards night on the political calendar.
This is BUDGET, 2006!
Thanks to Paul Batey.
Although void of golden statues (and glamour), it is still the kind of ceremony that will affect both winners and losers long after the Treasurer finishes his speech. And the decisions made are a fair indication of the Government’s priorities, both economically and politically, with just one more Budget to be delivered before the next federal election.
It’s Tuesday night, 9 May. At 7:30 pm, in the House of Representatives up on Canberra’s Capital Hill, the Treasurer rises to deliver his Budget Speech. For the next hour the spotlight is his alone. It’s not often that a politician other than the Prime Minister has such a captive audience, but then again, Costello’s had one just about all day.
Since lunchtime, Australia’s top political journalists from around the country have been locked-up, isolated from the rest of the world and from any alternative view. And sworn to silence.
Laden with a pile of books and papers on arrival, journalists have likened the experience to a sit-down exam, albeit one where Ministers and officials from Government Departments wander around, helping you navigate through the increasingly complicated presentational fog.
Originally a means to contain market-sensitive information until it was officially released, one old hand from the Canberra Press Gallery, says the Budget ‘lock-up’ has become nothing but a PR exercise, designed to attract voters’ attention by bringing a dash of cloak and dagger excitement to the essentially drab and meticulous task of crunching numbers.
And where information is power, the strategic ‘leaking’ of information by the Government in the lead up to the event has become a standard means of colouring the way the Budget is received by the public. It is this political tool, the Strategic Leak, spurred on by the media’s insatiable appetite for Budget pre-views, which another Press Gallery veteran says the current Government has perfected and made into an art form.
Of course, what a Governments says they have done, and what people think the Government’s have done, are just as important politically and economically as the reality. And that’s where ‘spin,’ as opposed to ‘content,’ comes in.
The sales pitch begins as soon as the Treasurer starts talking his voice escalating steadily, gaining momentum, like the amounts of cash being poured out over voters. Costello’s very pleased this year. The Government has finally paid off the $96 billion of net debt that he likes to remind us was left by the previous Labor Government (the oft-repeated Beazley ‘black hole’). Australia is officially free of Federal government debt and with a cash surplus $10.8 billion for this financial year “ it seems like everyone’s a winner!
Personal income tax cuts go to earners at the higher and lower end of the scale, costing the Government $36.7 billion over the coming four years. The rich will enjoy up to an extra $150 per week (12 times the amount that average earners will get).
The pain of soaring petrol prices just might be eased, for a bit.
Families, the Government’s ‘highest priority,’ are rewarded with increased family payments and more childcare places. A change to the definition of a ‘large family’ from four to three children also means that around 350,000 more families are now eligible for further benefits.
But the big surprise winners this year are seniors, who will enjoy tax-free superannuation.
Four new C17 aircraft will be bestowed upon the armed forces as well as $250 million for Defence Force recruitment. Everyone will reap the benefits of the extra $2.3 billion injected into road and rail infrastructures. And the winner for this year’s ‘Environment Award’ is the $500 million set aside for the Murray-Darling Basin.
And all these cash giveaways despite the Reserve Bank of Australia’s decision last week to up interest rates and cool down the economy? Critics say that the Treasurer could have used the unusually large Budget surplus a bit more wisely for future national economic stability and reform.
But, this Budget, Costello concludes triumphantly is a Budget ‘which will build opportunity for the future.’ (There have been some commentators so cruel as to ask, ‘Opportunity for whom?’ Is Costello totally focussed on the nation’s future, on the benefits of this Budget for all Australians? Or does he know something the rest of don’t? Is there a job vacancy on the horizon?)
With another big surplus forecast for next year’s election Budget, and with an Opposition still in disarray, perhaps the Coalition’s future is looking bright enough.
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