Swan's Rules


Ever since the new Parliament first sat in February, media commentators have been buzzing about Wayne Swan’s performances in the House, sternly warning that Budget night would be a very high bar to leap. Pundits solemnly intoned that the ability of the Treasurer to leave his political opponents dazed and confused was as fundamental as his ability to produce a "beautiful set of numbers".

But could they have overestimated the importance of the Budget as an opening night, and misunderstood the role Swan had been cast to play?

The lack of a "budget bounce" for the Coalition in recent years led to (accurate, I think) commentary that the importance of the budget as a political event had been massively overplayed. This year, everyone knew the tax cuts were coming, making it a much more complex communications event – as Bernard Keane captured well in Crikey yesterday, noting that the pre-Budget leaks were finely targeted to particular publications and demographics (for instance, "soak the rich" luxury car tax stories going to the tabloids, climate change to the Sunday Fairfax papers).

Commentary about whether the Budget will establish or damage the Rudd Government’s "economic management" credentials is a similarly elite preoccupation.

As demonstrated in an analysis of Newspoll on Larvatus Prodeo, that famous phrase is a piece of bad polling anyway – literally asking the wrong question. It’s much more likely that people are waiting around their kitchen tables to see whether Labor will do their utmost to protect them from economic uncertainty, than that there’ll be some sort of collective scoring exercise on what is increasingly a very niche piece of political theatre.

So the media meme about Wayne Swan’s speaking style misses the point (Kevin Rudd’s is no more flashy). The message this Government is trying to communicate is that they are careful, measured guardians of the nation’s future: thinking long term, thinking about fairness, and thinking about all Australians.

The presentation is the politics: all about disabling the political game and leaving the Opposition very little space to operate in, while the Government occupies a space above the fray. Swan and Rudd are speaking way over the heads of the punditariat and the press gallery; targeting Budget messages carefully on one hand, and using the set piece of the budget speech on the other to reach a citizenry who are usually disengaged from the day-to-day noise of the parliamentary and media cut and thrust.

Hence all the reiteration of election promises from Swan last night: first to build trust (and contrast with Howard’s non-core promises) and secondly to announce them once again to people who missed them during the frenzy of the campaign. They’re wrapped up in a narrative of Labor’s choosing now, designed to put to rest any lingering suspicions of "me-too-ism". The Libs, meanwhile, have become the background noise.

If you were expecting a Keating-esque or Costello-ish performance, you’ve missed the change to the rules of the game. Only political junkies assess the Budget as a of piece political theatre. For most people, the Budget just isn’t the decisive political moment the press gallery thinks it is. Swan and Rudd are putting much more effort into swaying the electorate than wowing political commentators (the market wonks are another matter, of course).

Swan’s speech showed an attempt to build upon what Labor’s research told it during last year’s campaign – people don’t expect the government to solve all their problems, and they recognise that many of the global financial winds are outside any government’s control.

The choice of the word "help" is very important here. It’s about protecting Australians and assisting them – and investing for the future – not about declaring that all problems can be solved by fiscal fiat. It’s also about being the anti-Howard; planning for the future, not election winning handouts. Will the media be able to understand that this supersedes the "winners and losers" paradigm?

Because another element of Swan’s "shared sacrifice" rhetoric – and all the comments about "fairness" – is about flicking the switch to a more collective and less individual conception of our national destiny. The ALP is trying to wean people off the entitlement mentality Howard built up, and to think in broader terms about challenges the country faces, and how wealth and risk are distributed.

In that sense, it really is a "good Labor budget".

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.