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Keane: government makes a mess of its pre-budget message

The Commission of Audit release won’t make it any easier for a government struggling to keep control of its budget messages. Crikey’s political editor delivers his verdict.

The Commission of Audit is not a report by the federal government but a report to the federal government. Just wanted to get that out there, because that point doesn’t appear to have been made at any time in recent weeks or in the last 24 hours.

The last government to try to release a major fiscal review in the lead-up to a budget was Kevin Rudd’s in 2010. That didn’t go well. “Didn’t go well” in the sense that, by the time the smoke cleared, Rudd’s party had removed him and a desperate deal with the mining industry had to be stitched up. Labor just managed to win another term in government, but they were crippled. So, in terms of how not to release a report, that one is pretty much the ne plus ultra.

Treasurer Joe Hockey and Finance Minister Mathias Cormann have, wisely, opted not to respond to the Commission of Audit, at least until the budget the week after next. But that’s wise only in the sense that they’ll avoid the kind of debacle we saw in 2010. Whether it’s wise in the normal sense of the word is less clear. Bit by bit, speech by speech, headline by headline, the government has lost control of the pre-budget period. It’s been a remarkable unforced error: the weeks in the lead-up to a budget, even a horror budget, are supposed to be a period in which expectations are shaped, nasties anticipated and, if necessary, some kites flown to see what the punters and key stakeholders think. It’s all in the control of the government.

This time around, we had an abortive debate on the pension age and indexation, before the government pulled back out of concern at the reaction. Then the debt levy broke. News Corporation journalists say it was a genuine scoop by Samantha Maiden, and not a drop, and there’s no reason to disbelieve them — to incense even the Coalition’s diehard media cheerleaders, let alone voters who heard Tony Abbott ad nauseum declare that he wouldn’t be raising taxes and he wouldn’t be breaking his promises, is just dumb.

Now the Commission of Audit has unveiled a big new suite of nasties to offend pretty much everyone, even if the bulk of its targets are those least able to defend themselves. The only positive for the government has been that it has offended so many people; ending bulk-billing via GP co-payments has attracted far less outrage than would’ve been expected if it had been announced in a vacuum.

Part of the government’s problems centre on the Treasurer, who was out today confirming that the pension age would be rising to 70 in the 2030s (essentially sound policy, if handled correctly). Hockey genuinely likes to start debates over public policy. He did it on banking regulation while in opposition. He did it on taxation of trusts in opposition, which led to him getting beaten up by the Nationals. He incurred considerable mockery in the 2009 leadership contest by publicly asking for views on climate change. He proposed a public debate about a renewed government role in Qantas last year. This is entirely commendable — one of Hockey’s best features is that, unusually for a politician, he appears to be genuinely receptive to new ideas.

This was never going to be an easy first budget, but the government has seemed determined to make it much more difficult for itself.”

But politically it has repeatedly proved problematic, with opponents and the media taking the opportunity not to debate issues but mock Hockey or run scare campaigns.

And external circumstances haven’t favoured the government. It’s harder to explain to the electorate that it’s going to have to make sacrifices when senior figures of the home party branch of the Prime Minister and Treasurer are embroiled in corruption scandals.

But those explanations only get us so far. There is something genuinely off-key about this government. The new year was supposed to bring an end to the stumbles that marked its first few months and wiped out its polling honeymoon. All governments take time to settle in, so some early mistakes were understandable. But the mess the government has made of the budget suggests both a lack of a core message and of a strategy to sell that message, making it prone to wandering off course. Abbott’s speech early this week, in which he promised tax cuts in the future while talking about how everyone needed to sacrifice now, was emblematic of the extraordinarily mixed signals the government has been sending.

The logic behind the timing of the Commission of Audit is supposed to be that, by revealing what real cuts look like to voters ahead of the budget, they’ll be suitably grateful when budget night reveals much less pain, while the government has managed to shift the ideological frame for economic debate, and debate about the size of government, to the Right. But that looks like a strategy for 1996, when a Commission of Audit would be explained to voters through the press gallery and economic commentators.

For the last 24 hours, the Commission of Audit has been ripped apart on social media, with its errors, extreme recommendations and list of targets taken out of context and circulated as evidence of a depraved agenda of inflicting misery on the lowest in the community. And much more of the mainstream media is now occupied with commentary, and little of that commentary has been kind to chief auditor Tony Shepherd and his cronies, even from the Right.

The risk is thus: the Commission of Audit gets savaged by all and sundry for 10 days, before the budget marks the end of whatever “debate” we’re supposed to be having on its philosophy and recommendations (including some of its very good ones) because the government is unable to control its message.

This was never going to be an easy first budget, but the government has seemed determined to make it much more difficult for itself.

20
  • 1
    klewso
    Posted Friday, 2 May 2014 at 1:14 pm | Permalink

    An ill-disciplined party led by an undisciplined leader.

  • 2
    zut alors
    Posted Friday, 2 May 2014 at 1:48 pm | Permalink

    None of this insufferable nonsense would be under discussion if Rudd’s RSPT had been allowed to proceed.

    Note that no big miners or multinationals (eg: Apple, Starbucks etc ) were injured in the production of this Audit.

  • 3
    JohnB
    Posted Friday, 2 May 2014 at 1:56 pm | Permalink

    Bernard, this report was neither BY or TO the federal government, as stated in your first line.

    The report was produced FOR the government by a hand-picked team of partisans who were coached from the sidelines BY the government.

  • 4
    Mark Duffett
    Posted Friday, 2 May 2014 at 2:16 pm | Permalink

    For the last 24 hours, the Commission of Audit has been ripped apart on social media

    I’m no stranger to social media, but this was news to me. I still wonder how much difference this sort of thing really makes outside the echo chambers of the usual suspects.

  • 5
    Chris Hartwell
    Posted Friday, 2 May 2014 at 2:27 pm | Permalink

    Your average social-mediarite was simply shocked pensioners were targetted. Even dyed-in-the-wool LNP voters like some of my family. Some conceded they might have chosen poorly last September.

  • 6
    MJPC
    Posted Friday, 2 May 2014 at 2:44 pm | Permalink

    Once again the LNP have got some of their cronies to carve up the proletariat without hitting the big end of town and this, I consider, will evolve as the major issue with it over the next 11 days.
    What’s missing from the CoA is when the entitlement of big business (particularly mining/energy) is going to be curbed. Nothing about cutting subsidies, or other largesse they receive.
    As for the discussion about the levy…tax…levy, who is Uncle Joe trying to kid? Levied for income of +$100,000, the only ones paying it will be PAYE taxpayers. Those higher up the totem pole will have their trusts, company right-offs and other tax minimisations to ensure the levy is just something paid by those further down the rungs. That’s why there has not been too much squelling from the big end of town (apart from Jerry Harvey, worried the proletariat will not be able to afford their next ipad), they know Joe’s rhetoric is for general consumption, and not for them.

  • 7
    CML
    Posted Friday, 2 May 2014 at 4:09 pm | Permalink

    Bernard - Of course Hockey is “genuinely receptive to new ideas”. He doesn’t have any of his own!
    He also comes across to me as the least able treasurer in living memory. Most of my economist friends think Hockey is some kind of joke, especially if he believes any of the nonsense he sprouts ad nauseum.
    As for the CoA - what a bunch of wank+rs! In the area I know best - Health - they have no idea what they are talking about. As was said yesterday by both the Opposition and the Greens, implementation of ANY commission suggestions in this area would begin the process of dismantling Medicare. And as everybody should know, that is a recipe for disaster in both healthcare outcomes and economic efficiency.
    A far better way to go is to increase the Medicare Levy, permanently, by whatever amount is necessary to get rid of these ridiculous co-payment ‘thought bubbles’. It is looking likely that the co-payment will become a reality which will overwhelmingly affect the poor and disadvantaged, and end up costing a whole lot more in neglected early diagnosis and treatment of illness.
    There will be many, many people who are not able to afford said co-payment, won’t make the necessary visit to the GP, leading to much more costly treatment of entrenched or chronic conditions.
    So, the proposals on health issues in the CoA don’t even make sense from any point of view.

  • 8
    Blair Martin
    Posted Friday, 2 May 2014 at 4:51 pm | Permalink

    One term governments will be all the rage! Victoria, Qld, NSW and then finally Abbott.

    Thank you, LNP imbeciles for making it some much easier to have you wiped out for a decade or more.

  • 9
    Rod
    Posted Friday, 2 May 2014 at 5:12 pm | Permalink

    I thought the LNP were simply nasty ideologues with no vision or ideas. Now we can safely add stupid. Sarah Palin would be right at home - perhaps she is working for them on a 467. It is government of the privileged and wealthy corporations. Ignoring tax rorts says it all.

  • 10
    AR
    Posted Friday, 2 May 2014 at 5:19 pm | Permalink

    As with krudd’s 20/20 farrago - I am happy to see all ideas on display, let a thousand flowers bloom, let a hundred schools of thought contend. At least that way we can see the enemy clearly.

  • 11
    Jaybuoy
    Posted Friday, 2 May 2014 at 5:58 pm | Permalink

    Fantastic opposition.. lets put them back where they belong..

  • 12
    Popeye
    Posted Friday, 2 May 2014 at 6:13 pm | Permalink

    Bit by bit, speech by speech, headline by headline, the government has lost control of the pre-budget period. It’s been a remarkable unforced error’. Bernard sounds surprised; I’m not. Just another stuff-up from this incompetent gang of ideologues.

  • 13
    Brian Melbourne
    Posted Friday, 2 May 2014 at 6:13 pm | Permalink

    I don’t see how limiting the age pension to 70+ is such a good idea. Surely a better response is to have stricter means testing - particularly before 70.

  • 14
    Saugoof
    Posted Friday, 2 May 2014 at 6:18 pm | Permalink

    I’ve thought it when they were in opposition and what they’ve done since getting into government has only confirmed my opinion. It was never about achieving things in government, the end-goal was only ever to get into government. All their actions have been coloured much more by a hatred of all things Labor/Greens than about their own ideals.

  • 15
    Saugoof
    Posted Friday, 2 May 2014 at 6:26 pm | Permalink

    Popeye #12 - I am actually surprised by that misstep too. They may be ideologues but, with generous help from large chunks of the media, they have been exceptionally good about controlling the debate ever since about mid-way through Howard’s first term in the late 90’s. The Liberal party has been controlling the debate on practically everything since then. They’ve controlled what the issues were and how these were seen. The only exceptions I can think of are Work Choices, the ‘sorry’ apology to indigenous Australians and, for a while, signing up to Kyoto. Every other debate has been held on the Liberal’s terms.

  • 16
    JohnB
    Posted Saturday, 3 May 2014 at 8:05 am | Permalink

    Watch Murdoch’s paid, bought and sold staff abandon Abbott as the next federal election approaches.

    Rupert is not going to pick and stick - he has consistently backed the team he believed will be victorious, so that he can claim to be the king-maker. Next federal election, it is entirely possible that he will reject the team built around a core with Catholic, especially Jesuit, extreme Right, antiscience faith-based backgrounds. This core includes Tony Abbott and Mattias Cormann.

  • 17
    klewso
    Posted Saturday, 3 May 2014 at 9:06 am | Permalink

    Things must be bad when the government can’t afford anything better than a cyborg to “sell it’s shit”?

    And as for the end to this, Joe Shonkey’s, “Age of Entitlement”?
    I could happily both work ‘til I was 70, and pay tax on $200,000 a year to open doors and “look after the lobby(?)” if there were more of those jobs Arfur Sinodinos - even with his Swiss-cheese memory and all - parachuted into?
    And to think he was hand-picked by Toady to be paid to “oversee” our super industry, if ICAC reality hadn’t intervened?

  • 18
    Andybob
    Posted Sunday, 4 May 2014 at 3:09 pm | Permalink

    I can just see them reluctantly abandoning the deficit levy, ruling out a change in the diesel rebate and abandoning the parental leave scheme due to ‘public opinion’. The cuts to services though, they’ll stay.

  • 19
    Tyger Tyger
    Posted Monday, 5 May 2014 at 11:57 pm | Permalink

    Saugoof @15: +1. The ALP has proved pretty hopeless in the area of selling policy in recent years, not helped of course by an increasingly right-wing media looking to demonise it and trip it up at every opportunity while at the same time convincing average punters their interests are the same as those of the super-rich. But Labor is its own worst enemy too, with its focus-group and image-massaging obsessions. The most cut-through Gillard ever got was on the precious few occasions she dropped the thoroughly reasonable facade, got angry and just let rip at the bullshit - the misogyny speech being the classic example.
    The problem is Labor is also obsessed with keeping business and the rich onside and can’t bring itself to say that redistributing wealth - which, let’s face it, is what it comes down to - means the rich can’t have it all. Why can’t supposedly “progressive” politicians simply state the facts about the growing wealth divide, challenge the discredited notion that untrammelled wealth creation in an unregulated market “trickles down” and benefits all, and that they intend to do something about it if elected? Worried about upsetting their donors, perhaps? Whatever the case, it makes for a pretty hard sell.

  • 20
    Tyger Tyger
    Posted Tuesday, 6 May 2014 at 12:06 am | Permalink

    The Commission of Audit is not a report by the federal government but a report to the federal government.”

    Bit of a Sir Humphrey distinction that, BK. The government appointed the members to the Commission and set the terms. We’re all grown up enough to know what that means.

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