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Hillary has her very own special take on the budget this year and she’s pretty damn gloomy about it all.

Over the past few weeks a new phone system has been installed – and MPs and their staff returned to Canberra on Monday to face a steep learning curve.

“They look as if you could launch a first strike from them, but try transferring a call,” complained one poor backbench minion after three attempts to put Hillary through.

MPs and staffers are finding it quicker to walk from office to office, rather than going through prolonged bouts of trial and error with the new equipment

And how is our famously future friendly PM adapting? Well, he has the tin cans, apparently – but Hillary hears he’s finding it very hard to get a piece of string long enough to stretch from Parliament House to the Rodent’s Nest on Phillip Street, Sydney.

First things first

Stuff the Budget – there are more important thing on. Invites to the Press Gallery Mid-Winter Ball are arriving in the in-trays.

This year’s special guest will be Marcia Hines, but it doesn’t say if Hindy the Milk-Fed Heifer will be reprising his paparazzi act.

Curiously, the invites list Impulse as one of the sponsors. Hillary supposes it could have been HIH.

Peter’s Pork

Back towards the end of 1999, the Treasurer told the Fin that he only had a couple of Budgets left in him. Today, we should be asking if he’ll actually be in for another Budget.

The polls aren’t looking bright. John Howard didn’t offer any vision for the future during the Federation week. A certain memo demonstrated Sharon Stone’s political nous (after all, we should remember that this was the bloke who managed to stuff up the statehood for the Territory referendum – bonk in a brothel stuff). But Coz has gone fighting on.

Sunday’s performance with the Sphere of Influence was a remarkable job. In case you missed it, have a read:

SPHERE: Do you see it setting out some sort of third term agenda for the government?

COZ: Well I think so. I think it’s important that we as a government start building down the markers for where we want to go.

Laurie, there’s still more work to be done in Australia. Anybody who thinks that the work is over, and this is the sort of …the Labor Party line. Well, okay they got rid our debt, they balanced the budget, they’ve reformed the tax system and now, we, the Labor Party, all we’ve got to do is try and inherit the benefits of that.

I say the work is not over. There’s still so much more to be done. We’ve got to improve our welfare system. We’ve got to make sure that we heighten the ability of those that are out of work to get back into the work system. We’ve got to make sure that we keep reducing our taxes so that Australia becomes competitive in a business environment. We’ve got to lock in those low interest rates. The work is not finished.

We’ve come a long way, but there’s so much more work to be done and we want to lay down some of the directions that we can take the country in that third term.

SPHERE: Actually the reason I asked the question, you’d be aware, is that the Prime Minister’s been criticised for not laying down a third term agenda. You’ve just now started to do it. Can you see how that will be seen outside?

COZ: Well, I think it will be seen in the context of a government which has come many yards, but is not anywhere near the finish line.

SPHERE: What about in the leadership context?

COZ: Well, that’s the way I put it. We’re not at the finish line. Look, if we’re at the finish line, you know, the tendency of the public would be to say well, look, they’ve done the yards, you know, even the Labor Party can’t muck it up now. Look, we’ve made progress but we are not at the finish line. There’s still so much more to be done.

Ends

We hadn’t seen the Government in a mood like that all year. It had been concession, concession, concession, reaction, reaction, reaction. Sunday was the first sign of fight.

Cozzie tried – but tonight shows just what a desperate struggle the Government faces. There’s very, very little in the way of “third term agenda” in the Budget. It’s combat – hand to hand and ’till the death. It’s a last chance grasp for votes – whether it’s via funds for the Scoresby Freeway or the entirely gratuitous $300 tip to OAPs.

Times are tight. GST revenue – amazingly – has come in below estimates, although other tax revenues are higher. Hillary hasn’t dared delve into the depths of the Budget Papers to see where the surplus comes from, but it’s touching that there are Harry Potter fans in Treasury, anyway.

So, what’s in it? The 2001-02 Budget could be called “Save the Heartland”. It’s largely made up of concessions to small business, self funded retirees and pensioners (with a special Cash for Changai concession) – give aways made at the expense of any real reform that are pure electoral bribes.

The rethinking of welfare promised last year looks like a stunt staged to make Jocelyn Newman go quietly. Mutual obligation hasn’t yet been extended to the dead – despite their potential as compost – but that’s about it. Then again, with Ministers like the Monk – who can’t think far beyond the days of glory for the red bits on the map in the days of the Queen-Empress – and the Bulk – who has already made a comprehensive hash of reform in two portfolios – what did you expect?

Shadow Treasurer Whiney Simey talks about blowing the surplus – but after Fart Boy Slim’s record in the finance portfolio under PJK, Britney Spears’ analysis and fiscal plan would carry more weight than Labor’s.

And, finally, switch to low-fat milk. Mike Wooldridge – no doubt after a good session in his cellar – has decided it makes more sense to treat you when you’ve had a heart attack rather than before. And to think that some doctors say red wine is good for you. In this case, it’s clearly caused a few very senior synapses to fuse.

So, Hillary’s final verdict? If the bottom line is what the Government says it is, then Fart Boy Slim has no hope of ever funding “rollback” – whatever the f*ck that means, even if he decides it only consists of abolishing the GST on fruit-flavour Lifesavers.

And for the Government? Well, John, if you wanted to lead us on your great tax adventure – and it was your tax adventure – why didn’t you tell us to bring pest repellent and long sleeve shirts first. Sitting in the swamp getting bitten by the mozzies ain’t that much fun.

And being told that the mud is just about to dry doesn’t reassure anyone – unless you’re an eternal optimist.

Hillary Bray can be contacted at [email protected]

Peter Fray

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