In hunter-gatherer societies, tribes are held together by the notion that every aspect of life is interconnected. Kinship relationships are expressed in terms of eating taboos which are expressed in terms of wars between the gods of the Sun and Moon and so on and so on. The sense that everything is interconnected is what makes it possible for people’s lives to have meaning, to feel part of something real and ordained, rather than random and fleeting.

One of the most important groups of people in this whole business are the shaman — priests, witchdoctors, what have you — who tell the mythical stories of how all the world came to be the way it is, of how the different categories of life and the tribe’s values emerged. For decades, anthropologists have reflected on the degree to which such figures have any sort of abstract idea what they are doing. Do they fully believe the myths they speak, the incredible, endless stories of magical animals, gods, spells, etc? Or do they, at some level, have an idea that someone has to keep the show on the road, just keep the story going? And how much of it is to retain their power, the banquets, the sacrifices and the virgins they command from the rest of the tribe?

So it is that every year, our shaman gather in Canberra. Like priests before a ritual they are sealed off from the profane world in a special retreat (‘the lock-up’) and bonded together in a sacred pact, which sets them off as a distinct group against the rest of their people. Soothsayers of old would cut open a bird and examine its entrails to predict the future; ours dig deep into the guts of a ceremonial offering (‘the papers’) to see if they can’t find some morsel, some giblet that all the others have missed. This, they say, this tells us how the future will be.

And so we get it all — the endless supplements, the poring over every detail, the desperate head-scratching about what Pavlov-like effect this tax cut or that grant will have on the public, as the Government seeks not just salvation but salivation.

Does it make a bit of difference? Well, we just don’t bloody know. Let’s look at the two-party preferred Newspoll from Budget time 2004:

DateLibsALP

Newspoll 5-7 December 2003#

51

49

Newspoll 12-14 December 2003#

51

49

Newspoll 16-18 January 2004

50

50

Newspoll 6-8 February 2004

47

53

Newspoll 20-22 February 2004

50

50

Newspoll 5-7 March 2004

45

55

Newspoll 19-21 March 2004

45

55

Newspoll 2-4 April 2004

47

53

Newspoll 16-18 April 2004

47

53

Newspoll 30 Apr – 2 May 2004

48

52

Newspoll 14-16 May 2004

46

54

Newspoll 28-30 May 2004

53

47

Newspoll 18-20 June 2004

48

52

Newspoll 2-4 July 2004

49

51

Newspoll 16-18 July 2004

49

51

Newspoll 30 Jul – 1 Aug 2004

50

50

Newspoll 13-15 August 2004

46

54

Newspoll 27-29 August 2004

48

52

Newspoll 3-5 September 2004

50

50

Newspoll 10-12 September 2004

50

50

Newspoll 17-19 September 2004

47.5

52.5

Newspoll 24-26 September 2004

48

52

Newspoll 1-3 October 2004

50.5

49.5

Newspoll 6-7 October 2004

50

50

The budget was unveiled on 10 May, and the poll immediately after it showed virtually no difference (within a 3% error margin). In the next poll, the numbers had shifted dramatically, but the news stories of the time indicate that the main worry was Latham’s off-the-cuff policy-making on Iraq, playing into the sense that he was an erratic leader. In any case, a fortnight later the Coalition lead was quickly reversed again, and Latham’s slow decline — from questions of leadership, illness etc — began.

Does anything anyone says about the Budget have any truth value whatsoever — or is it the shamanic magic of a punditocracy who need to enforce the idea that Australians vote by reflex, simply because the style of political journalism that has developed in Australia — more than anywhere in the Western world — has focused on deals, factions, intrigues, bribes, etc, rather than beliefs, ideologies, social formations? Of course, there are years when a budget can gain significant votes — but what is rarely discussed is whether any given year is one of those, or whether something else is at play.

The golden years of budget politics were 1976 to 2000 — after the Gorton/Whitlam social liberalisation was largely completed, and before 9/11 reminded the West that history hadn’t ended for them after all. Yet even in this period, Paul Keating was capable of getting Labor re-elected in bad years by convincing people that the pain they were suffering was a measure of gain, by reference to j-curves, terms of trade etc and other things that most people had never hitherto considered.

Whether that was science or shamanism depends on your politics, but what is certain is you can’t pull that trick now. People are considering much more when they vote, and the most remarkable thing has been not merely the premium placed on leadership, but the return of a measure of belief, as evidenced by the fairly immovable hostility to WorkChoices, and the imperative of addressing climate change. Indeed what may happen this year is the one thing that causes the pundits’ brains to splutter and fizz –people may vote against immediate tax cut gains because they want to choose a certain way of doing things which they believe to be fairer, and which might benefit their great-grandchildren. And if that is hard to process, then the David Hicks factor is off the radar — like asking dogs to evaluate art by woofing. That the Kafkaesque tale of a purported public enemy could turn people against the Government is only unexpected if you’ve worn the cynic’s mask for so long that it’s eaten out your face.

Tax brackets, solar panel grants, a bit more for climate change — maybe it’ll kern the Government’s numbers 2 or 3 points for a while. But really, the huge Budget supplements amount to wanton arboricide for the sake of keeping the shamanic show on the road. But admitting that there is no way of knowing what effect such measures have, isn’t a lot to wrap around the advertising. It’s been the very success of Rudd which indicates that the old dogs will need to learn some new tricks.

Peter Fray

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