The Government piled on the post-Budget backslapping in Question Time yesterday.

In contrast, the opposition seemed subdued — although the bloke many think should be shadow treasurer, Labor finance spokesman Lindsay Tanner, put on a great show in the Matter of Public Importance Debate, thundering on about “a budget built on preaching abstinence and practicing incontinence”.

But what rabbit will Rudd draw from his hat when he delivers his official response to the Budget this evening?

We’ve been told today that he will refine his education pitch and restate his economic credentials.

The general feeling up on the Hill and in the media has been that the Government has done a good job of tying up money so Labor can’t spend it.

“I expect we’ll take a pounding in the opinion polls,” Rudd warned his troops on Monday. He may be right — but there still mightn’t be a Budget boost for the government.

Tuesday night put the focus back onto responsible economic management and its dividends, the government’s strongest ground. It looks as if the Prime Minister wants to combine this with a union bashing campaign that portrays Labor as the captives of the ACTU and plays on public equivocation over the Labor state and territory administrations to attack the party’s management skills.

Still, Labor has been connecting better with the voters. The PM and his Treasurer keep talking in big figures — 10 years ago this, growth of that. Labor is trying to relate matters to individual experience.

That could well be a winning strategy. Many households aren’t experiencing the affluence the PM keeps talking about, or at least think that they aren’t.

And while the big boys of the Gallery seem to have missed it, other commentators like Mark Bahnisch have pointed to an interesting little trick Labor could play.

Tanner helped set it up in his speech yesterday:

The drunken preacher is having a wild time. He is handing out free advice on abstinence in between swigs of his flagon. He is passing the flagon around and he is having a great time because he has a lot to drink. The worry is though that it will be our kids who get the hangover, because when this nation was in a position of enormous good fortune—of great fortune with huge revenues coming in to the government from the mining boom—what did the government do: they squandered it and they are continuing to squander it. Don’t be fooled by the fact that they are trying to look as if they are doing something, because this budget fails the future test.

Rudd can don the mantle of fiscal discipline. Labor isn’t going to win because voters believe they are the better economic managers, but they can win if they reassure voters that they will be responsible.

They may care to take a leaf from the Gordon Brown book. As Bahnisch has reminded us, in opposition he promised to maintain Tory spending limits on public services for two years into the first term of the Blair Government. And guess who Swan saw when he visited London?

No wonder Labor have been out saying they won’t spend the surplus.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey