The proof of the Budget will be in the bouncing, perhaps. Or perhaps not. It’s now more common for commentators to observe that no one may be listening to the Government anymore But the question that should be asked hasn’t been yet: does the Government have anything to say?
Both Kevin Rudd and Wayne Swan honed their skills in the Goss political machine in Queensland in the late ’80s and early ’90s. The one thing any observer or participant in Goss campaigns will tell you is that they were ruthlessly on message. The campaign themes were both difficult to counter and pithy — being reflections of what the punters themselves had been saying in focus groups.
Peter Beattie’s “smart-state” mantra has been cut from the same cloth.
Despite paroxysms of praise from columnists in The Australian, it’s hard to see how the Costello Budget communicates a pithy message for voters about the future. Labor has been working hard on framing it as cynical and too clever by half. And as having “failed the future test”.
But how is the Government selling it?
The difficulty with lots of small (but expensive) policies directed to a grab-bag of electoral demographics — pensioners, superannuants, carers, and so on — is that they don’t easily add up to an overall narrative that the electorate as a whole will be interested in.
The only real message the Government has is now a negative one. Four interest rate rises have taken the shine off its economic management credentials among voters, if not pundits. So Costello replicated his question time routine by going negative on Labor in the Budget speech. That’s a lot less effective than “we’ll protect you” in ’01 or “trust us on interest rates” in 04.
As I suspected he would, Rudd easily countered this by wearing his fiscal-conservative heart on his sleeve.
While columnists still ask whether Labor has scope for more spending, they’re asking the wrong question. Labor can better target spending, as with the proposal for trades centres in schools, because it is universal public provision not expensive symbolism like a few technical colleges or small grants to apprentices which cost heaps when they’re added up.
That’s the trick to the cooperative federalism card. Work with the states and pour modest amounts of money into services instead of going for the political headlines with symbolism and easily forgotten tax cuts and cheques.
Much of Rudd’s approach to education is already in effect in Queensland. Watch for more of the same, not huge dollar figures. And all wrapped up in a very clear and punchy message as were Rudd’s three priorities last night.