Perhaps it’s a sign of how resistant the press and public are becoming to spin. Maybe it’s because this budget will be one of the more complex economic policy statements of recent times. But the pre-positioning antics of both the Government and Opposition have truly taken a turn for the bizarre.

The analysis of Malcolm Turnbull’s populist posturing today by Glenn Milne — taking a break from writing stories about Woolies — is only the start. Milne’s right that Turnbull is engaging in risky positioning by declaring there is no need for deep spending cuts, but at least he is being consistent with the “inflation? What inflation?” line that he has been maintaining, with all the grim determination of a flat-earther, since December.

Dr Nelson, however, seems to have been self-medicating, and liberally so. Nothing else could explain his “every mother loves her baby” rant about means-testing the baby bonus. Nelson’s emotionalism has so far only really been an issue for jaded Press Gallery types, but much more of this and Nelson will start to become a figure of ridicule. Well, greater ridicule. It raises the disturbing — albeit, from a journalist’s perspective, delicious — possibility that his budget reply might amount to a teary commemoration of all the budget victims, complete with plaintive cries of “for God’s sake”, and “Labor doesn’t really understand”.

But when it comes to emotional exhibitionism, even Nelson was outdone on the weekend by Lindsay Tanner, courtesy of a Ruth Ostrow piece in The Australian about what a Dickensian childhood he had, complete with “five-inch bruises on my buttocks”, and how it shaped his politics (and, presumably, his posture). It was also a sub-editor’s delight, yielding “Now Tanner makes the cuts” for a headline, thereby explaining the thunderous crack of knee-slapping that echoed across the land on Saturday morning.

Now, I’m a big fan of Lindsay Tanner. It’s wonderful to at long last have a Finance Minister who is again tapping into the implacable malice toward government spending of Peter Walsh. But was there any need for the revelation that, beneath the tough, razor-wielding exterior there is a softie with a strong sense of how unfair the world is? What’s more, Tanner’s the subject of another long piece in the AFR today. Really, a week out from Wayne Swan’s first budget, it’s a bit early to be lodging EOIs for the bloke’s job, isn’t it? Maybe Tanner is worried Julia Gillard will get it.

Meantime, the Government was again reannouncing old news, this time about budget handouts to working mothers for the Sun Herald. Just possibly, The Australian wasn’t entirely off the mark about the susceptibility of the Fairfax press to this sort of thing. There must be a whopping great microwave — probably borrowed from Morris Iemma — somewhere in the ministerial wing in Parliament House, with a long queue of staffers waiting to reheat old announcements for Fairfax hacks.

But the Prime Minister did take $100m of new money for older carers with him to the NSW Labor conference. His speech — in which, with his now-characteristic but slightly laboured self-deprecation, he entirely and cleverly dissociated himself from the power privatisation mess — mentioned “working families” a mere ten times. Perhaps the difficulties experienced last week by Rudd and Swan when they failed to get their stories straight about who qualified for that precious label will politely usher that phrase out of every second sentence uttered by a Government member, but one suspects that that is wishful thinking.

Ben Chifley, or “Chif” as the Prime Minister rather familiarly referred to his predecessor, got eleven mentions. Maybe, by focussing so heavily on the Labor leader who wanted to nationalise the banks, the Prime Minister was sending a subtle signal to Morris Iemma.

More likely, he was trying to tap into a Labor tradition within which he still appears to fit so poorly.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey