With more than 100 of the best and brightest political and business commentators in the country crammed into committee room 2R1 for Wayne Swan’s big lock-up press conference, you would expect this to be the highlight of the 6-hour lock-up with plenty of time allocated for questions.

Alas, the 4pm start was delayed until 4.32pm and then Swan opened up with an 18-minute presentation hammering the key points of responsible spending, nation building, inflation fighting and fairness.

The 550 media types in the lock-up only managed to collectively ask the new Treasurer 13 questions over 15 minutes and the way they rolled out provides some insight into the big issues emerging:

  1. Michelle Grattan, The Age: undaunted by Peter Costello’s morning dig to get a new prescription for her glasses, Gratts was perched in the centre of the front row and opened the batting with a pretty tame question about getting tough on welfare by lowering the Family Tax B income test threshold from a mooted pre-budget $250,000, to a tougher $150,000 which Swan gloated would save $543 million over four years.
  1. Matthew Franklin, The Australian: Have you delivered on every promise and which was the toughest cut? Swanny offered up Family Tax B which just shows how there really weren’t any true cuts worthy of Rudd’s election campaign claim about “taking the meat axe to spending”.
  1. Stephen Long, ABC: The toughest question on whether the cuts really stacked up when spending was still projected to rise in real terms and was nothing like the opening budgets from Keating and Costello. Swan characterised the cuts as “a mild tightening”, a line he will come to regret over time.
  1. Bloke sitting next to Annabel Crabb: a parochial question (one of the 31 locked up Canberra Times hacks perhaps?) on job cuts in Canberra. Swan played down fears, especially earlier beat-ups on a Centrelink purge. He’s certainly no Jeff Kennett, who punted almost 100,000 public sector workers over seven years.
  1. Bloke standing next to Malcolm Farr: How does it feel for a Labor man to be forecasting increases in unemployment? Again, no troubles pointing to slowing global growth and John Howard’s surging official interest rates legacy.
  1. Clinton Porteous, The Courier-Mail: what do you say to poor families on $150,000 who will be worse off? Swanny batted this away by pointing to the size of previous “tax cuts for the rich”.
  1. Steve Lewis, News Ltd tabloids: why introduce the politics of envy by slugging the rich? Swan simply pointed to some FBT rorts getting stamped out, while labeling the whole budget “tough but fair”.
  1. Dana Robertson, Lateline: how do we all benefit from this skilled migration? A reference to the coming infrastructure spending boom and Swanny simply defended the need for skilled migration. Too easy. However, it certainly looks inflationary in the middle of a commodities boom.
  1. Andrew Probyn, The West Australian: got probably the best pre-budget scoop with the $20 billion Building Australia Fund, but his dopey editor buried it on page 4. Wanted to know why the spending would draw down on the capital of the funds rather than just the earnings, as Peter Costello did with his higher education fund. Swan just went into big spending nation building Labor auto-pilot and lamented the Howard government’s chronic under-investment in education.
  2. Dennis Shanahan, The Australian: will these funds be a locked box? Nope, we’re looking for the right projects to spend it on but this will be over at least six years.
  3. Alison Carabine, Fairfax Radio: the most aggressively posed question but simply asked when we will get some concrete results from all this spending. Swan talked up the bring forward on several big infrastructure projects.
  4. Peter Hartcher, The SMH: if this is only a mild tightening, are you leaving all the heavy lifting to the Reserve Bank? Swanny just talked up the spending cuts, but this “mild tightening” line will haunt the government’s attempts to project toughness.
  5. Mark Reilly, Seven Network: after promising questions on petrol and supermarket prices in his Weekend Sunrise Reilly Diary, he duly came through and Swan dodged it by just pointing to the supermarket inquiry and petrol commissioner.

With that Swan was gone, without the likes of Laurie Oakes, Paul Kelly, Barrie Cassidy, Kerry O’Brien, Tony Jones, John Durie or Jack Waterford getting a chance to fire in a question. Their voices simply weren’t loud enough.

In future years, a better system would be for all the major outlets to be allocated a question, along with various press gallery doyens. If Question Time in the house lasts for an hour, surely a Treasurer can handle a similar exercise on budget day, as it would only represent 16.6% of the lock-up time.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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