There’s something seriously askew in a Western democracy when the media provides the only serious scrutiny of the Government in the lead-up to the most important economic policy event for a number of years.

With its retreat out onto the narrow limb of economic populism, the Coalition has abandoned its role of placing genuine policy and political pressure on the Government and gifted Rudd and Swan the mantle of economic responsibility, regardless of the nature of the measures served up tonight. That leaves the press and the economic commentariat as the only source of genuine pressure at the new Government’s most vulnerable moment.

Press management via Budget leak has therefore been the Government’s key strategy for the last few days. Some in the media are on to it. Insiders considered the issue at length on Sunday, and last night Kerry O’Brien got stuck into Nicola Roxon over the leaking of the increase in Medicare surcharge levels. But others have been happy to take the leaks for what was, until late last week, a tightly-controlled Budget process.

The Government’s doling out of leaks wasn’t accidental, and in fact highly revelatory of how they assess the readership of various mastheads. The biggest leak so far, the Medicare surcharge change, was handed to both Fairfax and News, to avoid charges of partiality. The rise in luxury car taxes was given to Glenn Milne for the battlers at The Sunday Telegraph, along with an interview with Swan.

Fairfax’s Kerry-Anne Walsh got the climate change package for the more bourgeois types reading the Sun Herald and Sunday Age. There’s also been some management on the fly. After Access Economic’s Friday claims that the Government was rolling in cash, The Australian got detailed assurances on Saturday about the collapse in revenue faced by the Government, while the national broadsheet’s best economic analyst, George Megalogenis, got a scoop on the Government’s assault on taxation expenditures (one of the key areas of Howard profligacy, and worth the attention).

None of the leaks had a press release, or supporting information, or firm costings, except the Government’s announcement of its alcopops excise increase back in April, which was sold in part as providing funding for preventative health programs. What they did have was headlines, and different messages for different constituencies, as part of a deliberate ploy to ensure that as many people as possible would see something they liked amidst a “tough as all hell” budget.

Crikey and others have been lamenting the Government’s mixed Budget messages, but we were missing the point. The messages were only mixed for the commentariat itself, which analyses everything the Government says. The media diet of most people is far more limited, and they would’ve only heard what the Government targeted at them.

The Coalition, meanwhile, is hopelessly distracted. They may face a long stretch before they get back into Government, but Liberal MPs have a responsibility to provide an effective opposition until they get competitive again. But the Liberal brand is being trashed with an enthusiasm that has to be seen to be believed. There is argument over the Queensland merger, there are blog wars and anti-semitism in Victoria, in NSW, the least incompetent Liberal leader in the country has managed to turn electricity privatisation, on which he was coasting effortlessly, into a serious problem for his own side, and the WA Liberals are either a joke or obscene, depending on your offence threshold.

Amid it all, current and future leaders of the Federal Liberal Party have been trying to mount the most complex and counter-intuitive economic argument in years, and failing miserably.

Kevin Rudd and Wayne Swan mustn’t be able to believe their luck. They’ve played the media effortlessly, Rudd’s riding a wave of popularity, and the official Opposition is utterly hopeless. At 7.30 tonight, we’ll find out whether they’ve used that opportunity to undertake serious fiscal reform, or whether they don’t want to spoil their opinion poll standing by taking some tough decisions. Popularity can be a terrible trap sometimes.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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