Treasurer Wayne Swan says that tonight’s budget will be “unashamedly” about the “long-term”. Politicians talk “long-term” when the “short-term” looks ugly. Bad now but better later.

Long-term pitches usually appeal to our better natures but shifting the public gaze above immediate self-interest requires propitious circumstances and considerable political adroitness. Paul Keating tried and failed with “this is the recession we had to have”. The electorate didn’t buy this nationalistic backstory for a disastrous record interest rate regime.

John Howard could not win people to the idea that a loss in pay and conditions under WorkChoices was worth it for some intangible long-term economic gains. Trust me, he said, but they didn’t. Howard’s problem was compounded because his boasts about economic management sat oddly with inflicting scary IR changes on an unprepared electorate.

When your messages compete with each other they both lose.

On the other hand, Rudd and Swan have been beating the “something is rotten in the state of Denmark” drum since well before last November’s election. They have been greatly aided by extensive media coverage of the global subprime crisis.

To help sell his long-term pitch, Swan has come up with a nice little bucolic fable. The Treasurer told the Weekend Australian:

… the previous government didn’t fix the roof while the sun was shining. Now there are storm clouds on the horizon, it falls to us to fix the roof, and to fix it in an environment where inflation is much more elevated than it should have been.

Even if Swan can get people to buy this simple moral tale, he will still have to work hard to convince them that they are the ones that have to pony up for this burst of eleventh hour roof-mending.

It’s an iron law of politics. Everyone wants the benefits government can confer without having to pay for them. Everyone sees the huge surplus and thinks just a little of that would solve our problems. Faced with unwanted fiscal pain, many electors will moan that they didn’t put the holes in the national roof and they shouldn’t be made to pay for them.

That’s where Swan’s “Robin Hood budget” and “make the rich pay” messages come into play. Measures to “soak the rich” may not generate significant revenue but without them the symbolism will be all wrong. Soaking the rich will allow him to position the budgetary pain as a genuine national effort in which everyone is doing their bit.

He will also give a few sweetners to “working families” to help convince voters that his heart is still in the right place, no matter how harsh the Budget cuts might be.

Taking stuff away from toddlers and taxpayers is always a tough ask but the first Budget of an incoming Government is the best time to try it.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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