It’s a long time since the annual budget was the be-all and end-all of economic policy.
The days when the second Tuesday in August (or in May, as it has now become) was genuinely the centrepiece of the fiscal year, the great revelation that would determine the course of the nation and the lives of its citizens for the next 12 months (Beer, Cigs, Petrol Up), now seem as far away as the bootstraps of Sir Robert Menzies.
21st century economic management is a weekly, sometimes even a daily, matter; the big announcements have to be made when they are needed.
Modern budgets seldom contain any real surprises. Their economic significance is more about gathering up the outcomes from the year before and making invariably incorrect predictions about what they are likely to be in the year ahead. But if budgets have ceased to be pivotal economic occasions, they can still be important political turning points, and this applies particularly to the first budget of a new government.
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What is expected from the incoming treasurer is a denunciation of the economic vandalism of his predecessor, who has left the place a smoking ruin, and a reconstruction plan that eschews short-term political advantage and stretches well beyond the next election, thus making the return of the government a patriotic duty for the conscientious voter.
Last night Wayne Swan showed that he had read the script, and if his delivery was plodding rather than dramatic, it did the job. Swan made it clear that there was a repair job to be done and that he was prepared to do it. At the same time the $40 billion investment in infrastructure, education and health showed vision for the future and the promise of better things to come. If he can report genuine progress in even one of those fields by 2010 the job will have been done.
Inevitably the gurus of the Murdoch press, who saw the budget as the Great Test for the Rudd government (Murdoch journalists love setting tests for politicians; it enables them to pretend that they have standards of their own), were dissatisfied. But while there was not enough pain, suffering and scorched earth to satisfy the more masochistic of the economic fundamentalists (the ones who complacently accepted the profligacy of the previous government for the best part of a decade) the punters would have felt a touch of the lash as well as the promise of good booty at the end of the race.
They have been enrolled as spear carriers in Rudd’s army, and their loyalty, if not absolutely assured, has at least been enhanced by the process. And that’s what the exercise was all about. Mission accomplished. The real work on the economy can now begin.