Wayne Swan’s now on a plane to the US to attend another G20 meeting, one that will be held in the shadow of the IMF’s latest, and gloomiest, revision to its forecasts for the world economy. Before he left, he popped in to hold a press conference this morning for whichever Gallery journalists were around at 9am, which wasn’t many.

That’s unfortunate for Swan because he was, well, different. He was confident, relaxed, and, that rare thing for a minister in this Government, insightful. He spoke about witnessing the decoupling debate play out in real time at meetings with other Finance Ministers, as first Asia had been seen as a bulwark against the disaster emanating from the US, before it too succumbed to the crisis and, in Japan’s case, began collapsing even more rapidly than the US.

Hell, Wayne even looked like he was enjoying himself, to the extent that the point man facing the biggest economic disaster since the 1930s might find things to enjoy. Perhaps he was looking forward to seeing his second family, the finance ministers of the G20, in Washington.

He is, undoubtedly, having a good crisis.

Not that this was the rule rather than the exception. The normal Swan mode is to hammer his talking points without respite. And he certainly has a problem with “certainly” when being interviewed. He certainly said it 10 times to Karl Stefanovic this morning and six times at a press conference yesterday. Perhaps he’s a Three Stooges fan.

But when actually answering questions this morning rather than reiterating the same talking point for the umpteenth time, he looks far more impressive. You wish Kevin Rudd would occasionally do the same, if only because Rudd is much more engaging when he treats us as adults rather than five year-olds, and five year-olds with ADD at that.

Swan was even ill-disciplined enough to give the correct, mature response to Michelle Grattan’s question about whether unemployment would reach the apparently magical 10%: given the extent of the crisis, he couldn’t guarantee it wouldn’t happen. That’s why you were reading “Swan won’t rule out 10% unemployment” online this morning. He could have said “you’ll see our unemployment forecasts on Budget Night” but chose to say something intelligent instead. He might well figure that he won’t repeat that mistake again, which would be a pity.

Nevertheless, both he and the Prime Minister have been carefully shaping their public messages lately, with an eye on what will be by far the biggest dollar-figure deficit in Australian history, one that could distract voters from the Government’s preferred message of responsible levels of stimulus. Swan does not want a Budget Night spent justifying a $65b deficit, which is why he has been busy justifying it ahead of time.

That’s why the “wrecking ball” made an appearance three times yesterday, a sort of Warner Bros cartoon-style metaphor smashing its way through government revenue. This surely is Swan’s way of hinting that, if you thought the $115b downward revenue revision in February was bad, you ain’t seen nothing yet.

The “wrecking ball”, incidentally, is as clear an indication as you’ll get of just how impossible it would be for the Government to even come close to making up for the collapse in private demand with its stimulus packages. The collapse in tax revenue is only a fraction of the actual fall in private consumption, and yet it still dwarfs the Government’s stimulus packages.

But the most important message about the said demolition tool is that it is out of the Government’s control. This is the story that the Government is emphasising constantly: the recession is an overseas phenomenon that it is powerless to resist, but from which it will do its best to protect Australians.

In effect, this absolves the Government from responsibility for the most important economic outcomes, leaving it in charge only of the good parts of economic management, the stimulatory measures, and with no real accountability there either — no matter what happens, the Government will always say it would have been much worse without its stimulus measures. If unemployment indeed goes over 10%, or 12%, or any other psychologically important number, the Government will only lift its collective hands in supplication and tell voters “we gave it our best shot and it wasn’t enough.”

All or much of that may be true, but truth is incidental — this is about the Government’s management of voters’ understanding of what is going on around them. It is very, very good at such management. The funniest thing this week was Joe Hockey suggesting the Prime Minister using “recession” was a distraction from boat people. Rudd’s playing a much bigger game than the debate about asylum seekers.

Meantime, the Opposition is flat out working out what message it wants to convey, let along trying to convey it effectively.

Peter Fray

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