Perhaps it was because there were no surprises in a Budget that had been so extensively leaked; the leaks had bled it dry of interest. Or maybe it was because we’ve lost all capacity to be impressed large numbers, whether positive or negative, but Wayne Swan’s budget press conference was a peculiarly flat affair.

In years past, if you put a Treasurer in a room with a hundred-plus journalists after he had unveiled a $50b deficit, a feeding frenzy would have ensued. Instead the press conference was a tepid affair, even compared to last year; the questions — mostly harmless — were fended off competently but uninspiringly by Swan.

The Treasurer even got away with declining to say what the deficit specifically was. Given its absence from the Budget speech text as well, it’s clear Swan wants to avoid providing a grab of him saying the number, which would be a gift for Opposition election advertising. The ploy is obvious to the media but whether voters notice is another question.

All of which suggests that Swan and Rudd have done a masterful job of managing expectations and shaping the deficit debate in the direction they want. $50b deficit? No sweat. In fact, he wasn’t even asked about it. The only aggro came from Steve Lewis, who asked if the private health insurance means testing was a non-core promise. Swan preferred to call it a “change in policy” for which the Government “took responsibility”, which was generous given there didn’t seem to be anyone else around who could be blamed.

If the Budget plays with voters the same way it played with the press, the Government will be over the moon. Not merely is this the biggest deficit in Australian history, it comes with an attack on programs prized by the Howard Government. And it was met with barely a whimper.

Peter Fray

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