That would have been an excellent boom-era budget. In fact, if this had been the Rudd Government’s 2008 budget, it would have been a flying fiscal start for the new kids on the block. Plenty of infrastructure investment, some tax cuts, a pension rise — and cutbacks to Howard-era profligacy.

And admittedly it does achieve the relatively impressive feat of obtaining more savings than a previous budget. Usually governments go the other way.

The mixed message of handouts and infrastructure for everyone in a time of supposed austerity is still confusing but probably not enough to cause any difficulty for the Government. Pensioners, even those who think it’s too late and not big enough, will be well-disposed toward the lovely Mr Rudd for a decent boost in pension rates. That’s Coalition heartland, those older voters, and even a small drift in that demographic will spell trouble for the Coalition, given how many older Australians there now are.

The Government is making out that increasing the pension age was the toughest decision in the budget. If they thought that was tough, it doesn’t augur well for the capacity to take on serious policy problems (although, really, didn’t we already know that?). Increasing the pension age was a no-brainer, and they’ve only bumped it up a smidgeon over about forty years anyway.

“Treasurer, what do you say to a fifty-year old tradesmen who planned to retire in 2025?” Swan was asked in the Budget lock-up. The question summed up how paper-thin even the political case against the increase is. The National Seniors’ Association has previously suggested the pension age be increased to 75, not the marginal increase the Government is proposing.

At least the peculiar parlour game of Wayne Swan refusing to say what the actual deficit was was ended this morning by Chris Uhlmann when he asked the Prime Minister what it was and why the Treasurer hadn’t mentioned it. A check of Budget speeches past shows Peter Costello was guilty of the same sin on one occasion — although it was a small surplus he didn’t bother revealing in his speech.

The Prime Minister’s guilty of some rhetorical sleight of hand himself. It’s not too many months since, at a speech at the National Press Club, he said ratings agencies had yet to be properly called to account for their central role in the financial crisis. This morning he was citing Standard and Poor’s — one of the primary offenders and a company that should be considered for corporate capital punishment for its antics during the boom years — for its endorsement of Government debt levels.

Standard and Poor’s ringing endorsement of any product should immediately raise concerns, rather than be used by a Prime Minister as justification for his fiscal strategy.

And in any event, it’s unnecessary. There’s a remarkable calm in this country for the day after we saw the biggest ever budget deficit. That’s how much the economic debate has changed. Only a few people — mainly in Coalition ranks — haven’t understood the change.

Peter Fray

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