What a Jekyll and Hyde mob this Government is. While John Faulkner is commendably leading the charge toward greater transparency and accountability, the Prime Minister is engaged in a deeply cynical and unashamed process of manipulation.

I suggested on Budget Night that Wayne Swan was purposefully avoiding mentioning the deficit figure in order to deprive the Opposition of a grab for future advertising, but foolishly thought that game would end once it became apparent what they were up to. In fact it was merely the start of an ongoing effort by the Prime Minister and Treasurer to avoid saying any numbers that could be used against them, right down to persistently refusing to say “billion” after numbers.

Yesterday The Australian‘s Matt Franklin asked Joe Hockey at the Press Club if things were reaching the stage where we couldn’t even have a decent public debate if both sides were scared of their words being used against them in election advertising. I suspect the Government also does not want any grabs on nightly news bulletins of them uttering the numbers.

It gets more blatant and more cynical, however. Last week Crikey ran a tip that the Prime Minister’s office, which is usually excellent with churning out transcripts, had failed to put out the transcript of the Prime Minister’s rather robust interview with Neil Mitchell the day after the Budget. The transcript remains unavailable. The transcript from Monday’s Lateline interview — one of the Prime Minister’s worst — is also unavailable.

Then there’s the Prime Minister’s Office’s predilection for trying to manipulate media coverage. In late April, the PMO changed the way it advised the media of Rudd’s appearances. Instead of stating a time for the commencement of a press conference or media event, which had been the typical approach until then, the time of the event is now advised as “Media please assemble by …”, even for press conferences in the courtyard in Parliament House, meaning the Prime Minister is never late.

Last Sunday morning at 6.08am, the PMO issued an alert to the effect that the Prime Minister would be visiting Liddell Power Station in the Hunter Valley. “Media please assemble by 9.40am.”

Liddell takes some time to get to, even if you’re in Newcastle. Sydney media wouldn’t have had much hope.

Except, one network had already asked the PMO whether Rudd would be in the Hunter Valley on Sunday. One of Rudd’s staff, Sean Kelly, who was the media contact for that weekend, said he wouldn’t be: Rudd had nothing on that day.

But the PMO had already arranged with another network to provide a pool cameraman to accompany Rudd, without consulting with other networks.

The truth doesn’t seem especially prized in Ruddland. It’s not so long since Rudd’s senior media adviser Lachlan Harris lied about Rudd’s angry encounter with an RAAF stewardess in an effort to contain a negative story. As it turned out, the false denial provoked as much — or more — outrage than Rudd’s temper.

Like the failure to post transcripts of interviews that didn’t go well, and refusing to say debt figures, lying is tawdry and counter-productive. It is now assumed within the Press Gallery that the Prime Minister’s staff lie, which means truthful denials aren’t believed. Refusal to say numbers or post transcripts simply draws attention to them all the more.

It is also based on the profoundly cynical view that voters aren’t engaged in politics enough to notice this level of blatant manipulation or assume the press reaction to it is mere media whingeing. This Government is quite prepared to wear anger and cynicism toward it from the media as a trade-off for carefully controlling its message. It wants to prevent voters from thinking too much about debt and deficits and the best way to do that is to not mention them. The few seconds a day voters are exposed to politics means the more complicated story of a Prime Minister and a Treasurer trying to avoid giving voice to the numbers will only be appreciated by political tragics.

When he stops spinning and starts treating his audience as intelligent adults, Kevin Rudd is a very good communicator, even on complex issues. He could craft an effective message on the need for stimulus spending and a budget deficit. But he prefers the low-risk option of treating voters as disengaged and uninterested.