The NSW budget, which received grudging approval across today’s Sydney media, has provided the embattled Rees Government with a grab-it-while-you-can lifeline.

In a political escape worthy of the great Harry Houdini, Rees and Treasurer Eric Roozendaal have defended the State’s AAA credit rating and even extracted a revised outlook from “negative” to “stable”.

Roozendaal pursued the ratings grail with single-minded intensity. Last Friday he took the unprecedented step of presenting the essential budget details to Standard & Poor’s and Moody’s during telephone conference calls in which he answered questions in a line-by-line examination of the accounts.

Hours before the budget was made public yesterday, Opposition Leader Barry O’Farrell and shadow treasurer Mike Baird told listeners to 2GB and the ABC respectively that the sheer size of the projected deficit would sink the State’s AAA rating. It didn’t.

Another Liberal scare tactic — federal leader Malcolm Turnbull is becoming an expert in the field — bit the dust.

Roozendaal has backed a housing and real estate-led recovery by slashing stamp duty on new homes by 50 per cent. This will intensify the high-risk rush into home ownership already being stimulated by Kevin Rudd’s generous grant to first home buyers.

The mortgage departments of the major banks will be rubbing their hands with glee as the new wave of suckers — er, that should read customers — step through the door to enter a lifetime enslavement to variable interest rates.

The presentation of the budget bore all the hallmarks of the dark arts practised by Labor’s chief spinmeister Walt Secord who became Roozendaal’s chief of staff one month ago.

Sunday night’s TV pictures of Roozendaal in his Governor Macquarie Tower office putting final touches to the budget as his three children climbed all over his desk and yesterday’s shot of Roozendaal entering parliament with his wife Amanda on his arm were all part of the warm, fuzzy and family-friendly pitch.

The message from Rees’s bunker is that the Budget and its relatively favorable reception shows that the government has an economic, infrastructure and jobs plan; the Cabinet can stick to a plan when ministers and backbenchers work together; and that new policies, such as the almost universally acclaimed stamp duty giveaway, can still be produced from the locker.

This is all well and good, but will it give the makeshift premier authority and credibility, the two things that continue to dog his premiership? It certainly won’t silence the regime-changers at The Sydney Morning Herald, the Daily Telegraph and The Australian who, it appears, have riding instructions to pursue Rees and drive him from office.

In the interests of good government, of course, and not circulation!

Disgruntled backbenchers from the right-wing Troglodyte faction led by sacked ministers Tony Stewart and Richard Amery will continue to argue for the reinstatement of Stewart and for an apology from the premier pending a full hearing of his action in the Supreme Court to overturn his dismissal from Cabinet last year.

Rockdale MP and former Planning Minister Frank Sartor will make a political assessment of the Budget and its impact on the backbench and the ALP before deciding whether to pursue his bid for the premiership.

Rees would be smart to offer Sartor any job except Treasurer. If he accepted Sartor would buckle down to the discipline of the Cabinet and become a significant contributor; if he refused Rees could brand him a negative spoiler and banish him to political obscurity.

Peter Fray

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