For a “no-frills” Budget, there’s suddenly a lot riding on tonight’s effort from Wayne Swan.  At the start of the year, the government’s brains trust would have been counting on using the Budget as a key component of an election strategy based on economic recovery, fiscal conservatism and health reform designed to build a bullet-proof majority for Labor for the next two terms.

Now, disastrously, it all looks in the balance, with government MPs yesterday demanding to know quite how a Prime Minister who until the middle of last year looked remarkably politically deft has suddenly acquired two left feet.  No one’s panicking or looking at Julia Gillard, despite what journalists might insist you believe, but there’s a lot of pressure on Swan to nail it when he steps up at 7.30.

Swan did the traditional Budget day presser this morning, clutching a 2010-11 Budget statement and striding up to the ministerial entrance to Parliament House (quite why, is unclear, but it’s the done thing).  There he cheerfully offered nothing of substance, except to preview what may well be the money line of the Budget and for that matter of the government’s re-election pitch, “let’s turn the success of the global recession into enduring gains for all Australians”.

That, of course, reminds punters of why we’re doing much better than anyone else, why voters shouldn’t risk the Liberals, and why, just quietly, we should be slapping a tax on the big mining companies.

Swan — who is now at ease in the role of Treasurer in a way that seemed impossible two years ago — was also emphasising “getting back to surplus as quickly as possible”.  John Quiggin has suggested today that the government could indeed surprise and forecast a return to surplus in 2011-12, which would frustrate the coalition’s plans to run hard on debt’n’deficits.  The fact that we’re having this debate at all shows just how far the traditional pre-election giveaway Budget has fallen out of favour — a process that began seriously in 2007 when the media and the community reacted to John Howard’s last Budget — premised on the basic concept of bribing every voter in the country with something or other — with a collective yawn and deep cynicism.  Howard and Costello are still searching for the “budget bounce” they were supposed to get back them.

Having got most of the nasties out the way — on insulation, childcare centres, the CPRS, tobacco excise, tax reform — the government will be hoping it at least gets some pay-off by having clear air in which to tell its story about its return to old-time fiscal rectitude after a GFC-induced lapse.  And it will be hard to avoid some Budget bounce, on the basis that voters have taken a lump out of Rudd over the past two weeks and, having vented their spleen, may decide to move on, particularly having seen it makes Tony Abbott look a credible candidate for Prime Minister even as he gives weather reports from 33 AD and warns of an Indonesian invasion of Darwin.

That it ever came to this can be put down to Kevin Rudd who, thankfully, will be taking a back seat tonight.  He might want to keep a low profile for a bit longer than that.

Peter Fray

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