At a tick past 4pm, the doyens of the Australian press gallery ambled up the stairs to be greeted with the dour figure of Treasury Secretary Ken Henry reprising his now famous scowl of nine days ago.
The allotted room — 2R1 — was impossibly hot, with many of the TV identities in attendance including Kerry O’Brien and David Speers probably thankful that they were still hours away from donning the rouge. At about 4.10pm, Swan strode purposefully towards the podium and issued his opening lines about securing Australia’s economic future the budget was apparently all about restoring Labor’s reputation as the party of competent economic management in the face of the ill breeze blowing from Athens.
Plenty of PowerPoint graphs were trotted out outlining Australia’s enviable fiscal position in relation to the rest of the world, balanced by the fact that revenue was still in a hole and the fact that governments 2% spending cap would be retained until the surplus is 1% of GDP.
There were 14 questions posed over the next 20 or so minutes, with the first one going to Matt Franklin from The Australian who queried Swan on the fact that the reignition of the resources boom had helped return the budget to surplus. Therefore was the Resources Super Profit Tax now a bigger risk?
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Swan responded with some waffle that the stimulus played a role in recovery, that Australia was in growing region, was a strong investment magnet and that current royalty system doesn’t work.
Next up was Andrew Probyn from The West Australian, who also queried the need for the RSPT given that the Budget was planning a return to surplus three years earlier than previously thought. Swan reckoned that because Australia was operating in a two-speed economy, the super tax was necessary to fund measures like lower corporate taxation and super increases.
Phil Coorey of The Sydney Morning Herald emerged, questioning whether the changes in measurements to Gross National Income had led to reductions in foreign aid. Swan rebuffed this one, revealing that the Australian Bureau of Statistics had changed the way the government measures the economy and that not even the opposition had noticed. Aid had in fact increased, Swan said.
The Australian Financial Review’s David Crowe asked whether the benefits of tax reform did not eventuate, Swans gloriously rosy forecasts would be cut off at the knees. The Treasurer blathered about in response, saying that the reforms would end up washing through the economy in the medium term.
There was vigorous yelling and jostling for the next question before AAPs Sandra O’Malley stationed near Crikey throughout the afternoon accused the government of using the stimulus to set up the government for an election. Rather than hitting back with the obvious how can a Budget that contains no real fresh spending initiatives lay the path for an election? the Treasurer batted it away saying that he’d been working on the document since the few days after the last budget and that he was criticised 12 months ago for being too optimistic.
ABC News 24 political chief Chris Uhlmann asked precisely how much of Swans strict spending cuts were the result of the overheated stimulus. Wayne wasn’t sure but said that he would go through the specific numbers with Uhlmann outside if he wanted to.
Australian editor-at-large Paul Kelly asked Uhlmann’s question again and was met with a similar stonewall, saying the 2% spending limit increase was imposed across the whole of the budget.
The persistent Coorey was then back again asking something about the RSPT, which the Treasurer claimed was revenue neutral when compared to other aspects of the Budget.
Misha Schubert from The Age had a question on cuts to family and disability payments with Swan responding solemnly that these were the little sacrifices he needed to make in order to keep spending in check.
Some American guy then accused the government of leaving its predictions too rosy so it could take contingency measures if the global economy ends up imploding.
Dennis Shanahan, seen earlier prowling the halls of the Senate, wondered what the tax cut were worth and whether they were delayed to fund the return to surplus. Swan said simply that he had chosen not drop the tax cuts at all.
A woman in a red top then wondered aloud whether the government had put millions of dollars of spending at risk in an election year, to which Swan replied that this exercise was not about politics. This prompted News Limited gallery veteran Steve Lewis to ask whether the government was storing money to roll out closer to an election. The Budget was not about opinion polls, Swan said.
It was getting a bit flat by this stage, with Swans media minders getting edgy, but Dennis Atkins of the Courier-Mail managed to ask whether this represented the last big policy reform before the election. But there was no room for additional spending, and the disaster in Greece had demonstrated that countries didn’t have the luxury of a blow out.