“By now you would be familiar with the budget papers,” Wayne Swan remarked breezily at the start of his 4.15pm press conference, but judging by the questions on offer most of the nation’s leading hacks were still struggling to find the silver bullet to destroy the Treasurer’s fiscal rectitude.
Either that, or Swanny had deliberately jacked up the heating so high that the brain cells lined up for destruction at the Kennedy Room later on had already committed mass suicide.
No journo was able to land a knockout blow with the Treasurer’s opening lines about getting “back into the black” and converting the “mining boom to an opportunity boom” led to a broad re-hashing of doorstop questions already heard in finitum during the lead-up.
A brave Hugh Riminton stepped up first to ask whether masochism had got the better of Wayne and whether he had decided to deliberately enforce a joyless budget. Definitely not, Swanny said: we’re doing the right thing by the country and specifically not targeting individuals, and anyway the job pipeline’s strong for those who want to get one. Also, we’re all about avoiding price pressures by making sure the government doesn’t overspend with the economy rebounding.
Matt Franklin was next, but seemed at sea without usual Australian chum James Massola by his side, posing a confused query about the timing of the savings measures which he reckoned were going to be delayed. Swan remarked that, in fact, measures like the Fringe Benefits Tax changes on company cars would take effect immediately.
Possible Dinosaur Jr fan Alison Carrabine stepped up to the plate with a blunt enquiry about “who’s going to feel the pain?” and Swan swiped it away saying he had not set out to make people deliberately unhappy. While some people on the fringes would require “a bit of a nudge” to get back into the workforce it was obscene that they couldn’t benefit from the coming Asian Century like everyone else.
The ABC’s prime political griller Lyndal Curtis wanted specifics on exactly how many people would be targeted in the welfare to work program but Swan didn’t know, stating instead that disability pension recipients would be given “every opportunity” to re-enter the workforce.
Veteran News Limited hardman Steve Lewis accused the Treasurer of not being as fiscally prudent as Peter Costello, to which an incredulous Swan responded he had done things Costello “had never done”, like limiting expenditure to 1% over four years (even though a check of the budget papers shows that spending has been skived off into 2012-13 from 2011-13).
In the first of two probes from the Sky News Kieran Gilbert/David Speers duumvirate (the duo would later get a private run-down from Stephen Smith as everyone else filtered out), Kieran asked whether there was an “inherent contradiction” in putting caps on the family payment system at the same time the government extended it for other kids. Wayne shot back that 15-year-olds have bigger feet that a 13-year-old (new shoes) and that teenagers continue to raid the pantry when they get home from school. No-one posed the obvious follow-up that two minute noodles aren’t actually that expensive.
A man with a Beatles haircut then asked whether the government might have trouble getting $22 billion worth of spending cuts through the Senate with the support of the Greens. Swanny responded that if the Liberals were fiscally responsible the government wouldn’t even need Bob Brown so the emphasis was therefore on Tony Abbott to embrace fiscal responsibility.
ABC business correspondent Andrew Robertson popped up to ask whether the assistance for small business was actually that much given that the benefits divided by the number of Australian businesses only added up to $5 a week. Swan gave a vague response reiterating the total value of the package — perhaps because with the entrepreneurs tax break abolished, many small businesses would actually end up worse off.
Then Speers was back wanting answers on a $2.5 billion cut from the Defence budget and Swanny responded that the money was actually lower — not because he hated the troops but because of something called the “re-profiling of defence capital projects” and deferrals to later years.
Another asked whether the net spend on training over six years was too low and the Treasurer replied that the assumption was completely wrong and, even if it wasn’t, industry were waiting in the wings to pick up some of the burden.
After an extended period of shouted half-questions from about 11 people at the same time, the wily Carrabine again emerged for a second bite, asking whether it was in fact the mining industry doing all the heavy economic lifting given that spending cuts and new commitments roughly cancelled each other out. Swan countered that his “saves” had actually been more than his “spends” and that a 1% growth in expenditure in an economy growing by 4% each year was actually a massive achievement.
Finally, Mel Clarke from ABC TV wondered aloud whether the deferrals in infrastructure spending had actually come at the wrong time given the capacity constraints still in the economy.
An incredulous Swan laughed that off with little explanation before striding out of the room, leaving the remaining hacks just two-and-a-half-hours to find the multi-billion dollar budget black hole they hoped would make stars of them in the morning.