Wayne Swan’s biggest day of the year is over, and the verdicts on this year’s restrained budget, announced with much fanfare in Canberra yesterday, have been pouring in. The overall take on the budget is varied, but there are some overarching themes: not frugal enough, a controversial policy — that just might work — on putting pensioners to work and a set-top box scheme that seems ripe for exploiting.

Assuming Australia doesn’t have the natural disaster riddled summer of this year, Swan plans for a $3.5 billion surplus by 2012-13.

Jobs, training, welfare reforms and mental health became the key words of this year’s federal budget, providing a strong indication of Julia Gillard and Wayne Swan’s priorities.

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Welfare reforms focus on returning the long-term unemployed to work, encouraging those on single mother and disability pensions to train and return to work and limiting middle-class welfare.

Mental health will see an extra injection of $1.5billion, making a total of $2.2 billion being spent on mental health initiatives, including early intervention for young people, money for support agencies and an increase in primary care.

Old-age pensioners will be getting set-top boxes to help the move to digital television.

Here’s a look at how the pundits are calling it.

The talk around the budget focused on Wayne Swan and his deep cuts, but as Crikey‘s Bernard Keane wrote in the lock-up yesterday: “Once again Wayne Swan has promised The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and delivered Twilight...”

Crikey economist Nicholas Gruen examines one reason why the budget is still not in surplus:

“Here’s one reason why the budget isn’t bouncing back into surplus as fast as it went into deficit. From around the middle of the decade just gone, each time they looked in the kitty, the Coalition government found another five or so billion dollars … which they proceeded to spend on any number of improvised giveaways.”

Also in Crikey, Alan Kohler calls for the return of former-Finance Minister Lindsay Tanner:

“The former finance minister would have been embarrassed by this budget: despite all the stern prime ministerial repetition, it is not tough.”

This budget is about Julia Gillard and Swan’s personal values of jobs and societal change, writes Michelle Grattan at The Age:

“The times are just right to prod and encourage people who have been marginalised in the economy to become full economic participants. This story fits with Gillard’s personal belief in hard work (those alarm clocks she talks about) and with Swan’s long-time commitment to getting people out of poverty.”

Surprisingly, says Peter Hartcher at the Sydney Morning Herald, this budget doesn’t have as much political pandering as other years:

“The weakest federal government since the 1940s has produced one of the more spartan and responsible budgets of recent times.”

All talk, no action from Swan, complains Simon Benson at the Daily Telegraph:

“Wayne Swan may well have earned himself the title of Mr Puniverse with his tough talk and lack of punch.”

Tony Abbott and Joe Hockey’s main criticism of the budget is that it does not include the carbon tax, but does include the windfalls from the mining tax. But as Phillip Coorey writes at the SMH:

“The mining tax has been finalised, costed, negotiated and details released. The carbon tax has not. Far from it. Hockey and Abbott are actually arguing that an uncosted, half-baked policy be included in the federal budget.”

This budget is a gamble for Swan, and hopefully he — and the economy — doesn’t lose, warns The Australian‘s Michael Stutchbury:

“The inadequacy of Wayne Swan’s fourth budget has left Australia highly vulnerable to the gathering risks in the global economy, punting everything on our China luck continuing to hold.”

Terry McCrann at the Herald Sun agrees with the dependence on China:

“Wayne Swan has rediscovered Peter Costello’s magic pudding, and it is still made in Beijing and Shanghai.”

A frugal budget? Looks more like Labor spending big again on doomed projects, writes Miranda Devine in the Daily Telegraph:

“In his fourth and most important budget, Swan had escaped unscathed, which in the context of a government which lurches from one blunder to another, was quite a triumph.”

The Gillard government has plenty of issues, and Swan being able unable to sell a budget is just one of them, argues Shaun Carney at The Age:

“For the vast bulk of voters, a budget is, I suspect, just one more event in a ceaseless cavalcade of events and pseudo-events. Many will see it as being important, for sure. But enough to turn around perceptions of a government that seems to be just one stumble away from another crisis? Not likely.”

SMH columnist Adele Horin applauds the government’s decision to make disability pensioners search for work, calling it “a brave move”. Horin explains:

“A tough-love approach always hangs on whether the right people get the toughness and the right ones get the love. With existing disability pensioners, there just might be enough love in the mix to make it palatable.”

Goodbye to the Aussie stereotype of the dole bludger, argues David Koch in the Herald Sun:

“This federal Budget wages a war on the Aussie bludger and on the middle-class welfare entrenched by the Howard era. It is a very clever way of cutting government spending.”

Australia is in a much better financial position than most other Western economies, notes economist Saul Eslake at the National Times:

“This budget makes a determined effort to embrace the need for structural change, both by enhancing people’s ability to adapt to structural change and cushioning some of the adverse consequences that structural change will bring to some people, some regions and some industries. From a micro-economic perspective, there is a lot to applaud in it.”

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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