Really, Tony Abbott’s budget reply would have been cheaper and more efficient if he had held a press conference in the Liberal Party room. Or maybe just issued his speech as an attachment to a media release (titled, say, “Abbott budget reply demolishes incompetent government”). That 150 MPs went in to sit and listen to such a content-free effort was an extraordinary waste of time.

Not of course that Abbott is the first opposition leader to dodge the basic requirement of a budget reply — that you offer some insight into what sort of budget you would have offered. For example, see what Peter Costello had to say about Mark Latham’s effort in 2004, comments entirely applicable to Abbott’s effort last night.

Then again, perhaps that’s part of what’s been happening to the whole budget cycle in recent years. For all that governments have made them the centre piece of the political year, the media cycle is now so fast that what used to be the start of a week or more of selling and debate is already over within 48 hours of the budget itself — and this year only lasted that long because of the bizarre defence of middle class welfare conducted by News Limited.

So spare a thought for Joe Hockey, who by the time he rises to give his budget reply at the Press Club next week, will seem like he’s discussing ancient history.

Notionally, Hockey will provide evidence of how he would achieve his stated aim of bringing the budget back to surplus “even earlier” than Labor, meaning eliminating the forecast $22.6 billion deficit entirely. Hockey and the Liberals keep referring to the savings put together by the opposition last year as evidence of how they’d return to surplus quicker. The problem is, those savings were, like many of the savings announced by Labor on Tuesday night, backloaded.

They yielded much more in the way of savings in the out-years of the budget than in 2011-12. The savings announced pass-the-parcel style by Hockey and Andrew Robb after last year’s budget, for example, totalled less than $4 billion in 2011-12. Finding an extra $22 billion in savings in one year, and that year being just over a month away, requires the sort of cuts no government has ever contemplated.

In short, if you hadn’t guessed, Hockey let his mouth run away with him when he talked about an “even earlier” return to surplus. It’s not the first time that’s happened, and it won’t be the last.

As for positive policy, we were told that 2011 would be the year we saw more policy substance from the opposition, and almost at the halfway mark there’s only been an uncosted effort on welfare reform and a mental health announcement. Presumably we’ll wait a little longer to see the results of Robb’s policy review work, because the budget period hasn’t revealed any of it.

Possibly quite a lot longer, because the lack of content in Abbott’s speech is almost explicitly a reflection of the opposition’s lack of interest in doing anything to shift the spotlight off the government. It’s the smart political play, and we should probably now abandon the whole idea of a budget reply, since no opposition leader with a brain will ever again use it in the manner it is intended for, unless they’re Brendan Nelson — deep in political trouble and in need of a policy circuitbreaker.

Nonetheless, it provides a neat contrast to the government. As one backbencher told Crikey: “Abbott got the politics right, we got the policy right.” Labor is getting on with the dull-but-worthy stuff of reform, while Abbott capitalises on everything he can and reaps the benefits in the polls.

It’s funny, looking back. When Labor had a massive polling lead in 2008 and 2009, it governed like it was trailing by eight points. Now that it is trailing by eight points, it’s found some reform backbone, even if its selling remains poor and it can’t bring itself to pick any really big fights on issues like taking taxpayers’ money off bludgers on middle class welfare. Not that that’s likely to save it.

Little wonder Abbott feels zero compulsion to offer anything other than verbiage and slogans.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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