At a few minutes past 4pm, Wayne Swan ambled to the podium and remarked that unlike the global economy, not much had changed in the press gallery in the last four budgets. The same familiar faces, in rude defiance of Mark Davis’ (the other one) Ganglands, continued to show up as capitalism confronted the “wildest ride” “over the abyss” into an “economic blood bath” that Australia had ever seen.

Relaxed and comfortable in the GFC afterglow, the domestic economy was again ready to assume its mantle as the stimulus-free envy of the industrialised world. And what better way to illustrate this than series of PowerPoint graphs showing how the economy had actually grown 16% since before the GFC compared to other total laggards like the United States and Japan. Even so, this budget was full of “big Labor reforms” that was “Labor to its bootstraps” — code for $2.8 billion in bribes to low income earners.

The Prime Minister’s prowling flaks, including John McTernan, piled into room 2R1 alongside Treasury Secretary Martin Parkinson, Penny Wong and about a two-dozen eager snappers to capture Swan in trademark gesticulation mode.

Crikey unwittingly started loudly slagging off the budget as a boring non-event just centimetres away from Parkinson’s head before being warned off further vitriol by a helpful AAP scribe.

Imposing press gallery head Phil Hudson kicked off with a two-parter by asking: 1) how Swan delivered a $1.5 billion surplus prediction given that in last year’s budget he predicted a deficit of $22.6 billion and we ended up with $44.4 billion; and 2) were the handouts to battlers a vote-buying exercise? Swan responded that you can’t just freeze the economy and that it was difficult to predict the full impact of natural disasters and that Europe had been smashed in the last quarter of last year.

On handouts, Swan reckoned that they weren’t due to kick in until July next year, which didn’t really answer the question given they’d probably tie in nicely with the 2013 election.

McTernan favourite Matt Franklin, also seated front row, queried in a rather socialistic manner what the Treasurer was doing for the patchwork economy, which gave Swan the opportunity to boringly roll out a rote list of measures like tripling the tax free threshold and initiatives to lift participation rates.

Then, David Crowe of the The Australian chimed in to ask whether something was going on with tax legislation (not much).

Andrew Probyn wondered aloud if not including a company tax cut in the budget was a bait-and-switch ruse to get business to badger the Coalition to vote for them. Not at all, Wayne said, recalling whimsically how the recommendation had come out of a business tax working group as a saving that was fully costed elsewhere.

Kieran Gilbert from Sky News hilariously chimed in to ask whether Swan was building his surplus on the back of the Third World given the one-year delay to the previous target of 0.5% of gross national income. Rubbish, said Wayne.

A young whippersnapper in glasses behind Kieran was then inspired to ask whether the decline in planned aid might have something to do with AusAID’s inefficiencies which Swan totally denied, because of course AusAID was a model organisation.

Paul Osborne from AAP asked an impressively broad question about what another failing in the global economy might mean for future growth targets. The Treasurer said while Europe might be falling off a cliff, Asia and especially China were humming along.

The Sydney Morning Herald‘s chief political scribe Phil Coorey asked whether increased welfare payments were really about cynically reconnecting with the Labor base that is abandoning it in droves politically. Swan responded that he could hardly be accused of splurging on the poor if the budget was returning to surplus and pursuing national savings.

A well-spoken Aunty representative asked whether, given the surplus wouldn’t actually be a surplus until this time next year, it could actually be thought of as a surplus, to which Swan repeated his stock line about building up the savings to increase the cost of living.       

Crikey guest John Quiggin started to ask whether Swan had failed to rule out future stimulus but was cut off by a more polished journo who asked whether the states would be irate at reduced distributions — a question Swan deftly referred to the states as a matter for them.

ABC economics correspondent Stephen Long then embarked on an impressive sequence of questions anchored on the premise that if Australia’s terms of trade was currently at a record level, surely there would be a massive budget black hole if growth dipped below trend? Swan reckoned this was unlikely given the insatiable demand from Asia for raw material. (Long would later be seen in close conversation with Parkinson to be given with the true truth straight from the horse’s mouth.)

Then in what may well become known as Riminton-gate, the frustrated former Mr Natasha Stott-Despoja, shunted from his front-row position last year to the cheapest of cheap seats, yelled over the ABC’s Sheryl Bagwell to ask what keeps Swan up at night. “People like you,” Swan responded to huge guffaws. Bagwell finally managed to get in her cracking question about the seeming contradiction of fiscal consolidation working at cross-purposes to monetary policy. What was the point of hacking back spending if the RBA would inevitably increase demand into the economy through interest rate cuts?

Swan blathered something about how he was actually just “rebalancing” the levers and that it was important for the central bank to have some latitude — almost the exact opposite of his line last year when both fiscal and monetary policy was meant to be working in harmony.

Then, just 39 minutes after it began, a Swan flak called time — the Treasurer leaping away from the podium and nearly faceplanting into an attendant camera man who’d become stuck in the doorway.

Peter Fray

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