Anthony Albanese’s budget reply speech declined to lay out any large-scale Labor response to the government’s embrace of big-spending, thereby — according to orthodox political commentary — missing an opportunity.
No big vision, no big initiatives — mostly criticism of the government, and not particularly for the budget, either. He announced a social housing fund, the upshot of which is probably $700-800 million (depending on investment returns) a year to build around 4000 homes a year, 20% of which would be reserved for victims of domestic violence and senior women.
No further detail on that, especially around how to stop cost-shifting by the states, which is what the NSW and Victorian governments did when Kevin Rudd pumped hundreds of millions into 20,000 social housing units during the financial crisis. And funding for apprenticeships in renewables industries, part of Labor’s focus on the economic benefits of renewables investments.
Otherwise it was a continuation of Labor’s small-target strategy, even on big spending announcements. If last year’s budget reply was a canny exploitation of an obvious gap in the budget — the Coalition’s planet-sized blind spot for female voters and gender issues — this year was about refusing to be drawn out from behind the defences to repel the Coalition’s incursion onto Labor turf.
Laying it out in such clunky military metaphors points to why Labor is alleged by political journalists to have failed, to have been too cautious — political journalism and commentary are so much easier when politicians are announcing things, preferably with lots of zeroes, in a contest to see who can attract voters. Instead, Labor continues to keep its powder dry and will likely do so most of the way to the next election.
It also reflects what most of us in the political industry believe: the budget is the big set-piece of the year, one of the few times that most voters — who by and large pay zero attention to politics — notice what’s happening in Canberra, if only to work out how they’ll benefit or otherwise. Why wouldn’t an opposition leader — well known for enjoying “fighting Tories” — seize the moment to launch a spending counter-offensive?
In truth, voters barely pay attention to the budget coverage and even one of the biggest spending budgets in history has already disappeared from the media cycle. The old rituals of the budget — the lock-up, the budget night speech and analysis, the Wednesday Press Club address, the opposition reply — increasingly look like political class navel-gazing. Labor’s small-target, wait-’til-the-election strategy may accidentally fit a tuned-out electorate that might have barely registered any colossal Labor spending promise.
All this assumes, of course, that come the election, Albanese’s Labor will have something big to unveil — that some big-picture thinking is going on to create a vision worth more articulating against a grab-bag of large-scale spending initiatives from a government without a coherent agenda or, now, even a dominant ideology.
For the moment, however, the old maxim that a bad plan well executed is better than the best plan poorly executed — or in Labor’s case, so far not executed at all — seems to hold.
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