The Politics    Monday, May 4, 2015

Drip, drip

By Sean Kelly

Childcare leaks and leadership

Budget news is coming thick and fast now.

Some of that news is official: actual announcements from ministers. Those announcements will have been sanctioned by the treasurer’s office and the prime minister’s office. Press releases will have been written, triple-checked, and cleared. Answers to tricky questions will have been workshopped.

Much of the news, though, comes in the shadowy form of leaks. Those leaks, in turn, fall into two buckets: official leaks, or “drops”; and actual, unofficial, the-prime-minister-would-prefer-this-wasn’t-public-yet leaks.

The “drops”, like the actual announcements, will have been carefully planned in advance, scheduled according to a strict timetable. While the government often won’t confirm their truth until budget night, they are as much a part of government strategy as all of the stage-managed press conferences you’ve been getting on confirmed policy.

So why does a government undertake this subterranean strategy of “drops”?

Well, for many reasons – many of them peculiar to budget season.

On budget night, hundreds and hundreds of announcements will be made. Inevitably, all but a few of those will be lost to the greater media cycle.

Governments are keen to maximise the good publicity they can get out of a budget, and so, not wanting to waste a cent that won’t get them a radiant column inch somewhere, often leak small stories ahead of time.

Sometimes, on a bigger story, a minister will provide a drop to a newspaper then semi-confirm it the next day. The exclusive drop gets the minister a front page, the news is partly confirmed (giving the television news journalists enough to put together a story that will be seen by millions of people), but the news hasn’t been officially announced yet.

Refusing to officially confirm stories is an effective method for getting many bites out of the same cherry.

The other thing you often see ahead of the budget is the “dropping” of bad news. That seems counterintuitive at first, but most governments want budget night itself to seem like a gigantic gift to voters. Sometimes that means getting awful news, the equivalent of coal in a Christmas stocking, out of the way early, so that it doesn’t overshadow the good stuff they have planned.

The final reason that news is dropped out ahead of the budget is perhaps even more cynical, and probably more necessary: to please journalists. Press gallery reporters are obsessively scanning broadcasts, websites and newspapers right now, trying to figure out if the government has been kinder to somebody else. If it has – if, say, the ABC or the Daily Telegraph hasn’t been given a juicy announcement to itself yet – then the treasurer’s press office is going to be getting a loud, unhappy call wondering why. Governments are well aware that the journalists covering the lead-up to the budget are the same journalists who will be covering the budget itself a few days later.

Things get really interesting when a minister has a different agenda from the treasurer and the PM.

It’s through that filter that I’ve been watching the slow announcement of the government’s childcare package.

All the way back in January, Samantha Maiden at the Sunday Telegraph, who understands childcare policy better than almost anyone in the country, had a story in which Morrison outlined his three principles for childcare. One of them was increasing female workforce participation. “This may include tougher work tests to qualify for childcare assistance”, Maiden wrote. Morrison did not confirm any plans, only hinted at them.

In late March, Maiden ran a piece that all but confirmed the small January hint. Morrison had indicated he wanted to use childcare policy to get people into work – but again hadn’t confirmed any details.

Two weeks ago, Morrison spoke to Maiden about the possibility of scrapping the cap on childcare rebates. Again, Morrison was very forward, up to a point: “Mr Morrison stressed he is yet to announce any formal decision …”

Last Friday, the Australian ran a piece suggesting that Maiden’s original January hint was correct – there would be tougher work tests – which Morrison confirmed, again without detail.

On Sunday, Maiden had another piece on childcare, with much more detail on a range of policies.

And we still haven’t seen the actual announcement of the childcare package.

There are a few things worth noting here.

The first is how adept Morrison has been at keeping the issue in the headlines. He’s released a little bit here, a little bit there, refusing to confirm much, the master of coy. (I hasten to add I have no doubt Maiden dug up some of those facts and put them to Morrison, rather than the other way around – but I’m also sure Morrison knew exactly what he was doing.)

The second is that Morrison has succeeded in making the childcare package his. Tony Abbott is desperate for a budget triumph. He is counting on a successful budget to keep him in his job, as is Joe Hockey. Scott Morrison is widely considered to be the likely treasurer should Malcolm Turnbull take Abbott’s job. It’s therefore fascinating that Morrison is doing everything he can to ensure that childcare policy is seen as his work, rather than Abbott’s or Hockey’s. It may bring them public dividends – but the internal political credit will go to Morrison.

Finally, there was a curious line in an Australian article today: “the release of new proposals on childcare and pensions has been slower than first planned”.

Prime ministers and treasurers are always keen to ensure they have big announcements left for budget night. Considering the huge pressures on revenue, the budget cupboard probably isn’t piled high with luxury goods. There would have been some consideration of holding the childcare announcement until next Tuesday night for Hockey alone – which Morrison would not have wanted, not one bit.

Given how early Morrison started flagging the childcare reforms that he has now begun to confirm, and the fact that reports say the package will be announced “this week”, it seems Morrison got his way on a number of fronts.

Laurie Oakes started the hares running with a column on Saturday suggesting the PM may be itching for an early election.

Phil Hudson has a column arguing that history shows PMs who go to early elections are much more likely to win.

And, when making pre-election guesses, poll-watchers will have to rely on new sources of information. From now on Galaxy Research will be doing the polling for the fortnightly Australian Newspoll.

Australian Federal Police Commissioner Andrew Colvin and Deputy Commissioner Mike Phelan gave a press conference to discuss the arrests of the Bali 9. They refused to apologise; said they could not rule out a similar instance occurring in the future; and said that, contrary to reports, Scott Rush’s father had not made the difference by tipping the police off.

Reports of a $47 billion hit to deficits over the next four years, and a new super study showing 60% of superannuation tax breaks go to the richest 20% of households.

Bill Shorten has indicated Labor is willing to compromise further to reach agreement with the government on the Renewable Energy Target. No word from the government at the time of writing.

Widely beloved politician and ex-member for Indi Sophie Mirabella has said that her fellow widely beloved politician Scott Morrison is the "next contemporary prime minister of Australia". 

Two gunmen were shot dead and a security guard was injured at a contest held in Dallas to draw the best cartoon of the prophet Muhammad.

UK TV journalists told of the danger of treating 24-hour news channels as “some separate legacy product, like Windows 95”.

Sean Kelly

Sean Kelly is a columnist for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, and was an adviser to Labor prime ministers Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd.


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