The Politics    Monday, May 11, 2015

Budgets are what happen while you’re making other plans

By Sean Kelly

Tony Abbott almost let the budget get away from him

“Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans,” goes the John Lennon song.

Political narratives can be a little like that. You’re focused on your chosen strategy, making sure it’s sequenced right, your arguments are in order, your facts are all correct, when suddenly you realise another story entirely has been unrolling itself and is now laid out for all to see.

Which is exactly what happened this week to Tony Abbott. The prime minister, zealously overseeing this year’s budget process, has worked closely with his ministers to direct a (mostly) very clever announcement strategy.

A fix for pensions was found, selectively leaked and then announced. Childcare reforms were handled with similar adroitness. The minister responsible, Scott Morrison, was sent out day after day and handled his brief with the dexterous skill of a life-long card shark.

And along the way the government’s chosen political narrative, of fairness and getting people into the workforce, which Scott Morrison was doing a good job of selling, was overtaken by the very fact that Scott Morrison was doing a good job of selling it.

The dominant story became about would-be treasurer Morrison stealing the political thunder of actual treasurer Joe Hockey (a point this column made last Monday).

Sometimes in government, even when you’re doing everything right you can still be doing it wrong.

When I worked in Canberra, usual practice was for the treasurer to have budget night to himself in the media, with the morning after restricted to the prime minister and treasurer. Other ministers waited patiently. It will be interesting to see what happens this year.

So what can we expect over the next few days? There have been conflicting signs.

As I said, the government has so far done very well on the substance of the budget – both in policy and political terms. Its announcements have been well designed. That suggests a government that has learned from its mistakes.

You might have expected the cleverness to continue, except, as I mentioned Friday, it then risked tainting this year’s budget with the stench of last year’s by tying childcare reforms to last year’s cuts to family tax benefits. Over the weekend that’s become a big issue, with senators indicating they are unlikely to stand for such games. Suddenly the government seemed back to its foolish self.

But then today, when pushed on the matter, the PM said he was willing to talk about other savings if necessary. Gone was the blustery PM of last year, replaced by a reasonable man willing to make amends with his enemies if that would get the job done.  

My sense is that the government would like this budget to be over in a few days (as the Monthly’s editor put it in a tweet, “It's pretty clear the govt would prefer not to have a Budget this year”). If they handle the next week as well as they have handled the last week – ScoMo’s overlarge public profile notwithstanding – then they should be able to achieve that.

We have seen most of the budget by now, but the treasurer, weakened as he is, would have insisted on having something left. My guess would be investment in jobs.

The commentators will then do their usual thing of wondering whether the government will get a “budget bounce” in the polls. Of course these are largely a myth – three budgets in the past quarter-century have moved the polls with any significance, two of them backwards (one of them last year). I wouldn’t be surprised if the government goes up a little, but this would be a continuation of the trend we’ve been seeing since February.

Of course I could be wrong – a huge budget bounce might embolden the government to bring “tough” budget measures to an unwilling senate in order to give itself a public excuse for an early election. That would make the next few months very interesting indeed. Or the budget could bomb and we’ll get a new PM.

But putting those exciting possibilities to one side, I doubt the budget will put an end to speculation about Hockey’s future, unless he makes a major gaffe. While the government’s political management is improving, they’re still prone to unforced errors. In the last three days we’ve had cuts to paid parental leave announced on Mother’s Day, a PM saying that $185,000 wasn’t an “especially high” family income, and a treasurer forbidden to answer questions about his own budget, details of which had been provided by the government to newspapers that morning.

If a gaffe happens, Hockey’s political death will be quick. If he gets through the next few days with dignity intact, he’ll still have to survive the conviction of his colleagues that either Morrison or Malcolm Turnbull would do a better job. It will be an impressive feat if he is still in the job by the beginning of political business next year.

Hockey gave a press conference today and looked slightly sad, especially when asked if this was in fact his budget. But right at the end he offered a dash of hope to his dwindling crowd of supporters. He had been talking about multinational companies paying their fair share of tax. In his final line before leaving the room, he said that if everyone paid what they should, then perhaps those Australians who do the right thing might end up having to pay a little bit less.

If tax cuts are still a glimmer in the treasurer’s eye, even in these overcast times, then he’s not out quite yet – just down. But what a long way.

Battle of the tortured analogies: Labor MP Andrew Leigh said “Joe Hockey is a bit like the star of Weekend at Bernie’s – just being propped up by Tony Abbott and Scott Morrison, unable to go out there and sell his budget.” Scott Morrison said of Hockey, “He’s our Greg Bird.” The Gold Coast Titans player is currently sidelined, of course, having been suspended for eight weeks. But what Morrison allegedly meant was: “I’ll be the prop forward talking it up and he can be the one who will score the try and that’s what he’ll be doing on budget day.” And he’s since said that he actually meant Jack Bird.

The SMH has this useful calculator to find out where you sit in the nation’s income rankings.

Michael Pascoe saying this budget is about management, not leadership. And Malcolm Farr looks at how Abbott is dismantling the Howard approach.

More detail on the government’s paid parental leave announcement here.

The ABC has begun promoting their forthcoming documentary series on the past few years of Labor government, called The Killing Season.

Beloved public figure Sophie Mirabella has launched her preselection campaign for her old seat of Indi.

UK watch: A great piece from Peter Brent on the desperate need to impose convenient narratives on election results. And a report that Ed Miliband’s internal polls told him what was coming.

US watch: Michelle Obama has talked about the double standards she has faced as the first African-American first lady of the United States. And Jeb Bush would have invaded Iraq

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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