Rats can’t see nothing

Thursday, 8 May 2008 

BARRIE CASSIDY: Paul, good morning. Budgets these days, are they essentially housekeeping or are they more than that?

PAUL KELLY: This Budget, Barrie, is certainly an awful lot more than just housekeeping. I think in a sense, this is the early moments of truth for the Rudd Government, this Budget will tell us a lot about the character of the Government, so far, this Government’s been brilliant in playing the politics in terms of gesture, in terms of spin. What it’s got to demonstrate with this Budget is that it is prepared to take the tough decisions, that it’s got a strategic view over the next three years, and at the end of the day, in terms of the way it spends money, that is the real shaper of its values and its priorities.

Insiders 4 May 2008

Paul Kelly neatly sums up the problem with the media’s discussion around the Budget. It is acting as though the government has an economic policy. Labor’s economic strategic view is supposed to be something we don’t know about, but will finally be revealed in the Budget.

However, the reason why we don’t know about it, even just after an election that was supposed to be all about it, is that Labor’s economic alternative never emerged. It wasn’t a tactic, but the political reality with the major questions like industrial relations and government spending resolved and monetary policy handed to the RBA.

The public’s understanding that the economic debate is over was something the media struggled to get to grips with last year as they watched disbelieving while the Howard government proudly carried its worthless poll lead in economic management all the way to its defeat. Some of them still don’t get it now. They see a government that seems to have occupied itself with flim-flam in the months since the election but now has to knuckle down to the serious stuff.

But what we see is what we are getting. Rudd has only one economic message: the government has no control over it and it is sheer politics to suggest otherwise. Government’s main role is to accommodate itself to the economic reality, whether dictated to by international markets or the RBA, and perhaps lighten the load a bit where it can. Political agendas like coalition pork-barrelling or, indeed, Labor spending plans, are economically irresponsible and threaten the well-being of working families.

Having over-egged the inflation crisis as an anti-political weapon against the spending plans of both parties, now that it is consolidated in power, the Rudd leadership is starting to look much more relaxed talking about the economy. Tanner had absolutely nothing to say on The 7.30 Report and was under little pressure to do so. Even the one issue the coalition (and The Australian) has been running on, Treasury advice over the inflationary impact of rolling back Workchoices, could be brushed aside. Interestingly Tanner’s response was to say that the last year’s warnings were before Labor’s IR plans had been ‘finalised’. Presumably, this was important as the final version of Labor’s IR plans had little impact on inflation, probably because it had little impact on the industrial relations scene.

The idea that government can have little influence over an issue like the economy, which fundamentally affects us all, takes a little getting used to. The Howard government managed to conceal this awful secret for most of its tenure although it got caught out as interest rates rose in the last year. Rudd has been more up-front about it since day one. However, the media (and some in the Liberal party) seem to be taking longer to get the message. It is why they keep asking Ministers those bizarre questions about whether they can “guarantee” that inflation/unemployment won’t rise when of course they can’t and say so. It is also why they keep mis-interpreting Labor’s promise to ‘keep watch’ on grocery and petrol prices as being a promise to keep them down. The public knows what they mean even if the media don’t. But then it is probably not that surprising political journalists would be among the last to catch on how little government Ministers can do these days, otherwise, what are they interviewing them for?

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Thursday, 8 May 2008.

Filed under Media analysis

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