Illustration: Bruce Petty.
There is no better time of year to observe the "dark arts" of political spin and strategy than the pre-budget period.
Fourteen years ago, when the Blair government was at the height of its spin power, with Alastair Campbell at the helm of communications and strategy, British political journalist and now academic Ivor Gaber wrote a great article for the journal Media, Culture & Society, analysing the process of "government by spin". Of the 23 spin techniques that Gaber listed, many are in full train at the moment.
One of the most obvious is also one of the most traditional strategies in the lead-up to the budget - kite-flying. This is when the government uses the media to float proposals in order to test reaction to them. Three years ago, under the Gillard government, pre-budget headlines that the "Childcare rebate could be cut in the federal budget" frightened hundreds of thousands of working parents throughout the country. After a backlash, when the budget was delivered weeks later, it turned out the childcare rebate had escaped tough cuts after all.
This time, the Abbott government’s debt-levy/tax on high-income earners is an obvious kite. And, given the response so far - especially from the Liberal’s heartland of high-income earners but also from middle Australia and aspirational voters - it would be surprising if the levy will apply to those on $80,000. If it does happen, it is likely to kick in at higher levels of income.
But perhaps the debt levy/tax is a clever distraction? There did appear to be some leaks to friendly news sources about its details (another spin technique). And while all of the vocal, high-income earners are rallying against the levy and broken promises, that takes attention away from other budget measures that might be about to hit many more Australians. This includes those who are least able to defend themselves - the unemployed, single parents, disability pensioners, the chronically ill, students, the elderly, low and middle-income families who have to take their children to the doctors regularly. Their concerns might be crowded out by the focus on the wealth tax. And, if not by the wealth tax, by a focus on the many chilling prospects raised by the Commission of Audit.
The timing of the Commission of Audit’s report was, of course, another spin technique. It was about driving the news agenda and making all of the pre-budget talk focus upon debt, deficit doom and gloom, austerity measures and spending cuts. The commission delivered a smorgasbord of potential pain to give all of us in the commentariat plenty to talk about. For the left, there is confusion about what to complain about first - proposed cuts to the ABC, to the welfare safety net, to health, to the minimum wage?
The commission was also about lowering voters’ expectations - another traditional pre-budget spin technique. It was part of that familiar routine that sees the Treasurer make it known the forthcoming budget will be a tough one. As Gaber says, if this technique is successfully employed, "the worst is expected [but] then, seemingly miraculously, a little extra is found here, a little less is required there, and the budget is hailed as a triumph".
The problem for the Coalition this time, though, is that it has overdone it. The disaster scenario it has painted - aided by the hand-picked commission - just isn’t convincing. Government debt is an abstract concept to begin with. To say that government debt might increase to unsustainable levels in the longer-term just seems even more remote and not very urgent. When austerity measures were introduced in Britain, things were obviously, and visibly, bad. Here in Australia, that isn’t the case and the Coalition has so overdone the fiscal emergency line that it is now unlikely to get the political bounce that governments usually enjoy after presenting a doom-and-gloom scenario and then delivering a nicer, kinder budget than expected. Instead, voters are more likely to see the disparity as just further evidence the doom-and-gloom scenarios were always exaggerated.
One more technique that is likely to be on the horizon is "laundering". This involves finding a piece of good news to release at the same time as bad news. If the timing and presentation of the good news is done effectively, the bad news will be overshadowed. So if any negative changes to age pensions are coming in the budget, expect to see some newsworthy sweeteners for older Australians announced concurrently. Those sweeteners don’t have to be equivalent in money terms, just interesting enough to capture media attention and confound any cuts to pension rates.
The Abbott government had an unusually muted, blink-and-you-missed-it, post-election honeymoon. If it can’t get the sort of post-budget boost that governments normally obtain, it has missed out on two key indicators of a government that is travelling well. At that point, it might be wishing for an Alastair Campbell to arrive and finesse its techniques.
Sally Young is an Age columnist and associate professor of politics at the University of Melbourne.