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Budget draws closer but audit reports still shrouded in mystery

Date

Colin Brinsden

Treasurer Joe Hockey is not saying much.

Treasurer Joe Hockey is not saying much. Photo: Andrew Meares

The plot thickens. The build-up to the federal budget is beginning to look like an Agatha Christie whodunit or, in this case, a what's-in-it, with apparently more red herrings than a fishmonger's slab.

What we do know is, in September, the incoming federal government claimed to have found a budget in a state of emergency.

Come December and after some initial inquiries, Treasurer Joe Hockey warned that without remedial action, the budget would remain in deficit for a decade.

More recently, Hockey has warned that everyone will feel the pain of tough decisions.

Social Services Minister Kevin Andrews attempted prophecy: either we pay now or our children and their children will cop it down the track.

The biggest mystery is the whereabouts of crucial documents - the interim and final reports from the national commission of audit into government spending.

The government repeatedly promised to release them publicly and in time for at least some community debate before the budget, to be announced on May 13.

At this stage, it looks as if it's going to be more of a chat around the water cooler.

Time is running out, especially with Easter and Anzac Day minimising the number of days available for proper scrutiny. Next Wednesday is unlikely to be one of those days - the latest official inflation figures are due for release.

Another strong reading could advance the timing of an interest rate rise - hardly the backdrop for releasing the commission's findings.

With less than a month before budget day, top government advisers have yet to see both reports.

The head of Treasury's revenue group, Rob Heferen - someone you would think has a hand in preparing the budget - told a Senate inquiry this week he had not seen the audit and was not aware anyone else in Treasury had, either.

Typically, there has been the usual trail of pre-budget clues that may or may not be true. Hockey himself did everything but actually confirm the government intends to lift the pension age from 67 to 70 in its search for savings.

''It may be the case that my generation has to work for an extra three years,'' the 48-year-old said.

His comment triggered days of discussion involving other politicians, community groups and vested interests, only for the prospect to be hosed down by Prime Minister Tony Abbott.

Abbott insisted he was sticking with his election commitment that there would be ''no changes'' to pensions.

Then there were reports, quoting government sources, about the budget including tax increases despite the Coalition's election campaign mantra that it would be a low-taxing government.

Abbott was doing more insisting: he wanted ''lower taxes, not higher taxes''.

And if you needed a reminder, his government was trying to abolish the carbon and mining taxes.

It also has promised businesses a tax cut, barring the nation's 3200 biggest firms.

They have to forgo the cut with a levy to fund Abbott's paid parental leave scheme.

Hmmm, isn't a levy a tax? Suspicious.

Labor has tried to muddy the water, saying Abbott and Hockey are on a collision course heading into the budget.

''Either Joe Hockey delivers the budget he wants with big cuts and tax hikes or Mr Abbott keeps his election commitments - you can't have both,'' finance spokesman Tony Burke said.

Parliamentary secretary Josh Frydenberg countered by saying pre-budget speculation was often ''wide of the mark''.

Others might say there is no smoke without fire. AAP

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