It could be said that a budget that pleases Canberra displeases the rest of the country. Few voters outside this city celebrate their taxes being spent on extra public servants.
Little wonder, then, that a Turnbull government leak this week emphasised that its civilian workforce had about 15,000 fewer staff than the peak reached under Labor prime minister Julia Gillard.
But the truth, which perhaps the Coalition is reluctant to spruik before an election, is that Treasurer Scott Morrison's first budget is not so bad for Canberra at all, whatever rhetoric ("small government", "budget repair", etc) we hear in coming weeks.
Yes, the numbers of civilian staff will remain static over the coming year. That's not in itself great news for the ACT but it's a welcome change compared with the steep cuts to the bureaucracy imposed under the Abbott government.
However, there's a better way to measure the size of government than the number of public servants it employs: look at its "running costs" (or departmental expenses).
They show that the business of government was booming over the past year: these expenses grew almost twice as fast (4.6 per cent) as the economy as a whole (2.5 per cent). Treasury estimates the government's running costs will continue to rise relatively quickly in the coming year, at a rate of 3 per cent.
And that's excluding the rapidly expanding national disability insurance scheme; if that's taken into account, the government's running costs will increase, on average, by more than 8 per cent a year over the coming budget cycle.
Ebbs and flows in federal departmental expenses tend to match the ACT's economic growth. They're not a perfect predictor of this city's prospects but, as long as these expenses continue to grow, the capital will be inured from a slump.
So while Labor-voting Canberra, as ever, will not benefit directly from election-year pork barrelling (the only ACT-specific nugget this budget offers is a few hundred thousand dollars for transport-related technology), the city will likely benefit in other ways. There might not be a rush on public service recruiting, but money will be spent via other channels: the government will employ contractors, hire consultants and enter into contracts for other services – the work in which much of the ACT's private sector specialises. Indeed, the Commonwealth's increased spending over the past 10 months explains, in part, why Canberra's jobless rate has fallen even though the bureaucracy's workforce didn't grow.
This isn't to underplay the consequences of the Coalition's retreat on the so-called "efficiency dividend". Last year, Finance Minister Mathias Cormann effectively acknowledged what everyone else had: that the dividend was reaching its expiry date. The government's own audit commission called it a "blunt instrument" that caused harm as much as it promoted efficiency.
Yet the dividend – an annual, across-the-board cut to departmental expenses – has an irresistible allure to lazy governments. When they lack the courage to raise enough taxes to cover their costs, the dividend will always beckon as a stop-gap solution; a way to mop up some of the budget's red ink.
Yes, the ongoing 2.5 per cent dividend will have real consequences for the bureaucracy, which will no doubt be forced into making some inefficient, short-term savings as a result. But, as the budget papers show, even proudly "austere" governments have trouble cutting as deeply as their rhetoric. Most of this budget's genuinely difficult spending cuts have been put off to later years. Will those plans last beyond an election? Don't hold your breath.