Ice Cream, Politics & Gossip Girl: The Budget

It’s a joke. A pointless exercise contrived by the government of the day in an attempt to spin itself out of whatever black hole it’s managed to fall into. I should clarify.

Every year the federal government hands down a budget in May. It’s a critical process of governing in Australia because it involves passing what are called “supply bills” – legislation that allows the government to collect and spend revenue. That’s one part of it.

The other part involves the “budget papers”. This is where the government details all of its expenditure, department by department, line by line. It’s this part, and the media/politico orgy that accompanies it, that has me all riled up.

It’s my responsibility to inform you, dear reader, that the whole thing is meaningless. That’s right, regardless of who’s in power and despite every newspaper in the country, tabloid and broadsheet, devoting dozens of pages to budget analysis, television current affairs shows hosting panels of “experts” and interviewing every day Australians on their response and Young Liberal patriots bussing themselves to Canberra to get drunk at a pub within a 10 km radius of the illustrious Tony Abbot, the whole thing is essentially one big, confected event designed to make both politicians and journalists feel relevant.

But how! And why! I hear you cry. Most of the budget analyses that you read or watch focuses on new policy initiatives that the government has used the attention they get to announce.

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But 90% of the budget isn’t shiny new announcements; it’s the regular spending on things like health, welfare and education that might change slightly at the margins but by and large remain roughly the same.

The other 10% are “announceables” as they’re referred to in the business – policy announcements that will give the Treasurer something to talk about in his budget speech and Prime Minister something to talk about on Sunrise the next day.

Half of them aren’t really new either. They’re things that the government has already announced but needs to account for in this year’s budget papers. This gives them an opportunity to again highlight positive initiatives. The other half is genuinely new things.

This year’s new stuff was essentially just increases in welfare payments to families, partly to offset concern about the carbon tax. The problem here is that even though they’re announced as part of the budget process they don’t automatically pass the same time as the critical supply bills. They’re different pieces of legislation and subject to the usual negotiating and horse trading that goes on in getting laws passed through parliament.

So does this mean that the budget is really just the Treasurer (in this case Wayne Swan) making an irrelevant 30 minute speech delivered largely to satiate those on his own side (who dutifully demonstrate they haven’t fallen asleep and are in fact listening by regularly crying out “hear hear!”)?

Yes, that’s exactly what I mean and before you get angry at me for rubbishing this great parliamentary tradition did you bother switching over from Masterchef to watch it?

The real question is, if it’s all so meaningless, why do we hear so much about it?

The Australian press have always treated the Budget as the holy grail of political reporting but with dwindling circulation and revenue newspapers are looking for ways to generate content without actually spending any more. This means less investigative journalism and more regurgitation of political party talking points.

The government makes this really easy for them by utilising one of the most ludicrous events in Australian politics – the budget lock-up. It works exactly how it sounds. Every year, on budget day, journalists and lobby groups are stripped of any communication devices and locked in a room with the budget papers for five hours.

This is supposedly to allow them time to fully read and comprehend the budget papers, write their articles and prepare questions for the Treasurer’s press conference. What it really does is allow the government to control the flow of information and stop any leaks before the official speech in the evening.

The whole thing is a charade because everything interesting in the budget is always strategically leaked days in advance to allow the government to further control how and when things are reported. By the time the Treasurer’s speech rolls around everyone is watching George Calombaris fail to use cutlery on Channel 10 because we already know everything he’s going to say.

Even when significant policies are actually announced, such the billions of dollars for increased welfare payments, they’re always viewed by political journalists in a predetermined frame. So instead of an analysis as to whether cash payments are better for families with children than increased funding of public services like education and health, we get “SWAN BRIBES VOTERS ANGRY WITH CARBON TAX”.

Allowing the government to act as gatekeeper and control the message means that despite the non-stop coverage, significant announcements that affect thousands of people get missed. For example, this year the government announced it was doubling HECS for students studying maths and science at university. A pretty significant policy that was barely written about.

Since most of you reading this will be students I should go through what the budget had to say about higher education. Not much. The already mentioned HECS increases and cash bonuses to those on Youth Allowance were pretty much it. Despite the government’s own review into higher education calling for a 10% increase into funding of universities, the government refused to pump more money in.

Government spending affects every single Australian and even relatively minor policy adjustment can have huge impacts on different groups, including students. We deserve a much more rigorous and critical analysis of where our money is and isn’t spent not the meaningless circus we have now.

Osman Faruqi