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My 30 years of Keating, Costello and Swan – no wonder they call it a Budget lock-up

From surpluses created out of thin air to the rock star taking centre stage this week, Federal Budgets are about much more than a set of numbers. David Fagan, who attended more than 30 “lock ups”, explains

May 14, 2024, updated May 14, 2024
Federal treasurer Wayne Swan hands down his sixth budget in the House of Representatives at Parliament House Canberra, Tuesday, May 14, 2013. Despite annual promises, Swan never delivered a budget surplus (AAP Image/Lukas Coch)

Federal treasurer Wayne Swan hands down his sixth budget in the House of Representatives at Parliament House Canberra, Tuesday, May 14, 2013. Despite annual promises, Swan never delivered a budget surplus (AAP Image/Lukas Coch)

Federal budgets are as much about story-telling as about balancing columns of figures and hundreds of pages of program statements.

I went to about 30 lockups for budgets or mini-budgets before I gave up on them a decade or so ago and it remains the stories the Treasurers of the day – Keating, Costello and Swan – told about where the country was going that stand out.

Keating told us about bold plans to build national savings through superannuation and famously declared one of his reforming budgets the one that “brings home the bacon”. Pity then that the economy then went into recession and the bacon turned back into a big, fat smelly pig.

By coincidence, I learnt I was having my youngest daughter the same night Peter Costello announced a $5000 baby bonus as encouragement to have one (child) for each other and one for the country. Bonus.

My last budget lock-up was Wayne Swan’s promise of a future of budget surpluses which I found barely believable, particularly as Federal Treasury had created its own marketing budget which paid for cloth tote bags carrying its emblem and a symbol of Budget 2010.

Enough, after all, is enough.

My decades of budget lockups as a journalist and editor have been characterised by trying to anticipate what would be delivered on budget night. The task in the windowless, isolated budget lockup is akin to an open-book exam but with success more likely through careful preparation.

One lockup I worked through correctly anticipated that Peter Costello would deliver a surprise surplus. As it happened the surplus came from the sale of 3G spectrum to telecommunications companies, a proposal that allowed The Australian to headline it as a “surplus out of thin air”.

Another correctly anticipated a focus on infrastructure and nation-building which allowed The Courier-Mail to prepare a budget lift out that looked entirely like an engineer’s blueprint.

Some habits are hard to break and I still get to most budget days trying to anticipate the themes – what message will the Treasurer want to convey and what is the reality.

We can already see that Jim Chalmers’ theme for this year’s budget is a theme of recovery: defects (housing shortages, NDIS blowouts, stalled energy transformation) fixed, inflation contained, wages growing and another surplus, not out of thin air but out of iron ore and other mineral exports. Which could lend itself to a Budget headline describing him as a rock star. But that would require great generosity.

The alternative narrative is that this is a bandaid budget – social and economic defects not fixed but patched up; inflation still in dispute, wages growing but productivity not growing with them and, yes, another surplus but not one that’s sustainable to cover ongoing spending commitments.
The truth will be told when the bandaid is ripped off.

There’s no doubt Jim Chalmers is a gifted communicator, well able to tell a budget story. He learnt the hard way through the rocky years of being on Wayne Swan’s staff during the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd period and its struggles with the Global Financial Crisis, the failed attempts to reform the energy markets and tax system and the bitterness of leadership.

He is probably the best story teller in the government, certainly better than his leader who seems to have forgotten anything he knew about campaigning.

The problem he faces as Treasurer going into this budget is that the morals of his stories are not matching reality. While Chalmers has spoken and written extensively about the changed nature of work, he is part of a government that wants to regulate workplaces as though we were still in the 1970s. While he has spoken extensively about the need to reinstate productivity growth, he is delivering policies that stall productivity.

Don’t believe me, believe his handpicked chair of the Productivity Commission, Danielle Wood, who declared of the government’s Made in Australia initiative: “We risk creating a class of businesses that is reliant on government subsidies and that can be very effective in coming back for more.” Ouch.

This year’s budget is the one that sets the government up politically for the year leading to a general election. It should be as good as it can get to ensure Labor gets the second term it craves and believes it deserves.

Coming days will tell us what sort of story the government has to tell and, as importantly, who gets to live happily ever after.

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