Budget night might be fun for political junkies, but for most Australians it’s the one night of the year when a boring political speech intrudes on their evening television viewing.
It’s not surprising that most people would rather stick pins in their eyes than listen to the Treasurer’s budget address. In addition to the usual econobabble, the speech is usually littered with a bunch of euphemisms and coded messages that are crafted more to influence the media’s reporting and rally government backbenchers than explain what is actually in the economic statement.
If you’re interested in what Scott Morrison’s budget speech was ‘really’ saying, here’s a quick translation:
The Turnbull government has a plan
A general rule in politics is that you can never repeat your political message too many times, because it’s only when you’re sick of your own voice that voters begin to hear your message.
That’s why the Treasurer told us 24 times during his budget address that the Turnbull government has a plan. There’s a plan for a “stronger economy” (which receives nine mentions) and a personal income tax plan (euphemistically dubbed tax “relief”). There’s also a couple of other plans, but the Treasurer and Prime Minister won’t care if you only remember the first two.
Oh, and also that Australia “must stick to the plan” – which Mr Morrison stressed three times during his speech – which roughly translates into “please don’t throw us out at the next election before we can deliver these goodies for you”.
Another coded theme that ran through the Treasurer’s speech was that the Turnbull government backs winners and those who want to be winners, while the Labor opposition wants to punish those who succeed.
“The Turnbull government believes that to create a stronger economy there must be reward for effort,” the Treasurer said.
“You must not punish people for working hard and doing well. This is what underpins our plan.”
This is not just a defence of the corporate tax cuts but a blatant dog whistle to aspirational middle Australians who want a McMansion, a TV in every bedroom, a second fridge in the garage, and enough money to go overseas every year. The Treasurer wants those voters to know that they risk losing this quality of life – or the chance to attain it – if the Coalition government is no longer around to implement its plan.
Compare the pair
Speaking of dog whistles, there are a couple of surreptitious digs against former prime minister Tony Abbott in the speech.
The Treasurer pointed out that the government has “made responsible budget savings – $41 billion legislated since the last election – to get spending under control”. That’s a sight better than Mr Abbott was ever able to achieve with his budget savings measures, many of which were blocked in the Senate.
The other dig is a related point, rubbing in the failure of the 2014 budget. The Treasurer noted that the budget deficit will be $18.2 billion in 2017-18, which is “less than half what it was just two years ago” and “the best budget outcome since the Howard government’s last budget a decade ago”.
Mr Morrison’s other most obvious coded message was when he spoke of “responsibly repairing” the budget – in obvious contrast with those other two ‘wreckers’, Mr Abbott and Bill Shorten.
“Higher taxes to chase higher spending never ends well,” said the Treasurer, hinting not too subtly at Labor’s proposed tax measures.
“Everyone pays the price of higher taxes. It weakens the economy and costs jobs. You don’t have to punish some people with higher taxes, who are already paying the majority of tax, to give others tax relief.”
There are plenty of other nods and winks in the speech, depending on your demographic. The Turnbull government loves boomers (“getting older does not mean you should have to surrender your dignity or your choices”), but will stay tough on terrorists (“the Liberal and National parties can always be trusted to keep Australians safe”) and dole bludgers (“a stronger economy keeps spending under control by getting Australians off welfare and into work”).
Yes, this was a multi-purpose budget speech. But more than anything, it was a preview of the Coalition’s upcoming election campaign.
“We must stick with this plan because it’s working,” pleaded the Treasurer, as he wrapped up his remarks. “We can’t afford to risk the alternative.”