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Messaging alone won’t win the nation’s trust

malcolm turnbull scott morrison
AAP
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Out in the real world, everyday Australians who watched their favourite television show on Tuesday night instead of the budget address woke the following morning simply wanting to know two things: what’s in it for me, and if there’s nothing for me, is the budget at least good for the nation?

One of the messages they’re likely to have picked up in the past day or so – because Treasurer Scott Morrison is ruthlessly sticking to this mantra – is that the budget is an economic plan for jobs and growth.

In fact the word “plan” was repeated at least 20 times in the budget speech.

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The use of this word is a deliberate tactic by the government to arrest increasing voter concern that PM Malcolm Turnbull and his team might not know what they’re doing.

This anxiety is a direct result of Mr Turnbull’s dalliance with a range of economic reforms since becoming PM, and an associated lack of consistent message on what plan his government had for “fixing” the economy.

Labor latched on to this voter concern, initially saying Mr Turnbull had a plan to get rid of Tony Abbott but no plan to govern, and later that Australians were “massively disappointed” with Mr Turnbull because he didn’t have an economic plan.

Scott Morrison may have changed the balance.Photo:AAP
Scott Morrison’s mantra centred on jobs and growth. Photo: AAP

Well now he does. As Mr Morrison said at his post budget address to the National Press Club: “Australians wanted a plan for jobs and growth. And now they have one.”

However this plan has another purpose; it’s a plan to entrench another voter concern – this time, that Labor is more interested in spending money than being responsible economic managers.

That’s why Mr Morrison has been going on about “living within our means”. He explained what this meant on budget night, pressing home the point that this was no time to be splashing money around, and that the government would not be spending more than it saved.

The soundbites emerging from the government and the Opposition since budget night give us the best view yet of the themes that will dominate the election campaign, which is likely to be kicked off on the weekend.

For the government, it will be their plan for jobs and growth – that is responsible economic management – while for the Opposition it will be fairness.

Labor’s response to the budget is based on the assessment that voters have not yet forgotten the Abbott/Hockey horror budget of 2014, and will be concerned whether this year’s budget harbours similar inequities.

Housing bubble policies were left in place.Photo:Getty
Labor was likely to target housing affordability in a plan focusing on people, not dollars. Photo: Getty

Accordingly, the mantra being repeated by Opposition Leader Bill Shorten and his Treasury spokesperson Chris Bowen is that the budget only benefits the top end of town and does nothing for everyday Australians.

Labor is depicting the modest tax cut aimed at sparing some workers from moving into the next income tax bracket as a bounty for millionaires, while the 10-year plan to eventually reduce company tax to 25 per cent is similarly portrayed as a sop for big business instead of a boost for the economy.

The net effect of the two campaign narratives, now that the government has also neutralised a number of the Opposition’s budget initiatives by stealing them, is that the defining differences between the two alternative governments have become particularly stark.

One team says it is offering an economic plan aimed at boosting the economy and creating jobs. It is likely the other will offer a plan based on people not dollars, focusing on health, education, housing affordability, and perhaps even tax cuts.

It will be left to voters to choose between the two, based either on what benefits them directly or who they best trust to do the right thing by the nation.

Paula Matthewson was media adviser to John Howard in the early 1990s and then worked for almost 25 years in communication, political and industry advocacy roles. She is now a freelance writer and communication strategist. Paula has been tweeting and blogging about politics, the media and social media since 2009 under the pen name @Drag0nista.

You can read more of her columns here

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