Opinion To win over the public with its federal budget, the Liberals need to act like Labor
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To win over the public with its federal budget, the Liberals need to act like Labor

Liberal government's federal budget
To get the budget over the line, Madonna King wants to see the Liberal Party act more like Labor. Photo: TND
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The beauty of the budget ritual is the way it brings the past and future together in thousands of pages that convey a sense of presence.

Forget the budget speech. Its sentiments are transitory.

The real detail is buried in the budget documents that should convey a sense of how the private economy and the public accounts have been travelling, how they have performed against expectations, and what the outlook is like.

Budget day and night is the Treasurer’s day and night. Josh Frydenberg might even get to bask in the the budget spotlight for some of the following day, but you can bet that Scott Morrison, like any Prime Minister, will be stepping out of the shadows if the budget is well received.

This budget, more than any of the past 20 or so, needs to be well received.

It is the reset button for the Morrison government, which talks a lot but doesn’t appear yet (after almost three years) to stand for much.

This budget will tell us the economic outcome from COVID-19 is not as grim as we feared a year ago.

It will allow a sober reflection on how the economy has weathered and then recovered from the COVID storm, and how the public purse has been battered but not beaten.

And hopefully a clear picture on where we are going.

No matter what the rhetoric – whether it’s about climate change, equity, reconciliation, faith, hope or trust – there’s one thing you can count on. If you want to know what’s happened or is intended to happen, then follow the money.

The budget will tell us where the money’s coming from and where it’s going.

Because whatever Josh Frydenberg or Scott Morrison say, nothing that matters happens without funding to support it.

The challenge for Mr Frydenberg is where to find that money.

The past year has run up debt closer to discomfort levels, but don’t be fooled. Australia still has a healthier debt profile than most similar economies.

Yes, the budget needs to get back to surplus, but not at the cost of investing in social and economic reforms that can help set us up for the second quarter of the century (just a few years away now).

Josh Frydenberg has some books to balance and some spin to sell at the budget.

What are some of those investments? Well, everyone has their shopping list.

High on mine is investment in those measures that can genuinely achieve gender equity sooner rather than later.

Part of that will be satisfied, it seems, through support for child care and measures to close the gender gap in superannuation.

But we need more.

Domestic violence is now a plague that isn’t solved just by the criminal justice system, but needs investment at the root and branch level to shift attitudes over a generation, maybe two.

Whatever anyone says, it is and remains the case that the majority of perpetrators of violence against women are men.

Those who think this is OK need support to change their attitudes – and that costs money.

Equally important is the right investment in education to lift our children’s skills in the 21st century skills (not just STEM but collaboration and complex thinking) that will keep this country competitive.

Flagged reforms to the curriculum this week may help (after all, who reads the time on a clock with hands any more?) but they are only meaningful if they are well taught in well-equipped classrooms with skilled and enthusiastic teachers.

And, yes, that needs money to attract and keep the best people who will guide our children.

And a third wish, how about some investment to get in front of the looming problems in our health system?

If need be, provide incentives for healthy eating and exercise that delay or keep people away from doctors and hospitals.

Put some money into making sure disadvantage isn’t entrenched by forcing the impoverished into unhealthy habits.

These may sound more like Labor priorities than priorities of a Liberal government.

But if any conservative government is going to make the leap, it will be this one – Mr Morrison needs to find a purpose and needs to find a way to bring back into the fold the middle-grounded voters he shed since the last election.

This budget is its chance to reset the agenda, and to talk about the economy as central to the lives and aspirations of the voters it needs.

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