Ticking off the boxes

10 May 2007

It's all part of the long haul for the government, writes JACK WATERFORD

THIS is one which the government’s tacticians think will tick off all the boxes. Or a good many of the boxes up until the formal start of the election campaign, when wheelbarrows full of extra cash will be dumped in some fresh areas - not least climate change - and into some of the boxes that did not seem to get enough appreciation.

The boxes in question are not of the mechanical auditing or bookkeeping school - mere checks to see that money is going in the right direction. The boxes are interests, feelings, constituencies and moaners and particularly those who are concentrated in the 30 or so electorates most at risk for, or now thought winnable by, the government.

A good few of these boxes come in groups of only several hundred at a time. Others, including tax cuts, child care and new education expenditure, are of far wider effect, but have been designed, and will be sold, specifically so as to appeal to key swinging or disillusioned sets of voters in these key seats.

It ought to be a triumph for Peter Costello. The economy is booming, even if it owes more to China and the resources boom than to the government’s continuation of, and development of, some fundamental economic disciplines of the past 20 years.

The government is awash with money - much more than it expected - and could not spend all that it had, even if it gave it a jolly good try.

There were hardly ever so many options, and all affordable. Tax cuts, certainly, if ones focused at the key constituencies, not least the “battlers” marked as increasingly disaffected with the government. More to education at every level - in schools, in the technical training sector, and for universities. Much more for defence - indeed much more than it can probably swallow. A defence insider remarked recently that the Defence secretary, Nick Warner, is now trying to drink water through a fire hose. Targeted spending on national security, on child care, on old age.

Still plenty of unaccountable slush money for the National Party to throw to its mates on an ad hoc basis under the “Regional Partnerships Program”. More for the environment, and the hint that there will be much more to come as the government launches its formal campaign, with great promises of vision and nation building. More for roads and the national infrastructure. More even for Aborigines, if a more that is now not only increasingly targeted, but wrapped up with the government’s new anti-welfare preoccupations.

Announcements too that will require careful explaining to the Australian people, via expensive and partisan advertising campaigns paid for by the taxpayer. With, as has now almost become the norm, virtually no way of disinterring just how much from the voluminous budget documents, given the meaninglessness of most of the formal budget line items.

A process which is compounded by the increasing difficulty of actually establishing whether money previously given has been spent as promised, or whether some announcements are mere repackaged old announcements, this time with a different spin.

One can announce $10 billion over 10 years, or $15 billion over seven, or, for that matter, $20billion over 20 years, not to start until the financial year after this, and there is a bit of a public assumption that it is all money starting to flow, and from now.

Only the next three years, of course, will figure in the actual estimates, but, as often as not, when one looks next year, a good deal of the expenditure will have vanished into another vaguely described category, and there is very little guessing who got what, where it went, or whether it was actually spent at all. So much do instant decisions dazzle, in any event, that most people have forgotten by then anyway. But that’s actually a big problem for government, even one awash with money.

People now expect tax cuts, every time. They do not fall over the government with gratitude. They expect a few big headline announcements, but (whether or not the money is spent) they have often forgotten them in a very short period.

About half of those on the electoral rolls were too young to vote in 1996, and view the present, prolonged boom as a norm. Attempts by the government to remind people of the 1991 recession, or the high interest rates of that period obviously still work on some parts of the population, but, for a substantial proportion of voters, one might as well be talking of World War 2.

Peter Costello has had generous budgets over the past four years, with tax cuts and targeted handouts to parents, pensioners and others. This one is right in the mould, and, come (probably) early October, he will have even more good news, provided that voters keep the faith and return the Howard government. Yet it has been a long time since budget giveaways, tax cuts, or major policy announcements have given the government much of a bounce in the opinion polls.

The electorate is not only cynical, particularly around election time, but takes generous budgets for granted. Mr Howard did not win the last two elections with generous budget handouts, or with election promises. Last time about he did it by raising the spectre of Labor’s throwing all the gains, all the stability and all of the boom away - something he seems to be having more trouble selling this time about. The time before, it was by seeming the figure of stability and certainty in what appeared a national security crisis. Again, that’s a bit harder to sell now.

But checking the boxes is still very important in the long haul, not least in neutralising some special factors working against him, some local discontents, some key groups who, according to the pollsters, are still capable of being wooed. It’s not a matter of reaching out to 51 per cent of the population in one go. It’s rather more a question of putting the building blocks together, often only 1 or 2 per cent at a time. Until, one hopes, one has cracked 51 per cent in at least 51 per cent of the electorates.

Indeed, Mr Howard has a long record of clawing back votes in the last few months before an election. The polls, at the moment, now show him well behind. But he was well behind, six months out, in 2001 and 2004, and, if he has ticked off the right boxes this time, could be far more competitive on election day.

That’s why budgets, particularly around election time, are being increasingly confected in the offices of the politicians, and in the offices of the prime minister. And that’s why there is going to be massive spending on making sure that those in the boxes appreciate what is being done for them, and how it might be at risk if one gambles on that Mr Rudd and Mr Swan. •

Jack Waterford is editor-at-large of the Canberra Times, where this article first appeared.

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