Sunday Territorian 15 May 2011
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12 Sunday Territorian, Sunday, May 15, 2011 www.sundayterritorian.com.au P U B : N T N E W S D A T E : 1 5 -M A Y -2 0 1 1 P A G E : 1 2 C O L O R : C M Y K OPINION sundayterritorian.com.au Opposition Leader ditches the boring Budget economics Abbott crafty in reply Abbotts relentless, populist politicking is clearly working, and a flat-footed Government seems to have no idea what to do about it Abbotts relentl politicking is cle and a flat-foote seems to have n T ONY Abbotts comment before his Budget reply in Parliament on Thursday night was revealing. Im not going to give them some kind of a dull, boring shopping list, he said. He was referring to Julia Gillards call for him to tell Australians where the Coalition would find savings to get the Budget back into surplus if it rejects those proposed by the Government. Such information is crucial if a judgment is to be made about the Coalitions economic competence but Abbott views it as boring. My mind went back to an anecdote in Niki Savvas memoir, So Greek: Confessions Of A Conservative Leftie. Savva, former press secretary to Peter Costello, described a crucial turning point in her old bosss opinion of the man who is now Australias alternative PM. In late 2003, Abbott confessed to a newspaper interviewer that he found economics a bore. He added: I have never been as excited about economics as some of my colleagues. According to Savva, the then Treasurer was hugely unimpressed and underlined the para graph before filing it away for future reference. She wrote: In Costellos books, that alone disqualified Abbott as a running mate. We now know that the Opposition Leaders attitude has not changed. It was reflected again in his dismissal of Wayne Swans Budget speech as a funereal dirge. There is no way that a Treasurer can make the annual economic blueprint sexy. Even Paul Keating struggled to inject fizz into his Budget speeches, and Swan is no Keating. But with the possible exception of national security economic management is the most vital function of government. A Budget speech should be serious and prompt a serious response. That Abbott thumbed his nose at the dismal science and concentrated instead on political science should come as no surprise. Economics might not excite him but politics does. And his Budget reply was entirely political. Anyone wanting cogent discussion of economic policy had come to the wrong place. What we got was pure campaign oratory. Costello said in 2004: A Budget reply consists of going through the Budget, saying what things the opposition agrees with, what things it doesnt, putting forward alternative tax proposals and putting forward when they will be paid for. If Costello was fair dinkum, his doubts about Abbott will have deepened, because Thursday nights effort did none of those things. It ticked all the political boxes, though Government incompetence, pink batts, asylum seekers, carbon tax, cost of living pressures, dole bludgers. And the truth is, the tactic worked. SWANS Budget was, onthe whole, reasonable and responsible. It even contained some worthwhile reforms; business response was generally favourable. In normal times it would have bolstered the Governments economic management credentials and helped it to start clawing back support. But these arent normal times. When helping pensioners change from analog to digital TV looks like becoming a vote loser, they are decidedly abnormal. The Government is hopeless when it comes to the political basics. Why, when Swan was flat out preparing the political ground for the Budget, did Gillard divert attention back to asylum seekers with her announcement about a refugee deal with Malaysia? Plain dopey. And why did the Government allow itself to be portrayed as imposing tough new cuts in middle-class welfare when all the Budget did was extend an indexation pause that had been in place for two years? Abbott supported the freeze in 2009, telling Parliament it is a straight savings measure which involved no more than stopping people from getting something that they do not have now. That he could so effortlessly abandon that in favour of his current I dont think you are rich approach was a classic demonstration of his political agility. Abbotts relentless, populist politicking is clearly working, and a flat-footed Government seems to have no idea what to do about it. Laurie Oakes is Nine Network political editor