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Labor’s budget lays out the battlelines but Dutton pushes hot-button alternatives | Karen Middleton, Political editor


When the inevitable questions came about the political calculations in his budget, Jim Chalmers was ready.

“One of the things that I have found liberating,” he says on Guardian Australia’s podcast, “is I genuinely think if you get the big parts of a budget right, and you try and be very focused to people’s real lived experiences, and you try and get the economics right, then the political stuff will take care of itself.”

Well sure, treasurer. But the reverse is also true.

Economics and politics are the warp and weft of a federal budget, especially heading into an election year. As much as the “right” economics can keep the politics on course, getting the politics wrong can also derail an economic agenda, in both the short and longer term.

Despite Jim Chalmers’ passionate protestations, politics is woven over, under and through his budget, whose measures include both expedient one-offs and genuine reform, to shape the story the government is trying to tell.

The role of politics in its design is clear in how that story is being told. Albanese is rolling out his pitch to the Victorian Labor party conference this weekend.

“It’s a true Labor budget, through and through – because it’s a budget for all Australians,” he says in a written speech text, circulated in advance. “Every taxpayer gets a tax cut. Every household gets $300 off their power bill. Every state and territory gets more help to build more homes and build more social housing sooner. Everyone on the top rate of rent assistance gets extra help every fortnight. Everyone who wants to go to Tafe or university gets a crack at that opportunity. Everyone with a student debt gets a fairer deal.”

That puts paid to any suggestion they thought seriously about means testing the energy rebate. Chalmers has said it was so complicated and expensive and frankly tricky that it just wasn’t possible. Bottom line, they wanted to give it to everyone and to be able to say so.

‘High-paying guests deserved a better presentation’

And here’s another thing. The rebate rate – at $300 – is suspiciously close to, and handily just above, the $275 that Labor promised in 2022 that its Powering Australia policies would shave off people’s power bills annually by 2025. It was an election promise that keeps coming back to haunt them. Word is, this featured in a few conversations about where the rate should be set.

Chalmers has his every-person pitch for the budget roadshow too.

“Tuesday night’s budget was all about helping people with cost-of-living pressures at the same time as we invest in the future,” he said on Friday in Port Augusta, on South Australia’s upper Spencer Gulf. “A tax cut for every taxpayer, energy bill relief for every household, and also help with rent and cheaper medicines, and in other ways as well. An important part of that budget was investing in the jobs and industries which will power the future of our cities and suburbs and regions like this one in every part of the commonwealth.”

Both Chalmers and Albanese have workshopped their lines to various audiences since the budget was presented on Tuesday.

That same night, Labor held a $5,000-a-head political fundraiser in the ballroom of Canberra’s Hotel Realm, down the road from Parliament House. Chalmers also spoke but the prime minister was the headliner. Reports from the room suggest some diners left a bit underwhelmed at what was described as a rambling shopping-list speech of what the government had done and what it would do. Some Labor colleagues felt the high-paying guests deserved a better-prepared presentation.

In contrast, on Thursday night, Peter Dutton’s budget reply speech to parliament was put together with great deliberation.

“Tonight I want to outline part of my vision for Australia to get our country back on track, to keep our nation safe and secure, to make life easier and better for all Australians, because this Labor government has made life so much tougher for Australians, because this Labor government has set our country on a very dangerous course,” Dutton said in opening.

He then ran through a different kind of shopping list, going straight to the $275, then to disillusionment over the “$450m” Voice referendum. Broken promises. Rising household bills. High interest rates. Too many migrants. Too much tax. Too little help for business. The government’s “magic pudding spending” and the “corporate welfare” all-in $300 energy rebate.

‘Dutton struck a chord’

There was an attack on renewables – “weather-dependent energy” – as the solution to climate change and a proposed pivot to nuclear power instead, still without saying where the reactors would go. Previous plans to separately identify future locations were shelved when Coalition MPs began to realise people’s support for the idea of nuclear power didn’t extend to living next door to it.

Dutton promised more GPs. He promised to come up with good policies in women’s health and achieve “better outcomes” for Indigenous Australians, especially those enduring family violence.

He struck a chord. The budget contained no significant new measures on combating family violence. The government could have taken up the recommendations of its own economic inclusion advisory committee to de-link child support payments from family tax benefits so single mothers’ malicious ex-partners can no longer manipulate the system to reduce their payments. But they didn’t.

And Dutton zeroed in on violence in general. He proposed a national strategy to combat knife crime. With so much focus on that issue recently, it was smart and a good idea. The government could have done it – an obvious and low-cost way to follow through on its pre-budget pledges prompted by the terrible events at Westfield Bondi Junction and the Christ the Good Shepherd church at Wakeley. But they didn’t.

It was mystifying and a missed opportunity.

Dutton didn’t miss it. It was on his list, along with a set of phrases he repeated several times – getting the country “back on track”, making “your life easier”, reversing Labor’s “dangerous policies”, making us “safe and secure again” and being “strong, not weak”.

It was all straight from focus groups and from the Howard government’s old Crosby-Textor playbook. Find out what the people are complaining about and repeat it back to them, with sympathy and volume.

It was the verbal version of a colour-coded spreadsheet, cross-referencing important constituent groups and key demographics the Coalition needs to win over, with focus-group data on what people say they care about and especially what worries them.

“I want to say to every Australian tonight that my vision is to get our country back on track, to make your life easier and to make us safe and secure again,” Dutton said in conclusion. “The job of the prime minister is to be strong, not weak; to be fair and firm; to be compassionate and definite; and to unite, not divide, especially through referendums. As each day passes, this government increasingly shows how disconnected it is from the views, the values and the vision of everyday Australians. Labor has forgotten the main principle of governing. It isn’t the people who serve the will of government; it is the government who serves the will of the people.”

So now we have the government’s set of ideas to shape the nation’s economy and instil confidence, and the opposition’s hot-button alternatives.

Sit back and watch the politics take care of itself.



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