Dr Andrew Hughes, lecturer in marketing at the ANU College of Business and Economics.
Welcome to Budget night.
Yes that night. The one night of the year we all become economists, but also the one night of the year where we actually find out what our vote did or did not get. And therefore if we should stick with the Government or switch to the Opposition, or even someone else altogether.
The Budget has become in Australian politics not just about the state of our finances, but it also serves as a defacto state of our nation address. Even more so in 2016 with an election a mere 60 days after it is brought down. As Chris Bowen said it is a political document, no kidding there, but what he probably meant to say is that Budget's are the single most important document of the political year as they also set the narrative.
Tony Abbott's first in 2014 basically sealed his fate, a quagmire that he could not escape from and one that led to him being made to walk the short plank internally and in the polls. If there is one thing a Liberal Prime Minister should get right after all, it is the Budget. After all this is the one of the biggest strengths of the Coalition brand - economic management. And economic reform. But we'll get to that later.
For Malcolm Turnbull his first Budget is about the narrative. This is about telling a story that connects, engages and rewards those in the key marginal seats (swings of 6% or less) that the Coalition see's as their home ground. Howard called them his Battler's until they turned on him in 2006. They were then swept up by the hope fuelled Ruddslide of 2007, disenchanted by the Game of Thrones saga of the preceding years, but are now ready to engage with the major brand that can really win them over. Enter Malcolm of the Middle.
And the 2014 Budget was a reminder to both the majors that the all important air time should be about the positives of the Budget, not the negatives. If this is done well enough, something Costello and Keating did superbly, initiatives in the Budget could stretch on for months and even into the lead in period of the next Budget. It really made the Opposition seem exactly that and not an alternative government. Brilliant politics it has to be said.
I wrote when Malcolm Turnbull first took office that he wanted to represent progression and not hope. That he steered away from those rocky shores after seeing many great leaders before him domestically and internationally get swept onto the rough barnacles of unfulfilled expectations in a market that had been told to expect lots. Lots.
This Budget is about keeping to that narrative. Progression. Slow and steady, bland even, but there. This is what the middle likes, slow and steady as that usually means stability, security and not a word of any recessions we have to have. It should also minimise Labor's key strengths with the middle.
This will be done by giving directly to the middle via a tax cut and a reduction in company tax rates to keep their jobs safe in very uncertain global economic times, and some good ol' fashioned far right policies that Labor always find hard to sound serious about in the areas of immigration, tax and welfare fraud, defence, and national security. This starts to differentiate Labor from the Coalition in the mind of the voter whilst sticking to that all important narrative.
And back to that narrative we'll see an increase in the tobacco excise, a crackdown on evil multi nationals (good/Super Malcolm v bad/Evil Corporates is such a good sub plot in any election campaign), but increases in health and education spending, and infrastructure spending.
And for the reformers in the house, increased ASIC powers and resources, and I'm guessing some money allocated for work or committee's in areas of social reforms such as suicide prevention, mental health, indigenous recognition in the Constitution, environmental initiatives and ideas, and digital transformations and ideas. A Cyber Ministery even. Woah, this really sounds like 2016 and not 1996.
Wait...aren't some of these Labor policies? Of course! And they want you to think that. Points of parity that can then be seen to be areas where the Coalition does better in.
For Malcolm these just aren't policies, they have to become actual tangible deliverables that soften the story for the middle, adding that nice social touch that reinforces that Malcolm is what we so badly need as a PM right now. And that slow, steady, safe path is exactly what the middle want. No nasty surprises or burden carrying here.
It really does take that good party, bad party, us and them narrative that Labor was starting to build and put it next to the recycling bin. Hence why Malcolm is still leading by a decent margin in the preferred PM stakes.
The narrative of the Coalition now has clout. Financial muscle. And a nice guy to sell it to those in the marginals who are required to give you the keys to the Lodge in this country.
Can Labor come back? After all aren't they 50/50 in the polls? Yes they can but they can't do it on fear. Bit hard to fear a bland budget or someone called Malcolm. Which is why there will be lots of negative ads about Tony Abbott. And negative gearing will be framed as the new rich tax. But even so, negative advertising does not work. Not in this campaign.
If you are getting positive, you need that replaced by positive. And there has been very little talk of that by Labor to the middle. And that is where Malcolm of the Middle may very well have just pulled off a very high risk strategy that may see him become the first Prime Minister in a decade to win an election fought on policy and not personality, and possibly also the first in that time to see out their full term.
This article was first published in Dr Hughes' blog The South Approach.