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Richardson: Let he who is without spin cast the first stone

Opinion

There’s always a fair bit of spin around budget week, but Tom Richardson can’t recall a previous occasion when the media celebrated a budget that wasn’t actually delivered. And Josh Frydenberg wasn’t the only one selling us a line this week…

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Politics was briefly set aside for a rare moment in Canberra yesterday, with a pithy and reflective speech from the retiring-but-not-shy Christopher Pyne – the archetype of the after-dinner speaker – prompting a sudden outbreak of parliamentary goodwill.

NSW Labor left heavyweight Anthony Albanese, with whom Pyne has forged a well-publicised if unlikely friendship, led the tributes as the House of Representatives farewelled the moderate powerbroker who has held his seat of Sturt – at times against the odds – for 26 years.

But the bipartisanship and earnest camaraderie was, unsurprisingly, not representative of the week.

Indeed, only two days earlier, Albo – the shadow and presumptive federal minister for Infrastructure – had weighed in with his (far less charitable) thoughts about another South Australian, former career bureaucrat Rod Hook.

Hook was this week appointed as SA’s sole representative on the board of Infrastructure Australia, an advisory body on spending priorities and policy reform.

When I asked him about the appointment he helpfully reflected (somewhat indiscreetly) on what he considered SA’s recent malaise in working with the Commonwealth on infrastructure projects, something he felt was reflected in Infrastructure Australia’s own list of priority projects.

Entirely coincidentally, the period in which he felt the proverbial ball was dropped happened to fall more or less exactly between his untimely exit from the helm of the state Department of Planning, Transport and Infrastructure and last year’s state election.

His comments in InDaily were duly passed on to Albanese, who swiftly authorised a blistering statement lambasting “the decision by Infrastructure Minister Michael McCormack to stack the Infrastructure Australia board with political appointments just days before the calling of an election”.

Hook, he lamented, has “made political statements critical of Labor… making such statements renders Mr Hook unsuitable for this position”.

“In the interests of the organisation, Mr Hook should reconsider his acceptance,” he added.

He did not, mind you, suggest he’d be doing anything to rescind the appointment if elected; indeed, he reiterated that a Labor Government “would consult the Opposition on appointments to the board in order to depoliticise the appointment process”.

There’s no doubt that any government board appointments at this point in the electoral cycle deserve scrutiny, nor that Hook’s propensity to speak his mind can be bad for PR (if good for news copy).

But seriously? Rod Hook oversaw every major project SA Labor has ever spruiked to win an election. The Labor Government put him in charge of one of its most high-profile agencies and, moreover, happily let him front the TV cameras every other night, something that would send many a career bureaucrat cowering beneath their desks.

Indeed, when Jay Weatherill sacked him (for reasons that were never adequately articulated) it prompted a front-page picture story in the Advertiser with the man himself reflecting on his achievements, like the de facto minister he effectively was.

But he has about as much expertise in SA’s infrastructure needs and how to deliver them as anyone in the country.

A political appointment? He’s the very definition of a merit-based appointment.

Anthony Albanese is not happy. Photo: Lukas Coch / AAP

But by bashing him, Labor has a vehicle to discredit the board in its entirety – something that may give a future Labor Government ammunition if it moves to revamp the whole enterprise.

Which means if anything it was the Federal Opposition, rather than the new board appointee, seeking to score political points.

Still, it’s been that sort of week, hasn’t it – one in which the spin has been so frenetic it doesn’t so much cloud the truth as completely reinvent it.

Tuesday’s budget pitch was the most egregious example – the Morrison Government took a leaf out of Steven Marshall’s book by ripping off former NZ Prime Minister John Key, with an AC/DC-inspired budget pitch proudly proclaiming it was “Back In Black”.

The thing is, when Kiwi Finance Minister Bill English spruiked his 2014-15 surplus, he had actually delivered one. A $372 million surplus, to be precise.

Not Josh Frydenberg.

For Josh, in his maiden budget, has subverted the genre.

He has changed the way we talk about budgets.

He is Frydenberg the Great.

For he has somehow garnered approving headlines across the country (not least here in SA) celebrating a budget surplus – without actually delivering one.

His budget actually forecasts a $4.2 billion deficit this year, before a $7.1 billion surplus in 2019-20.

But did the headline writers say “Still in deficit”?

Nah. I guess “Back In Black” was a tad more catchy (if slightly long in the tooth).

Certainly none of them said something along the lines of “Budget still, as predicted, in deficit, but still, as predicted, forecast to return to surplus in 2019-20”.

How The Advertiser summed up the Budget.

Because let’s just turn our minds back to roughly this time last year, when now-PM delivered his own economic forecast.

“In 2017-18, the Budget deficit will be $18.2 billion, less than half what it was just two years ago,” he told parliament last May.

“The deficit will fall again to $14.5 billion in 2018-19. The Budget is forecast to return to a modest balance of $2.2 billion in 2019-20 and increase to projected surpluses of $11.0 billion in 2020-21 and $16.6 billion in 2021-22.”

Sure, the quantums may be different, but the timeline has literally not changed.

And yet now – only now, weeks out from an election – are we Back In Black.

But if the chutzpah was breathtaking, the fact that it was so dutifully regurgitated is even more so, a near-universal outbreak of mass hypnosis in the national media.

Maybe it was all some belated April Fools’ gag?

Josh Frydenberg – is he having a laugh? Photo: Sam Mooy / AAP

I genuinely can’t recall a Treasurer handing down a budget in which they enthused almost entirely about future budgets, and it being unquestioningly reported as a representation of this year’s financial position.

When Tom Koutsantonis, for example, predicted a 2016 return to surplus in his 2014 mid-year budget review, it was reported as a predicted return to surplus by 2016 – not as a surplus budget.

And this penchant for spin hasn’t been confined to the federal sphere this week, with the Marshall administration proving itself every bit as adept at secrecy and media manipulation as its Labor predecessor was at its worst.

That’s despite the Libs’ lofty rhetoric to the contrary, which as it turns out is just… well, spin.

This week, for instance, The ‘Tiser proudly paraded on its front page a government drop about a consultants’ report into SA Pathology, which found the service should be given up to 18 months to meet savings and efficiency targets before any move to privatise it.

The Advertiser has obtained excerpts from the report,” it explained. Too bad it didn’t insist on reading the whole thing, because the next day it had to follow up with the far more significant element of the report that was conveniently omitted from the “excerpts” it had “obtained”. The full report, distributed by Health Minister Stephen Wade the following day, recommended hard cuts – estimated by the Government to be around 200 jobs over three years – and closing “unprofitable” collection centres.

This follow-up yarn didn’t make the front page – which, predictably, had been blacked out by wall-to-wall budget coverage.

Nicely spun.

Which is not a critique of the article – information is our currency in media, and you take what you can – but it’s a telling example of the Government’s attitude to it.

Wade appears to be a serial offender: it was only two months ago that he proudly trumpeted another review he claimed had found “the EPAS program has been a failure and should be discontinued and replaced” – when it had found no such thing, nor made any such recommendation.

But the upshot of all this naked politicking that consistently favours marketing over facts will inevitably be a withering detachment by the electorate at large.

Former Liberal Treasurer Peter Costello, these days the chair of Nine Entertainment, made this point implicitly with his own withering budget critique yesterday: “We’ve stopped promising things for the year ahead, we’ve stopped promising things for the next term, we’ve stopped promising things for the term after the term, even… we’re promising things in the term after the term after the term.”

“I think the public’s figured all that out,” he told a post-budget lunch in Melbourne.

I’m not so sure; if the media whose job it is to cover this stuff can’t figure it out, it’s a stretch to think the average voter will delve any deeper.

And the net result will be an electorate like a jilted lover: with every new twisted truth, a little more cynical, a little more distant, a little less trusting.

Perhaps that’s why so much has been made of Pyne’s convivial farewell yesterday; sometimes these little oases of humanity matter, these outbreaks of mateship and admiration amongst the barracking bile.

Unless that was just spin too.

Tom Richardson is a senior reporter at InDaily.

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