27 November 2008

Oo er, he said a rude word

Media coverage of Rudd using the word "deficit", referring to the possibility likelihood that next year's Federal budget will go into that state, has been another piece of press-gallery silliness.

If the government cancelled its $6b handout to the car industry, that would forestall a deficit right away. If you really can't cope with subsidy junkies going cold turkey, add another impost onto the price of petrol (then the absurdity of propping up the motor industry will be revealed).

Nonetheless, this article by Paul Kelly is right. Rudd does appear to want it both ways, at a time when the possibility of a financial position that is both expansionary and defensive becomes less feasible. This is an impression that can only be sharpened over time, in areas beyond the economy:

  • Defence: what is the plan in Afghanistan? What is Australia's response to the S-22 Sukhoi (apart from my favoured option, buying it)?

  • NT intervention: back to full paternalism or not? The history of Aboriginal policy has been the attempt to impose self-determination without asking the people most affected what that might mean for them, and blaming them for any failure; here is yet another round of a sad old game.

  • Health: more doctors/ nurses/ therapists/ paramedics, or bureaucrats? Or both?

A little bit of everything and a whole lot of nothing, it would seem.

I'll believe infrastructure spending when if I see it, and if Rudd was serious you'd expect more progress than has happened so far. Is infrastructure a cost, or an investment? If you can't work that out, your ability to address more complex economic questions is questionable to say the least.

The 2020 summit has melted into air. The next time Rudd wants to gather people together, on tax reform or infrastructure or whatever, people can be forgiven for being cynical.

Perhaps Rudd was never big on consultation, happy to sup with celebrities who kept their opinions lite-brite-'n'-trite (and only conventional-wisdom zombies would assume I'm talking about Heather Ridout). Be it on his own head, then. It will be fascinating to see how long Rudd lasts once the government dips below 53% on 2PP polling.

None of this is to say that the Coalition are ready for government again. They haven't resolved any of the above issues to anyone's satisfaction, and the dead hand of Howard hangs over this Opposition like Fraser's (or McMahon's) never did. Turnbull - and Paul Kelly's article - rely upon historical memories of deficits that are fading fast, and Rudd is spending his political capital wisely in making the case for a deficit. Taking the high ground over the deficit will not get Turnbull anywhere near the Lodge.

These are the issues the press gallery should be exploring. Kerry O'Brien looked idiotic trying to get Wayne Swan to use the word "deficit" before he was ready (all the more so because he failed - could Wayne Swan be the first politician to be able to put O'Brien in the same place as any other journalist?).

At a time when the economic landscape has fundamentally changed, the old political cliches will not do. The wreckage of the career of David Pemberthy, not yet 40, who followed the Mark Day tabloid playbook to the letter and has bugger-all to show for it, should demonstrate to the press gallery that the same-songsheet model is doomed.

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