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Paul Bongiorno: A bread-and-butter budget with no hundreds and thousands

PM Anthony Albanese and Treasurer Jim Chalmers are managing expectations for their first budget, Paul Bongiorno writes.

PM Anthony Albanese and Treasurer Jim Chalmers are managing expectations for their first budget, Paul Bongiorno writes. Photo: Getty

Treasurer Jim Chalmers started it a while ago and at the weekend the Infrastructure Minister Catherine King joined the chorus telling us that the imminent fiscal reckoning from the Albanese government will be “a bread-and-butter budget”.

It will be a no-nonsense, down-to-earth “reconciliation” of Labor’s campaign promises within the confines of straightened circumstances, leaving no room for excitement or fireworks.

The repetition of this mantra has become, well, a tad boring and that’s precisely what is intended – bread and butter without a sprinkling of hundreds and thousands.

This will be no birthday party.

Hmm.

The dead giveaway that this is expectation management and careful spin came from the same minister who announced the budget would unveil $9.6 billion of transport and infrastructure projects.

Infrastructure Minister Catherine King. Photo: ABC/Insiders

What we are seeing is how well Albanese Labor understands the basics of political communication that newly installed embattled British Prime Minister Liz Truss regrets she did not apply to her first mini budget with its billions of pounds worth of unfunded tax cuts.

As the harsh judgment of the markets crashed around her government’s planned recklessness, Truss lamented she “should have prepared the ground better”.

Three-step process

Stability and predictability are the benchmarks of confidence building, and next Tuesday night’s budget is stage two in a three-step move to foster just that.

The first stage was a jobs and skills summit where the “conversation” – another much-loved buzzword – gravitated around the very programs Albanese took to the election.

You could hardly describe the childcare policy as “bread and butter” – costing $5.4 billion a year and subsidising 96 per cent of Australian families – it is more like a lavishly decorated sponge cake, candles and all.

In this conversation the government won wide endorsement from participants representing key sectors of the economy who were ready to concede borrowing billions of dollars to pay for policies that would increase participation and productivity was money well spent.

childcare costs

Investing in childcare has been widely welcomed. Photo: AAP

The foundations were laid for acceptance of this week’s extended parental leave policy and to end violence against women with the primary question being not how they are paid for but rather why haven’t we done these things earlier.

This month’s budget is stage two and it seems the only kids who would agree it’s not a happy birthday party will be the Liberals and Nationals, who will see substantial whacks of their agenda scrapped or diverted to help pay for Labor’s wish list.

In the Treasurer’s view, he will be ending “the rorts and waste” in a transparent, cost-effective way.

The proof of this pudding, as always, will be in the eating.

Conversation to come

Stage three will be the May budget next year, which Treasurer Chalmers says will involve a “conversation between adults” based on “a realistic picture of the fiscal conversation, not just the size of the challenge we confront but the shape of the challenge that we confront over the next four years and over the next 10 years”.

Maybe that conversation will get harder as we go because, from this vantage point, with Chalmers revealing on Monday that the growth forecasts for the world’s major economies will be significantly downgraded, it will be some feat to avoid a hard landing in Australia without significant revenue and spending adjustments.

In the meantime, Albanese assures us from his government “you will have straight commitments, straight delivery, real funding for real projects that will make a difference to people’s lives”.

If he delivers, of course the electorate would be well disposed to keep going along for the ride.

The test here is not so much what a Prime Minister promises – few pay close attention – but rather how people are coping with their cost-of-living challenges, which are becoming more burdensome.

No quick fixes

The flood crises this year along the entire east coast – besides disrupting the lives of thousands – will have a huge impact on the prices of fruit, vegetables, meat and groceries.

Along with spiralling petrol and energy prices, there are no quick fixes.

Even Labor’s political opponents concede privately Chalmers has honed his communications skills impressively.

He repeats his key messages in clear language and, like Tony Abbott at his most brutally effective, is clearly understood. But like Abbott, he will be marked down harshly if he miscues.

Chalmers has primed us to expect “a budget which is sensible and solid and suited for the times” because as he says, “that’s our best defence against what’s happening around the world”.

Few can quibble with that.

Paul Bongiorno AM is a veteran of the Canberra Press Gallery, with more than 40 years’ experience covering Australian politics

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