By MICHELLE GRATTAN
It is not that this budget was a bad one. It’s that, according to most people on both sides of politics, voters aren’t listening anymore.
Budget week seemed not a big economic moment, but principally another staging point in the election campaign, full of complicated tactical play.
The government used its sixth budget to lay traps for the opposition, locking in big long-term spending on disability and schools and outlining savings that included a hit on middle class welfare which Tony Abbott had to accept or fight.
But at week’s end Abbott did not look like a man who had been cornered. He joined forces with the government on disability, while all but giving the thumbs down to the schools money.
He criticised the savings but in his budget reply indicated the Coalition will swallow them for its own bottom line. Meanwhile he produced some old and new savings of his own – which of course were immediately attacked by the government – to pay for his new promise that a Coalition government would continue the current compensation for the carbon tax after it scrapped the tax.
Yet another strange week has ensured that the post-September 14 government will deliver the budget’s multi-billion dollar raft of savings which now have, in effect, bipartisan agreement, whatever unpleasant things the opposition is saying about them. That this has happened when we are four months from an election and the political contest is red hot is rather remarkable.
If this budget had been brought down in the middle of the term, there would have been a lot of complaint and political argy bargy over individual measures.
But a general recognition, including in the community, that some austerity is required and the opposition’s need to keep off the political sticky paper have minimised controversy.
What an irony that partisan needs are imposing a strange bipartisanship in the last days of this parliament of nastiness.
First it was the unity ticket on the increase in the Medicare levy to help pay for the disability insurance scheme. Abbott, usually feral on tax issues, not only embraced a tax rise but ensured it would be passed before parliament ends rather than being an election issue, as Gillard had hoped.
Nobody can criticise anybody for this tax rise, because the disability scheme has become iconic; Abbott has succeeded in having disability a symbol of unity, rather than issue for argument over funding at the election.
After Abbott’s response on the budget savings we have got this week, with minimum delay or trouble, a common position on the abolition of the baby bonus, and economies in family payments and Medicare.
Fiscal imperatives forced Labor to cut. Political imperatives required the opposition to agree. If “losers” want to carp, who do they complain about, given that both sides have ended up holding hands (while also holding their noses)?