For the everyday voter, Federal Budget night isn’t exactly the prime time viewing extravaganza that a former political staffer like myself delights in. But the messages that cascade into the community through the news outlets and onto their televisions and social media are vital. The government plans for this - and so does the Opposition.
That’s why on budget night many people may have felt a sudden sugar hit of empathy from the Treasurer. The messaging around budgets is carefully calibrated, spending and cuts targeted, with an eye to retaining political power, and never more so than before an election.
While the measures dealt with the economic downturn in the face of COVID-19, it’s clear that this was an election budget. The key takeaways were quite simple: the government wants to show they’re listening, and they want to show that they care.
It’s no secret that the second Federal Budget during a global pandemic would result in major spending. From the moment the Treasurer was on his feet in the House of Representatives, billions of dollars worth of boosts were revealed across major portfolios, including housing and infrastructure, skills, aged care and economic security for women.
The mental health portfolio received its highest boost in a generation - with a $2.3 billion investment to include aftercare help for people who attempt suicide. Additionally, an online platform for counselling, clinical support and referrals. And with the hugely problematic statistics on suicide, it’s clear that the cost of not investing in this space would have been far greater.
It’s hard to miss the running commentary that these are reforms you’d typically see from a Labor Government. This is especially the case with an increased reliance on the role of government services. But the Opposition isn’t so sure, sending messages on government trust and sustained funding after the election.
The budget-in-reply also urged the need for housing reform - with Labor promising 20,000 social housing properties, as well as a focus on renewable energy. The reply lacked other big ticket announcements, a sign that the Opposition is keeping its messaging powder dry until we move closer to an election date.
The lead-up to the election will show more policy detail from the Opposition - but they’re also on the empathy train. While the negative messaging on budget debt and deficit are barely floating, the campaign slogan “On Your Side” is being used as a caring push. This is also a curious choice following its use by UK Labour in 2019 (and a subsequent catastrophic election loss).
This budget demonstrates the value of having your hands on the levers of power, as it enables you to use buckets of cash for communities and causes.
Crises also provide the capacity for recalibration. COVID-19 has allowed a government which came to power warning of Labor’s debt and deficits to spend up big, while stating this shows their depth of concern for citizens, and the economy.
As a communications sales pitch, it seems to be working, at first. This is partly thanks to snookering the opposition, adopting spending and causes close to Labor’s hearts.
But one thing is clear - this election will be a battle to win hearts and minds. The budget was just the beginning.
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Written by Shelley Maher