Politics Opinion

Comparing the budgets — Labor cares and Liberals spend

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Anthony Albanese (left) delivered his budget reply speech with emphasis on building a better future (Screenshots via YouTube)

There is a biased opinion amongst mainstream journalists that Labor governments overspend and are not prudent economic managers, whereas Liberal governments are “good with money”.

This bias has its basis in a century-old myth that grew out of the parties’ founding interests. Since the Labor Party came from the labour movement, there is an assumption that workers aren’t as good at balancing the books as capitalists — represented by the Liberal Party.

This assumption has become so ingrained, that you will often hear journalists justify their own bias by saying, “It’s well known in voter land that Liberals are considered better economic managers”. And where might voters have gotten that idea? Maybe by being told this over and over again in the mainstream media for their whole lives.

This trope has become a stick to beat Labor with, which the Liberal Party uses as their go-to strategic message. Whenever Labor announces a policy, a funding promise, a reform package, the first response from Liberals and from many journalists in concert is, “But how are you going to pay for it?”

This line was used to brutal effect during the 2019 Election, where Bill Shorten was branded as the Bill Australia can’t afford.

The advertising agency that came up with this line is South Australia’s KWP!, who boast on their website that the campaign won the Liberals the Election:

‘With the Liberal Party positioning themselves as strong at managing money, growth, job security and opportunities for future generations, we focused on the fact that Labour [sic] can’t manage money or secure our future.’

The Liberals, on the other hand, are put under no such pressure. Their funding, even when it’s exorbitant and unjustified, is assumed to be legitimate investment, the outcomes of prudent management of the economy and clever use of taxpayer money.

Alan Austin, writing for Independent Australia, has shown that the current Liberal Government has accumulated debt at a rate far greater than the previous Labor Government. But don’t let facts get in the way of a century-old narrative. Austin has also shown that despite the steep climb in debt, media mentions of “government debt blowout” have dropped away after the election of the Liberal-National Government. Funny that.

The Labor Party is not blind to this inequity and recognises how damaging it is that Labor has to win elections with one hand tied behind its back. Where the Liberals can spend, spend, spend without any sustained criticism from the media, Labor can’t even put forward a sensible policy idea – such as paying Australians to be vaccinated – without being framed as economically dangerous.

I wonder if this recognition from Labor is the reason why Anthony Albanese made a strategically clever decision with his budget reply speech to de-emphasise money and to instead emphasise the value of the policies prioritised in the Labor Budget.

Analysis of Treasurer Josh Frydenberg’s budget speech shows that he mentioned the word “billion” 23 times. This word cloud of his speech shows “billion”, “million” and “funding” were amongst the most common words in the speech, along with “will”. The message was Liberals will spend, spend, spend, with the inference being that they should be congratulated for opening the government wallet and “investing” in Australians.

This is a clear example of how the Liberals see no risk in making their budget a spendathon. When debt and deficit are not political problems for your party, why not use public funds to buy an election? The various marginal seat rorting campaigns worked so well last Election, at the very same time as Labor was being smeared as bad with money. Why not do it if the media let you get away with it?

Where Frydenberg was emphasising the billions he would spend, Albanese was emphasising the benefit of Labor policies to Australians. Which is really what Australians do and should care most about. Despite the Liberals’ best attempts to scare voters into thinking “the debt and deficit disaster” is a monster lurking in the dark, ready to steal from their piggy banks, in reality, the everyday concerns of Australians are nothing to do with government tally sheets.

Knowing that the numbers were being provided to those who wanted them anyway and that his budget reply speech was an election pitch, not an accounting exam, Albanese cannily de-emphasised the cash element of his plans.

Analysis of his speech showed the word “billion” appeared only once. This mention related to criticising the Liberals for losing billions by ripping up defence contracts. The word “millions” was only mentioned twice — once in relation to permanent cost of living savings for “millions of families” and once criticising the Liberals for their wasted millions on car parks that never got built.

The Labor budget reply speech word cloud also showed where the emphasis of the speech was instead of cash. Labor will care about Australians.

That’s a simple message that will resonate with Australians who have lived through three years of uncaring Liberal government when we needed care the most — bushfires, pandemic, flood and rising cost of living. The Liberals will paint this “care” as unaffordable, but I think Australians have worked out that it’s not economically irresponsible to “care”. Indeed, it's reckless for society and the economy not to care.

Dr Victoria Fielding is an Independent Australia columnist. You can follow Victoria on Twitter @Vic_Rollison.

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