Monday, May 21, 2012

How spin doctors have taken control of budget papers

What if I told you the true expected budget balance for next financial year wasn't the much trumpeted surplus of $1.5 billion but a carefully buried deficit of $8.7 billion?

I'd be justified in making such a statement because that deficit figure is officially known as the "headline cash balance" and, as a journalist, I'm in the headline business.

I'd also be justified in drawing it to your attention because the government in its budget papers has made no effort to convince us the headline figure is of no macro-economic significance - rather, we should focus solely on the "underlying cash balance" of a $1.5 billion surplus.

Indeed, I'm not sure the headline figure is of no macro significance. Why not? Because I happen to know - no thanks to the government - that the difference between the two figures includes, among various things, the government's spending on the rollout of the national broadband network.

That's of no macro-economic significance? That has no effect on economic activity? Don't think so, chaps.

I'd really like to be able to tell you just what the transactions are that explain the difference between the headline and the underlying balances. But if there's a table anywhere in the voluminous budget papers spelling that out, I can't find it.

I'm sure if the econocrats had their way there'd be such a table, but the preference of the politicians and their private-office spin doctors is to conceal rather than explain. And even just the figure for the ironically titled headline balance has been carefully hidden to ensure it doesn't hit the headlines.

It didn't rate a mention in the Treasurer's budget speech; in the multicoloured Budget Overview document it was included as a "memo item" (that is, they don't tell you how it was arrived at) on page 36.

In the budget papers proper, it went unmentioned in budget statement 1 (also known as the budget overview) and got a single mention on page 9 of budget statement 3.

The hiding of the headline deficit is just one example of the way the budget papers are becoming less informative rather than more, and the way the government's spin doctors are turning them into an exercise in media management rather than transparency and accountability.

The budget speech used to be a thorough and trustworthy exposition of the new measures announced in the budget; these days it's a made-for-television rave about the budget's good points.

I suspect one reason the budget papers have become less rather than more user-friendly over the years is the spin doctors' desire to drive journalists away from the budget papers proper to the multicoloured Budget Overview, known to econocrats as "the glossy".

It's glossy by name and gloss by nature, putting the best gloss possible on the budget and focusing on whatever messages the government is trying to peddle.

It offers a seemingly useful list of the "major savings" announced in the budget, but you can't be sure all the "saves" you'd like to know about are listed. The single line for "other" savings accounts for almost a quarter of the total.

But that's honest compared with the list of "major initiatives" announced in the budget, otherwise known as "spends". It's a table without totals, meaning it doesn't even have a line for "other" spending. If it did, other would account for almost a third of the total.

Spin doctors work on the assumption journalists are both dumb and lazy, meaning they'll focus on whatever news you give them and not think to go looking for the things you conceal. They also assume journalists who benefit from background briefings and selective leaks won't be game to complain publicly about the way they're led around by the nose.

Journalists turn a blind eye to the rank hypocrisy of the Treasurer and Finance Minister piously refusing to comment on what may or may not be in the budget, while the Prime Minister's press office leaks much of its content to selected journalists, then quietly confirms the story's accuracy to those journos who missed the exclusive.

Unfortunately, there are head office-based journos who aren't part of the club and so feel no such inhibition. There are also, believe it or not, economists and even the odd private citizen who read the budget papers in the hope of enlightenment. They're getting the bum's rush.

This year AAP has accused the government of leaking budget information to selected media for broadcast during the budget lock-up. How's that for duplicity.

Budget paper No 1's coverage of revenue items is pretty thorough, but its statement on expenses leaves much to be desired. It's been stripped of its former graphs showing how spending categories have grown over the years and its tables showing the figures for major spending categories over many years. This paper used to have an index to help you follow a query through, but that was dropped long ago.

You have to delve as far as budget paper No 2 for reliable explanations of particular budget measures, but this information is listed by department rather than program or function, and little effort is made to help users find what they're looking for.

Federal bureaucrats are convinced they're superior to state bureaucrats in all respects, but the states' budget papers are generally superior to the feds' in their transparency, rigour and comprehensiveness. Federal budget papers are particularly inadequate on information about non-financial corporations, such as the NBN Co Ltd.

So tight is the spin doctors' hold on the federal budget process that some nameless operative in the "media liaison" section of the "communications unit" within Treasury's "ministerial and communications division" summarily declined, without explanation, a newspaper's request for budget tables to be supplied in spreadsheet format.