Monday, May 9, 2016

How to unspin the budget

You can't look hard at the budget and its glitzy packaging without being reminded of Rob Sitch's highly educational TV show, Utopia.

My colleague Peter Martin has detected that the Turnbull government, as distinct from its Coalition predecessor, is less ideological and more evidence-based in its policy making. Its reforms to superannuation and Work for the Dole are prime examples.

That's good news. Even so, the more intelligent and articulate Malcolm Turnbull hasn't been able to withstand the pressure to use spin doctors to massage his messages to the electorate.

A better term for that dubious profession is "perception manipulators". They "operationalise" one of modern politicians' core beliefs: the perception is the reality.

The world of government is such a complicated place that reality is seen only in glimpses - which is hugely fortunate for our pollies because the reality is usually much harder and more costly to fix. It's a lot easier to manipulate the punters' perceptions of that reality.

Scott Morrison has been relentless in insisting that the budget is not just another budget, but an economic plan for jobs and growth.

Really? Name the budget that hasn't been a plan for jobs and growth.

So why the fuss this year? Because, to quote Morrison, "Australians have clearly said we must have an economic plan". How does he know what Australians have clearly said? Because that's what a few of them said to the Liberal Party's focus groups.

Feeding back to voters the sentiments they've expressed in your focus-group research is a standard perception manipulators' trick.

My guess is the government had a collection of end-of-term and pre-election bits and pieces it wanted to get up, but felt it should package them as an "overarching narrative" by saying they were a plan.

A plan about what? The usual: jobs and growth. Just about everything you do - raise the tax on cigarettes, stop wealthy people like me saving too much in tax-sheltered super accounts - can be portrayed as helping to promote jobs and growth. And they were.

Every non-plan plan needs to come in impressive packaging. The plain and earnest budget papers prepared by Treasury and Finance have long been accompanied by an overview booklet prepared by the spin doctors and disparagingly referred to by the econocrats as "the glossy".

This year there are four glossy documents, not one. And whereas the original majored in fancy graphs and tables, the extras add a lot of colour pics of good looking punters. It's fiscal bling.

Even the budget website has had the interior decorators in. You now have to click through a host of pretty fluff to find what you need.

Key to the success of perception manipulation is the use of magic words - words with strong positive or negative connotations, words that arouse emotions.

What words are guaranteed to frighten punters? Try "debt" and "deficit". What word gladdens the hearts of business people? "Growth".

And of the punters? "Jobs". They may not claim to know anything much about economics, but one thing they do know: there can never be enough jobs. Claim to be creating them and you're well on the way to the punters' tick.

This time the magic-word workhorse is "middle". Almost all Australians believe themselves to be middle class, on incomes near the middle. The higher your income, the less your ability to know where the middle is.

Morrison never actually said his tiny tax cut for people earning more than $80,000 a year was aimed at middle-income earners, all he said (correctly) was that the threshold had been set just above the average full-time wage.

That was enough to have innumerate political journalists - particularly at the ABC - saying it for him.

Trouble is, almost a third of wage-earners are part-time, not full-time. And plenty of taxpayers aren't employees. What's more, the relatively small number of people on super-high incomes means that the "average" or mean taxpayer's income is well above the middle (or median) taxpayer's income.

All this explains why the tax cut will go to only about the top quarter of taxpayers. That's the middle?

These days, no self-respecting perception manipulator fails to pull some "modelling" out of his bag of tricks. The results of the modelling are almost invariably misrepresented, being made to sound more significant than they are.

The spin meisters​ pray the media won't actually look at the modelling, and their prayers are almost always answered.

You can blame it all on ever-declining standards of political behaviour - which Turnbull's arrival has failed to arrest - or you can share the blame with a media that allows itself to be manipulated.