For a few short years in the late 1860s a satirical newspaper published by a scion of the Mitford family could be found on the streets of Adelaide. No, really. Eustace Reveley Mitford – for that was his name – had failed as a farmer. He had been jailed briefly for debt. Yet he was convinced he should have been a wealthy man. Mitford insisted he had been cheated of a claim on the giant Burra copper deposits by the policies of the colony’s tireless but sometimes controversial Survey-General, George Woodroffe Goyder, of line-of-rainfall fame.
So he pursued his vendetta every week in the pages of his paper, Pasquin: The Pastoral, Mineral and Agricultural Advocate, lambasting the colonial administrators and other local worthies until, exhausted by his violent and vituperative journalistic efforts and – perhaps, more so – keeping his creditors from his door, the unhappy Mitford expired, intestate.
Why this lengthy introduction? Yes, Mitford and his journal are nothing but historical trivia. But Pasquin contained what might be the best-christened column in the country since the first printing press in Australia creaked into action back in 1788. His parliamentary sketches were titled “Figures of Speech on North Terrace,” North Terrace being then – and now – the home of the South Australian legislature.
A century and a half after Pasquin it would be a cinch to bash out a column every day on Figures of Speech on Capital Hill and at no time easier than on Budget Day. Remember Wayne Swan’s “credible path back to surplus”? About as credible as Swan himself.
And what of Scott Morrison’s figures of speech? They may have been even more spectacular. Yesterday morning he dragged the Press Gallery hordes across the New South Wales border to that almost-MGM backlot set of “real Australia”, Queanbeyan, to visit the premises of a circuit-board manufacturer; mum-and-dad-ish enough to represent small business but also with a sufficiently futuristic focus to satisfy the government’s requirements for technobabble.
And what did Morrison have to say about tonight’s package? “It’s not a typical budget,” he declared. Ah! “Not a typical budget.” A master of understatement, our Scott. It will not be a typical budget at all.
To begin with, while labelled “a budget”, it will not be a budget at all. It will effectively be a campaign manifesto; ironically the most detailed campaign manifesto we’ve seen since John Hewson’s ill-fated Fightback package appeared 25 years ago.
Morrison’s budget statement tonight will not really be a budget statement. Effectively, it will be the speech the Prime Minister or Leader of the Opposition delivers at the campaign launch. Its job will not so much be to set out the government’s economic priorities but to fire up the faithful, persuade the waverers and sway the sceptical.
It will be, or so what has been leaked so far to whet our appetites suggests, yet another exercise in the all-must-have-prizes politics – all special interest groups that make enough noise, in any case – that has become the norm in this country.
Not a typical budget? The usual glib and over-simplified lists of winners and losers is already well-sketched. The newspapers and current affairs shows have their cameo stories on superannuants, single mums, small business people and the like in the can and ready to roll.
The actual numbers, like the figures in all recent budgets, will be rubbery; based on over-optimistic estimates of growth. And with an election just eight-and-a-bit weeks away we are unlikely to be given a full and frank account of the seriousness of the structural deficit, let alone shown a plan for its abolition that can be taken more seriously than any of Wayne Swan’s delusions.
But such are the figures of speech on Capital Hill.