“Youth is wholly experimental,” Robert Louis Stevenson once declared. After 115 years of federation the governance of the Commonwealth is supposed to be an entirely different matter. But in this most exciting time to be an Australian™, well, anything goes.
We are already well into an election campaign that has lasted as almost long as the tenure of most of our recent prime ministers, but the Governor-General is yet to give his consent to a poll. No writs have been issued. Instead, what is usually the most scarlet of red letter days in the political calendar, tomorrow’s federal budget, is about to become the eye in the storm, a rare moment of relative calm.
And what a budget it is set to be. We’ve had the usual coy talk of tax cuts. There have been boasts of record spending on schools. And the government is going to infect fish with herpes. That’s right. Infecting fish with herpes is now a key national economic priority.
Every nation has its budget rituals. In Britain, for example, the Chancellor of the Exchequer always brandishes the red box carrying his budget speech for the cameras as he leaves the door of Number 11 on the way to the House of Commons. In Australia we normally get to see footage of the Treasurer, not in his office but down on the floor of his department, sleeves rolled up, going through columns of figures with his most senior bureaucrats. Sometimes the finance minister gets a cameo too.
But those long-lens shots of Joe Hockey and Matthias Cormann sucking on stogies in the Treasury courtyard rather messed with the mystique of these rites. So this year, it was decreed, something different needed to be staged. And so it was that yesterday, the Sunday before the budget, some of Australia’s finest journalists found themselves not in the Blue Room press-conference centre in Parliament House, not a few metres away in the Prime Minister’s courtyard, but stamping their feet on the first day of winter on the misty, muddy banks of the River Murray some 80 kilometres east of Adelaide awaiting a major announcement from Leader of the Government in the House and Minister for Innovation Christopher Pyne.
Nearby there is a coin-operated animatronic bunyip. Drop in a dollar or two and a luridly painted mechanical beast emerges from a small concrete pond in a grotto lovingly fashioned by the council from surplus road metal, emits some menacing growls (if the local lads haven’t smashed the speaker) while slowly turning its head from side to side.
Was Pyne going to use the creature as a metaphor for a Shorten government? A Senate with a crossbench of ratbags? But no. The bunyip was allowed to slumber.
Instead, up the other end of the park, Pyne announced a major budget imitative, a key government priority. The Coalition intends to spend $15 million to infect carp in the Murray – indeed, the pest nationwide – with herpes. Or plans to establish a joint national taskforce to finalise a program to give carp the clap to cut down its numbers, said the statement, also adorned with the names of Deputy Prime Minister and Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce, Environment Minister Greg Hunt, and Joyce’s deputy minister and Minister for Water Resources Anne Ruston.
And that was the big Sunday morning before the budget announcement. Innovation indeed, although maybe not as expected given some of the Prime Minister’s white heat of technology-style speeches.
But innovation, nonetheless. When those Mafioso who inhabit the Murray’s upper reaches and tributaries dispatch poor souls to sleep with the fishes, they’ll now need to include a condom.
Christian Kerr will be filing frequent reports from the campaign as election 2016 proceeds