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Defending the Budget: Australia’s Fiscal Festival makes a difference

Australia’s Budget is an unusual fiscal festival. But it probably is worth the hype.

No other country pays quite as much attention to its annual Budget as Australia does. The UK and various other culturally and geographically close nations – India, Hong Kong, Ireland and the Netherlands – all make a ceremony of their budgets.

But, in my opinion, it’s Australia that has made it by far the most important political day of the year. This is a peculiar quirk of the nation’s political and media system.

It’s quite possibly also a strength. If you’ve been wondering whether all the kerfuffle of Budget week was worth it, here’s the argument in favour of making a big deal of the Budget.

Keating’s legacy

Back in the 1960s, the stereotypical Budget day headline was: “Beer, cigs up”. These days, the stories try to wring huge political significance from the documents. Journalists, locked up for several hours each year to study them, quickly invest the documents with almost mystical status.

They are blueprints for winning elections, or irresponsible missed opportunities, or whatever other parable seems supportable on the day. Either way, a poll usually comes out the week after the Budget saying that it has changed almost no-one’s mind.

Paul Keating bears some responsibility for inflating the Budget’s status. In the 1980s, he added a triumphalist spin to the Budget speech – some would call it a layer of bluster – that most treasurers since have sought to emulate.

The exception was Keating’s immediate successor, the ill-fated and now barely remembered John Kerin. Much admired in his long stint as primary industries minister, Kerin took the job after Keating’s 1991 departure to the backbench.

He remains the only treasurer ever to have worked as a professional economist. Kerin hoped to break the Keating template, promising less tongue-lashing and drama, and delivering the August 1991 Budget without a lock-up.

None of it worked. Under attack from media, the Opposition and Keating, he quickly lost confidence and was forced to quit in December. Triumphalism, or bluster, has ruled ever since.

A model of efficiency

In legal terms, a Budget simply authorises the government’s spending for the next year. In that sense, it’s just plumbing – the mechanical approvals that keep money flowing through the government.

And it’s possible for political systems to use other legislation to authorise payments. But it’s probably not desirable. According to the US-based Pew Research Center, the US Congress has passed all the laws required by its current budget system just four times: in fiscal 1977, 1989, 1995 and 1997. For the past 22 years, the US government has operated to an increasing degree under a series of ‘continuing resolutions’ and ‘omnibus bills’.

Please remember to use this the next time some ignoramus tells you how dysfunctional Australia’s government finances are. By US standards, we’re a model of smooth-running efficiency and accountability.

The Australian Fiscal Festival

Here’s the thing about Australia’s Budget: in a broader social sense, it gives us a day or two when the nation’s finances are scrutinised. The Treasury’s involvement means the numbers are broadly trusted.

Most voters don’t relish the idea of understanding government finances; it really is a difficult task. But at Budget time, many will give it a small amount of attention. The media’s finance writers, for all their hype, do fine work explaining it.

If a government does something really non-credible, it will get noticed. Effectively, for two or three days each year, the Australian government’s taxing and spending dominates the national conversation, in a sort of Australian Fiscal Festival.

That’s enough to keep Australia’s citizenry a pretty well-informed check on government. Viewed like this, the Budget is yet another effective Australian economic institution, like the Reserve Bank, the Bureau of Statistics and the Productivity Commission.

We don’t think about these institutions as all that crucial to our society; but they do a great deal to keep Australia’s society one of the world’s more successful.

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