Numbers tell stories and people tell stories about numbers. The political budgeting process is always about both.
But there is something a bit different about the second 2022 budget. New Labor Treasurer Jim Chalmers has made no secret that he wants to change the electorate’s ingrained view of the Coalition as better economic managers. This budget is the beginning of a story the Treasurer will tell the Australian electorate with the intention of creating a deep and lasting shift in perceptions.
Will it work? As always in communications, that will depend on whether his strategy has been well thought-out, whether his messages have been developed to resonate with the audiences he seeks to move and, above all, whether the choices made in the budget underscore his theme of fiscal responsibility.
There is no doubt that Chalmers’ plan is strategic. Well before the election, the now-Treasurer began casting doubt on his opponents’ spending choices.
Messaging is trickier; here he must walk a tightrope between the expectations of the Labor base and the understanding of the wider electorate. Recently, Chalmers has chosen to target his messages toward “soft” voters, without strong ideological convictions, as these are the voters who can be won over to grow Labor’s support base. It is notable that Chalmers has embraced the comparison between the household budget and the federal budget. In Labor circles, this comparison is widely rejected, but non-ideological voters are very comfortable with the notion that the national debt has to be managed and paid down in the same way as household debt. This might get Chalmers in some arguments among Labor supporters, but they are likely to overlook the Treasurer’s choice of framing if they see the government as delivering on policies that matter to them.
Finally, the choices that Chalmers makes will make or break his messaging and strategy. No matter how well-crafted these are, they will lose credibility if the budget the Treasurer delivers does not seem to fit with what he has been saying. This Tuesday night, expect to see budgetary measures framed to support the idea that an Albanese Labor government will be fiscally responsible (targeting “waste and rorts”) and that Labor will be “growing the economy” with its spending choices.
The success of the Chalmers communication budget will depend on these factors, as well as on whether the federal Opposition is able to run an effective counter-comms strategy. For communications aficionados, this budget will be fascinating to watch. If Chalmers can’t tell an effective story about his numbers, his number will be up.
I wrote about Chalmer’s strategy in the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age in July. For more thoughts on the framing, read the full piece here