Reading Swan’s budget symbolism

The Federal Budget hoopla is largely a symbolic gesture. AAP

Federal Budget night has become widely held as the most crucial event in Australia’s political calendar.

After all, any statement of how more than $300 billion is going to be raised and a similar amount spent in a year is an occasion to take notice.

New programs for raising revenue and for spending are announced, often amounting to billions of dollars over only a few years.

It may seem strange then to suggest that Wayne Swan’s speech tonight – as well as the policies and estimates it contains, and the rest of the hoopla – will be largely symbolic.

This is not just because any annual budget is like taking a picture of a car in motion, with most of the parameters and direction already determined by the momentum of what has come before it. Most of the money raised and spent in any budget is already locked in.

Nor is it because budgeting is itself an act of fiction – not fictional like a movie or novel, but fictional because it is a product of an abstract calculative vision. The absurd idea of focussing so much attention on a small (and utterly artificial) residual – deficit or surplus – is a direct reflection of that fiction.

What makes the budget a really important symbolic event is that it tells us a lot about how we are asked to think and talk politically, economically and even culturally.

Previous budgets have promised to bring home the bacon, meet the challenges of the future, build the nation, and make us one nation. (Notice the way these terms can also take on other political dimensions.)

They have changed the burden of taxation (to increase individual incentives), they have changed who benefits from spending (the Baby Bonus, private school subsidies).

But budgets also provide governments with a chance to ask the public to think like them.

Last year, underneath the heat of carbon and mining taxation, the government announced that it would phase in later retirement, effectively adding about an hour to our working week.

This, it was said, was about the opportunity for people to participate in paid work for longer and the need to protect the budget from too many grey nomads.

This year it appears that we have to pre-empt the possibility that tight labour markets may actually convert to better wages and conditions, or better health care and education. So policy is directed at increasing pressure on labour supply, and reducing budget outlays. And opportunity will also knock for the unemployed and sick.

We want them to have greater social inclusion, and they will be so included. So systems of supervision pioneered in the criminal justice system – such as parole officer-style case workers – will increasingly be deployed to monitor the idle poor.

We have already been softened up for this by statements from the Prime Minister and religious charities that now deliver much of what passes for employment services.

Prime Minister Gillard has used the rhetoric of the dignity of work, and the dangers of idleness.

This is not just a rhetorical appeal to what UK Prime Minister David Cameron has called the “sharp-elbowed middle class”. It is an appeal to the John Howard’s “battlers” – the potentially Hansonite small business-owners and subcontractors that Gillard wants on-side.

There is also a bi-partisan politics that is being articulated here.

Opposition leader Tony Abbott has been saying similar things about work for some time. He may feel rightly proud or a bit indignant that the government has stolen his politics.

The symbolism, though not the exact language, of this is not hard to find – in literature or political economy.

It is the sort of symbolism that animated fiction writers like Charles Dickens, who captured both the fundamental meanness and the hypocrisy of this sort of view.

It is the symbolism of the deserving and undeserving poor.

And here’s the rub: this symbolism has real effects, which no one who has read a shred of 19th-century fiction ought to pretend they don’t know about.