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Same old cycle - explaining our budget attention deficit

Balanced response: Tony Abbott’s budget speech should be thoughtful, not just critical.

There is a sublime moment in the first series of The Thick of It, the brilliant British comedy TV series that satirised the inner workings of modern government, where the Minister for Social Affairs and Citizenship, Hugh Abbot, and the Prime Minister’s foul-mouthed director of communications, Malcolm Tucker, discuss the ‘Zeitgeist Tapes’ – a weekly digest prepared for the Prime Minister that boils down the week’s television, cinema, music, and other popular culture, so that he can appear “with it”.

The fictional Abbot (played by actor Chris Langham), already under the pump having taken over the ministry at short notice, admits to his minders that he has struggled to find the time to watch the 10-minute video summary, and asks them to provide him with a “précis of the précis”.

I was reminded of this scene as I watched the desperate scramble among media outlets to summarise Wayne Swan’s fourth budget on Tuesday night - and I’m sure to be reminded again during our own Tony Abbott’s budget reply tonight.

Very few of us watched Swan’s 3000 word summary of his budget, broadcast live from 7:30pm on ABC TV on Tuesday, with the majority of viewers opting for Seven’s Australia’s Got Talent (1.752 million), followed by Ten’s Masterchef Australia (1.44 million).

Even fewer would have gone to and downloaded the full budget papers, or maybe even the key budget document, Budget Paper 1: Budget Strategy and Outlook (all 384 pages of it).

Don’t get me wrong, this is not a criticism of the attention span of the modern Australian, nor is it a discourse on the shallowness of the media. But it is a reflection on the capacity of humans to process complex and detailed information.

And yet, we are all expected to form an opinion, and espouse our views on the budget and how it will affect our lives.

So, if all of us struggle to get our heads around a more-than-1000 page document, where do our opinions come from?

Like most things in life, people simply don’t have the time, capacity, or inclination to engage at a deep, considered and thoughtful level with the detail of something such as a national budget.

So, those who are interested (and the numbers will be small) will be drawn towards information that either directly affects them or their wider family, or their perspective will be moved in a particular direction by what they consider to be authoritative sources.

Many people will use a suite of media outlets – which will ostensibly conform to their particular worldview – to help comprehend how something as nuanced and detailed as a budget will influence their lives.

Although we are becoming more comfortable with using new media, such as Twitter and blogs, even these sources are heavily reliant on what might be termed mainstream, or “old” media for authoritative analysis.

And the fact that we have access to more information doesn’t necessarily mean that we are more analytical. Our capacity to process and reflect has not evolved or increased as quickly as the surfeit of information that is currently available to most of the population. If anything, when we feel overwhelmed, we are more likely to return to material that offers simplicity, regardless of its veracity.

That said, much of the reporting in our mainstream media aspires to be thoughtful, critical, and detailed. But because of time and editorial constraints, the majority of the stories about the budget (and other subjects) are condensed, massaged and moulded around particular themes or stories that will appeal to that media outlet’s target audience.

The flipside of this is that detail and nuance will be invariably missed in the rush to publish.

So, The Herald Sun leads with “Big Squeeze is all about jobs”, while across at The Australian Financial Review we have the headline, “Turning deficit into surplus”.

We know from a lot of research into learning that it takes a significant amount of energy, cognitive resources and time for people, even experts, to fully comprehend the detail of information provided to us, and then to abstract that information to understand the influence of that information at both a micro (individual) and macro (broader community) level.

But because many of the stories in our newspapers and online sites have to be posted within a couple of hours of receipt of the budget papers, even the writers have to rely on what they already believe and know to develop their stories. There is little time for reflection.

Ultimately, those early stories become “the” stories, and any revisitation of the budget is viewed through the prism of those earlier reports.

Whether by intention or not, the early reports create the “anchor” by which the reader and the analyst examines all future stories about the budget.

But, there is another way. I would argue that the best opportunity for a considered, reflective response would need to be at least a couple of days (and maybe even a week) after the budget is delivered.

It gives the experts time to read and consider the detail, and also provides reflection over and above the immediate “headline” reaction – in legal parlance this might be called a “cooling-off” period.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that the entire document will be read, but what it does mean is that the analyst can take the time to synthesise their ideas, and make connections free from time and space constraints.

We all know that we think better we have time to reflect, discuss and consider information, yet we accept much of the instant analysis without considering this.

But should we expect deep reflection from our commercial media?

Probably not.

They are, after all, businesses. Their major goal is to sell advertising. Newspapers need to be sold the next day, and radio and TV stations need to fill up their news, morning shows and current affairs programs. If one newspaper didn’t lead with a budget wrap-around, it simply means that they will miss out on sales.

But there is some hope.

In theory, the best opportunity for a considered, thoughtful and balanced response to the budget is the Opposition Leader Tony Abbott’s budget reply tonight.

If Tony Abbott’s aim is to provide analysis and a critical perspective on the budget for the benefit of the Australian population, then we should expect thoughtful, reflective and considered analysis that highlights problems in the budget and offers solutions.

One might even argue that a real leader should attempt to step outside the concept of opposition, per se, and offer, as much as possible, an objective and impartial response.

If, however, Mr Abbott’s aim is simply to criticise the government, force an election, and by extension get into government, then we can expect a reply that is mostly about criticism, little about hope and vision, and reliant on what might lead the headlines the next day.

My hope is that Tony Abbott can show some of the intellectual rigour absent in the fictional Hugh Abbot, and respond to more than a précis of the précis.

But in the likely words of Malcolm Tucker, “I’m not holding my f***ing breath”.

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