Illustration: Andrew Dyson.

Illustration: Andrew Dyson.

Tony Abbott might have thought it a low-risk encounter: introducing himself to a group of secondary students at a morning tea in a Liberal-held seat in Melbourne's east, and inviting them to raise any concerns. He didn't bank on Maddie Veares.

The 18-year-old captain of Croydon's Melba College had spent much of the previous night preparing for the possibility of meeting the Prime Minister, jotting down the questions she wanted answered.

The first concerned the deregulation of university fees flagged in the May budget. "I wanted to ask him why he was creating a tertiary system that would force students like myself, my siblings, my fellow students into extreme debt," she explained to me.

Veares wants to study psychology at Deakin University next year, with the ambition of ultimately teaching mental and sexual health in Third World countries. But she says the prospect of being weighed down by university debt might yet deter her.

"I also wanted some answers about why he believed he had the capabilities to be minister for women's affairs, considering his view that men and woman have different abilities and interests and aptitudes," she said, "and why there is only one female member of his cabinet."

And the third question? "I wanted to know why most of the budget was being funded by the poorest 20 per cent of the country," said Veares, who has been living independently from her separated parents for more than two years, and knows more than most Australians about adversity.

Veares made such an impression on Abbott during their brief encounter that he mentioned her in his unscripted address. "As many of you would know, this government is coming up for its first anniversary," the PM told his audience. "I don't pretend for a second that it's all been smooth sailing and I don't pretend for a second that every single thing that the government has done would be greeted by applause, even from people in this room.

"I've just been talking to some of the students of Melba College, and I said to one of the captains, Maddison, 'Have you got any issues that you want to raise with me as your Prime Minister?' And her response was, 'Where do I start'?"

Veares didn't get to ask her questions because Abbott had his speech to deliver and more flesh to press at the function, so an opportunity to address the most fundamental critique of his first budget, exactly 100 days after Joe Hockey brought it down, was lost.

The PM touched on the fairness issue in the abstract in his remarks, saying a lot of people had asked him questions about the fairness of the budget. "Well, I want to say that the most unfair thing that any government can do for you, the people of Australia, is saddle you with an ever-increasing debt burden."

It didn't persuade Veares, who left the morning tea a little chuffed to have met the Prime Minister, but feeling short-changed. I suspect she would have been similarly unsatisfied by a more formal address delivered by Finance Minister Mathias Cormann to the Sydney Institute on Tuesday.

Cormann's aim was to put the budget debate back on track after Joe Hockey's disastrous declarations about the impact of higher fuel excise on the poor. The Finance Minister offered a fiscal "reality check", but dealt with the question of fairness as fleetingly as Abbott did in Ringwood two days later.

"Labor and others argue that our budget is unfair. That is nonsense," Cormann asserted. "What is unfair is to promise what you cannot deliver." What is even more unfair, as far as Veares sees it, is imposing measures that hurt the vulnerable, in clear breach of pre-election undertakings.

If the aim was to give new direction and substance to the debate, and incentive for the Senate crossbenchers to bend on a host of measures they have vowed to oppose, then the exercise failed miserably, along with the follow-up interviews.

The result is that Parliament resumes from its five-week winter break next week with the Coalition under pressure and in a weak bargaining position when it comes to negotiating with the emboldened Senate crossbench and its new populist force, the Palmer United Party.

Hockey, the Coalition's pre-eminent pre-budget performer, has so far been singularly unsuccessful in selling his budget or persuading the crossbenchers. His fall can be traced to the footage of him puffing on cigars with Cormann during a break from budget preparations: pictures that became a metaphor for a Treasurer (and a government) out of touch. He is not alone when it comes to underperforming ministers.

Abbott, Hockey and Cormann can win the debate about the need for fiscal repair, even if voters don't accept their overblown budget emergency rhetoric, but they won't win the argument on fairness without a much better explanation and some concessions – and that won't happen in a hurry.

Their recovery prospects may hinge on the evolving bigger picture: how Abbott responds to the threat of home-grown, ISIL-inspired terrorism; Labor's capacity to adhere to its small-target strategy; and who Clive Palmer offends next.

The early response on terrorism is positive, despite Abbott's resort to Team Australia sloganeering. The Prime Minister's Sir John Downer Oration on Thursday included perhaps the most comprehensive endorsement of Australian multiculturalism by any Liberal leader since Malcolm Fraser. The message was unequivocal and inclusive: "Extremism is the enemy; not Islam," Abbott declared. "Terrorism is being targeted; not the members of any religion."

One potential distraction for Labor is the plethora of memoirs and explosive accounts of its six years in office (set to peak with Julia Gillard's book, My Story, late next month). Another is that the woman who made sexual assault accusations against Bill Shorten dating back to 1986 will not accept the official verdict that he has no case to answer.

For Abbott, the leader who brought us Operation Sovereign Borders, Operation Bring Them Home and Operation Budget Repair, the imperative is to stop governing by slogan and remind himself every single day that  he still needs to win the confidence and trust of voters. If he needs assistance, I can pass on Maddie Veares's mobile number.

Michael Gordon is political editor of The Age.