A quartet of aged care residents sought the assistance of their local member last week. Clive Palmer had never met the women, who told him they had been lifelong Liberal-Nationals voters. No longer.
Their nursing home’s practice of withholding their aged pension cheques, while handing back a modest $15 each for minor luxuries such as chocolates, is set to end. But not in a good way.
Due to the forthcoming GP ‘‘co-payment’’, they were reportedly advised, the remaining $15 would also be withheld to offset expected GP costs.
On Wednesday night Tony Abbott acknowledged the obvious unpopularity of the GP measure, describing it as ‘‘perhaps the most difficult policy change in this budget’’.
He justified it, however, on the largely ideological grounds of establishing a price signal on doctor consultations – yet another case of the confused messaging in this budget, which is otherwise all about fiscal repair in the face of debt and deficit disaster.
But it remains deeply questionable whether, on either grounds, the $7 payment is worth the political pain.
To say it is trouble is an understatement. Labor hates it, as do the Greens, and it’s clear Palmer hates it too. Which accounts for the current Senate and probably the newly configured red chamber from July.
Marginal-seat Liberals worry such trenchant parliamentary and public opposition may come to account for them too in time – in the unlikely event that it can be legislated.
As voters keep saying, no doctor fee was ever mentioned before the election (nor, incidentally, before the Western Australian Senate byelection in April this year).
Even if it does go down, there are plenty of other objectionables in the budget and no clear path for them either.
While Labor waved through the temporary deficit levy on the rich on Wednesday, other broken promises seem doomed.
Even those things that had been expected to garner Greens support – the petrol tax rise and the paid parental leave scheme – can no longer be safely assumed. If anything, attitudes in Canberra are hardening.
Could voters really contemplate re-installing Labor in office so quickly after the last debacle?
Compromise is out of vogue as politics is played at 20 paces – not exactly Washington-style gridlock, but high stakes nonetheless. An absence of common ground, or any desire to find it, is making the comparison with the polarised US polity more plausible by the day. How will it end?
Federal budgets struck in good times, or those stimulatory efforts aimed at bringing such conditions about, are no real guide. It’s the others you need to consider – the tough, corrective ones, where money is withdrawn.
Job losses, cuts in benefits and tax increases – these present a different story. They create losers, which is another term for political capital. Right now Labor, the Greens and canny crossbenchers such as Palmer are awash with such capital.
Unsurprisingly, Joe Hockey wants to put the steel back into his wavering MPs, this week reinforcing the message: we’re not backing down.
While government backbenchers vent anonymously, railing in sometimes colourful terms against a politically hamfisted budget, the leadership has formed a withering critique of its own.
Senior ministers grumble that many of the same backbenchers currently doubting the harsh budget medicine gained their preferment through the party as muscular champions of small government and free markets.
Now, the complaint goes, they’re in retreat at the ‘‘first whiff of grapeshot’’. Nonetheless, there’s danger in their numbers.
A Coalition party room meeting on Tuesday loomed as a pressure point for Hockey and Abbott, which explains why the PM dined with 30 or so newbies a couple of nights before.
The fear is that the spring in the opposition step might be justified. Could voters really contemplate re-installing Labor in office so quickly after the last debacle?
Liberal hardheads know it is possible, pointing out that although one-term governments are rare (the last one federally was before the Second World War), first-term governments generally suffer a scare. Think Hawke in 1984, Howard in 1998 and Gillard in 2010.
Labor MP Nick Champion is another with a keen analytical mind and a colourful turn of phrase. The South Australian told me this week he was mystified by the government’s strategy.
‘‘Forget ‘contribute and build’, this budget is an IED, an improvised explosive device,’’ he says. ‘‘They’ve buried it in the road, but the trouble is, they’re the government, they’re the ones on the road who have to drive over it, not us, we’re just the opposition, and it’s going to go off at the next election.’’
Champion cites a couple of examples.
On doctor payments, he argues even people currently not being bulk-billed (that is already paying a significant GP fee per appointment) will come to see their medical bills as this government’s doing – ‘‘every time they go’’.
And as for pensioners and their families, they will go to the polls next time around being asked to vote themselves a pay cut via lower indexation. ‘‘How many of them are likely to vote for that?’’
Presumably he’s not the only one wondering about that.
Mark Kenny is Fairfax Media's chief political correspondent.