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Has the federal budget fatally wounded two Liberal leaders?

Date

Michael Gordon

The blurb for Madonna King's soon-to-be-published book on a treasurer who has just brought down his first budget, Hockey: Not Your Average Joe, begins with the tantalising question: "Will this man be Australia's next prime minister?"

''The son of an immigrant and a Bondi beauty queen, Joe Hockey is one of Australia's most popular politicians with one of the nation's toughest jobs," it continues. "So, how did he get there? And can he deliver?"

It promises to be an absorbing read, but the popularity claim is open to debate after the worst received budget in a generation. While the published polls show Tony Abbott has borne the brunt of voter anger, Hockey has also lost a serious amount of skin.

Polling by UMR research for the Labor Party confirmed Hockey as one of the country's most popular politicians after the election, with 51 per cent giving him a positive rating and just 30 per cent a negative one, for a net score of plus-22. While the ratings held up well until early this year, Hockey dipped into negative territory the week before the budget, on the back of leaks suggesting pre-election promises would be broken, and deteriorated further after this was confirmed.

Hockey's net rating went from minus-9 one week out, to minus-14, with 50 per cent of voters disapproving of his performance and 36 approving. It is still better than Abbott's net rating of minus-22, but it underscores the breadth and depth of the challenge now facing the Coalition.

If anything, the second week after the budget has been worse for the government than the first. Abbott has struggled as the principal salesman, not least because of his stubborn refusal to concede the breach of trust. Hockey hasn't fared much better.

A man who is known for his empathy tended to camouflage it while batting away questions on the ABC's Q&A from those who say they will be hurt by the budget.  To Korey Gunnis, who complained about the $7 co-payment to the visit the doctor, and whose conditions included rheumatoid arthritis, cerebral palsy, osteoporosis, osteoarthritis, chronic asthma, hearing loss and clinical depression, Hockey simply replied: "Well, from what you said, you wouldn't be hit by the so-called Medicare co-payment.''

As for whether the payment was a tax, the Treasurer grudgingly conceded that it was, but only after a tedious exchange with host Tony Jones. ''You want to call it a tax, you can call it anything you want,'' Hockey flatly declared. ''You can call it a rabbit. I don't mind. You can call it whatever you want but, it's a – it's tax.''

When Jones countered that, if it was a tax, it was a broken promise, Hockey replied: "Well, we didn't say – we didn't say we wouldn't raise any taxes." The problem here is that there are copious pre-election quotes from Abbott suggesting the exact opposite. "What you'll get from us are tax cuts without new taxes," is one of many.

Then came Abbott's exchange with Jon Faine on ABC radio on the reintroduction of indexation of fuel excise.

FAINE: But would you agree that in your budget you have introduced new taxes?

PM: I agree that the fuel excise indexation is restoring an old form of tax.

FAINE: Is it a tax?

PM: Excise is a tax – there is no doubt about that.

FAINE: So, you have introduced a tax?

PM: We have restored something that was there before.

Usually, budgets recede as talking points the week after they are delivered, but not this one; it continues to provoke intense interest on talkback radio and in the letters pages of the newspapers.

Beyond the semantics of broken promises is the question of fairness, with modelling showing that those at the lower end of the income scale will bear the most pain. Beyond that are the questions still unanswered, including what impact the deregulation of university fees will have on those who begin their courses next year. Professor Bruce Chapman, the architect of the Higher Education Contribution Scheme, sees the planned changes as more radical that the abolition of fees by the Whitlam government or the introduction of HECS, saying fees in some elite areas could go up by a factor of three.

And beyond the detail is the question of whose budget this is anyway, and what is driving it. Is it Abbott's, or Hockey's? An introspective Prime Minister acknowledged a level of public confusion about his own motivations in one interview, observing: "Well, pre-election, I was supposed to be some kind of old-fashioned DLP pseudo-socialist. It's only subsequent to the election that I'm supposedly of a different ilk."

This raises another question that was underscored by the wildly divergent responses to Abbott's wink, when a pensioner claimed on talkback radio that she worked on a sex call line because she needed the money.  Who is the real Tony?

One of the biggest political dangers for the Coalition is that it has booby-trapped its own budget, ensuring a flow of bad-news stories until the next election as different harsh measures come into play and have their impact on, for instance, the young unemployed (from January next year), or doctors' patients (from July next year), or university students (from 2016).

Then there is the impact of spending cuts in a host of areas, including the one that Abbott is determined will define his prime ministership for all the right reasons: indigenous affairs.

But the biggest danger for Abbott is that he  has, in the minds of voters, done what Paul Keating did when he reneged on the L-A-W tax cuts in 1993, or Julia Gillard did when she introduced a carbon tax after promising there would not be one. That is, he has breached a commitment that seemed so crystal clear, one that will be easily recalled at the next election (and incorporated in ALP ads).

As the pressure is applied in the coming weeks and months, the commitment of both Abbott and Hockey to their budget, and to each other, will be tested on multiple fronts: by the special pleading of sectional interests; the exposure of further inequities or unintended consequences; the need to find common ground with a new Senate from July 1; and the response of aggrieved state premiers.

If Abbott and Hockey prevail, voters will come to see their budget as a watershed in Australian history for all the right reasons. If they fail, the Coalition could end up carrying not one fatally wounded leader, but two.

Michael Gordon is political editor of The Age.

154 comments

  • They are going to struggle for three reasons. First this budget was massive breach of faith by a Prime Minister that set the standard for trust and truth and made lying a terminal offence. Second it is an unfair budget, those who can least afford it are carrying the can. It is an assault on the poor and needy and that aspect of the document has been well and truly exposed. Voters appear to have made the decision this is not the Australia they aspire to. Finally they have begun to talk tax cuts. How can you consider tax cuts when you have a budget crisis and you have slashed 80 billion from the forward estimates, that is underfunding health and the Gonski education reforms. This is the problem when you allow ideology to underpin the framing of a budget. The voters have seen through it and Labour if they are any good will not allow them to forget.

    Commenter
    Kidding
    Date and time
    May 24, 2014, 1:20PM
    • Well said.

      Commenter
      Gert
      Location
      Melbourne
      Date and time
      May 24, 2014, 1:44PM
    • Sadly - all those points were all too predictly except the extent of nastiness and severity.

      A serious miscalculation from the party that serves the masters from the big end of town.

      No matter, such people have media investments, the Murdoch press in particular has fulsome praise for the deeds of the Abbott govt - this is all Labors fault!

      Question is - are the punters buying?
      The medias campaign against the Labor Party will be remorseless and relentless, eventually Abbott should turn the corner.

      Commenter
      Tadd
      Date and time
      May 24, 2014, 1:54PM
    • That about sums it up. ironic how they are already talking tax cuts as they are about to introduce more. Class warfare 101 is the only way to objectively view the punitive Budget.
      Only Aboat and Hockit injured? The whole front bench is injured. Note how many have gone silent, in hiding. Where's Connman? Where's Barnaby? Where's Malcolm? Where's Morrison?
      So now Aboat tells the nation not to hang out for your dream job! Well he did and look where it's got us! Not so dreamy this week between a budget, collateral damage over that perpetual smirk and the wink. 
      Attention Senate, we are watching and relying on you all.

      Commenter
      A country gal
      Date and time
      May 24, 2014, 2:01PM
    • The only people that complain about this budget are people who have nothing else to complain about. How is that everyone at work I speak with agree that this budget is required and that it has to be done? Yet on here it seams to be only a certain type of people. No support of Tony because unlike the rest of you who didn't know this was going to happen I support this budget.

      Commenter
      The Other Guy1
      Date and time
      May 24, 2014, 2:07PM
    • We shouldn't forget the budget comes after other LNP initiatives:

      Dumping on barrier reef.
      Trying to heritage delist of old growth forests to promote their destruction.
      Deliberate destruction of scientific organisations.
      Attacks on the renewable energy sector.
      Attacks on education funding prior to the budget. (still going, now just making it impossible for states to meet their side of the bargain).
      Destroying good NBN (but apparently I can afford roads, must be near fracking sites).
      Overturning attempts to stop super being used as a tax evasion scheme.
      Overturning FBT reform.
      Trying to remove levels of scrutiny in the financial sector.

      All this while Tony has accepted the equivalent of 20 bottles of grange (nudge nudge wink wink say no more) to ease the burden on his own family. Decent people in the LNP need to rise up on this crowd and reclaim the party. My next guess is massive assault on the minimum wage.

      Commenter
      Bruce
      Date and time
      May 24, 2014, 2:09PM
    • Very True, the honesty factor is survivable, we are used to politicians being economical with the truth, but the unfair nature of the beast is what will hurt this mob, as will the arrogance that has gone along with it. The "get a job" attitude is pretty rich when full time and higher salaried positions are in short supply.

      Commenter
      The Genuine Article
      Date and time
      May 24, 2014, 2:14PM
    • TAX CUTS are hinted at to help defuse the anger felt by the electorate and impress the well off financial party supporters. No suggestion of making some changes to help the pensioners and others who DO NOT HAVE A TAXABLE INCOME!!! Most voters have come to realise that the LNP only look after the top end of town and treat the rest of us as a commodity to be harvested at every turn. I wonder who will be the LNP leader at the next election? It won't be Tony.
      Tax Cuts are a typical solution from these parasites who very obviously live on another planet far from care[ing].

      Commenter
      Cringe
      Location
      Brisbane
      Date and time
      May 24, 2014, 2:16PM
    • Policy has always been a Liberal Party weakness. It was no surprise to me the budget was going to be such an unfair shocker.
      Australia can do a lot lot better than these clowns Abbott and Hockey, and the likes of Bernardi, Brandis, Andrews, Pyne, dutton, Robb, Joyce and let's face it, a few dozen more with their backward ideologies.

      Commenter
      meatatarian
      Date and time
      May 24, 2014, 2:20PM
    • These men are completely out of touch with the issues that ordinary people face on a daily basis. They also seem to be incapable of visualising the down the track consequences of their actions. Foreseeability is an important legal principle when judges determine culpability and liability in cases before them. we have the bizarre situation that our political leaders do not have the ability to comprehend the un-intended damaging consequences of extreme actions. This is all the more bizarre when you consider that these leaders are the same men who have ordered a Royal commission to investigate the un-intended consequences perpetrated by the previous government in the pink batts fiasco. Unfortunately they will create huge divisions in the country where none existed and open fire doors with roaring blazes behind them in blissful ignorance and all in the cause of an economic rationalism ideology that ran it's course in the nineties and early two thousands after the riotous excesses of the eighties. We are being strangled with an outdated ideology that simply does not apply in today's global economy. I hope that in future years the legal ramifications of the gross negligence of this government come to bear with the full force of the law on the individuals responsible. Company Directors are criminally responsible for their actions. It's about time political leaders are subject to he same rules.

      Commenter
      Jonathan
      Location
      Melbourne
      Date and time
      May 24, 2014, 2:20PM

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