<i>Illustration: michaelmucci.com</i>

Illustration: michaelmucci.com

We may be about to see history made by the federal government, a change of direction forced on Prime Minister Tony Abbott by a hostile Senate and a hostile public. We may see a do-over budget.

The first Abbott budget has proved to be a debacle. The opinion polls provide the proof. The content, the fairness and the selling of the budget have seen a spectacular adverse turn in the fortunes of Treasurer Joe Hockey. He’s gone from being the best performer in Parliament to the best target in Canberra. His key policy of introducing a $7 service fee for visits to the doctor and putting the bulk of the proceeds into a giant fund for medical research (rather than into reducing the budget deficit, something people could understand) is one of the most maladroit policies I have ever seen.  

Armed with a self-harming budget, the government is now facing something worse than the rejectionism of the Greens in the Senate. It is facing asymmetrical political warfare from Clive Palmer and his Senate team, plus a tactic of a blanket rejection of almost everything from Leader of the Opposition Bill Shorten.

Abbott can crash through this dysfunctional, asymmetrical impasse through a double-dissolution election. But his polling numbers are dreadful. The polls say, consistently, that Labor would return to government if a federal election were held now.

These polls are even worse for Abbott than their raw numbers. His government would lose even though every major criticism of the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd governments has turned out to be valid. The immigration system was a debacle. The border protection regime was a debacle. The national broadband network was a debacle. The private conduct of Kevin Rudd was a debacle. The seediness around Julia Gillard saw her struck by fraud lightning three times, via Bruce Wilson (ex-boyfriend), Craig Thomson (government-saving vote) and Peter Slipper (her chosen speaker).

And the alternative prime minister, Shorten, is just not charismatic. Yet despite all this, the electorate would be willing to bring Labor back.

Abbott should take these poll numbers personally. If he can’t go back to the electorate, he has to go back to the chaotic Senate. There are four crossbench senators who are pragmatic realists: Bob Day (Family First), David Leyonhjelm (Liberal Democrats), Nick Xenophon (independent) and John Madigan (DLP), so the main problem is Palmer.

If the government were to go back and redraft a budget, in consultation with the crossbenchers, it would need to get rid of several elements which would address both the unfairness perception and the Palmer problem.

First, the $7 doctors surcharge for medical research needs to die. A surcharge perhaps, but for medical research – no. Second, Abbott’s paid parental leave scheme, which would not even win the vote of all Liberal senators, has to be abandoned or replaced with childcare funding. Third, the impositions on the unemployed need to be softened. Fourth, the impositions on university fees also need to be softened.

There are other issues, but these are broad-brush, perception-heavy, addressable issues for the government. In politics, the broad-brush is what matters. It is the silent majority, not the noisy partisan tribes, which decides the fate of governments.

This is the broad-brush do-over that Abbott might consider from the distance of Europe this week. Before last year’s election, the private Abbott was more sombre about politics than the public Abbott. Privately, he saw structural problems looming: a sharp fall-off in business investment as the Chinese-driven commodities boom came off the boil; structural unemployment rising as businesses cut costs by cutting staff; huge unfunded liabilities left behind by Gillard-Rudd' and an ageing population.

All of this has come to pass. Unemployment is at a 12-year-high as the internet economy lays waste to staff-heavy business models and the commodities boom slows. The Palmer United Party has taken up residence in La-La Land on debt and deficit.

Abbott’s decision last week to walk away from amending section 18C of  the Racial Discrimination Act suggests he has made an adjustment to the new realities. His decision reflects the poor way Attorney-General George Brandis presented and sold the proposed change, which was a clear election promise.

The government has yet to make serious inroads in clawing back the adverse polling numbers but there are some fair winds that could lift its sails. First, a new budget. The Prime Minister has a perfectly reasonable  excuse for introducing a remodelled budget: reality. He can tell the public that is reality, this is politics, this is compromise. It will be up to Palmer to show that he is not an agent of chaos but can support functional politics, given that the people elected a new government with a clear mandate to attack the structural budget deficit.

Palmer also has a problem called CITIC Pacific, the Chinese company which has made serious claims about Palmer which, should they ever be proven in court, would lead to the end to his stay in Parliament. Then there is the royal commission on union governance and corruption, which is turning up systemic collusion by both companies and unions. It has a long way to run.

Finally, there is national security, an issue which worked well for Abbott’s mentor, John Howard. Labor is less credible on security now than it was during the Howard years, so this is the broad-brush issue that can change Abbott’s fortunes, if he can change his budget problem.

Twitter: @Paul_Sheehan_