Joe Hockey and Tony Abbott have shown little sight they will stick to their ideological guns. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen / Fairfax
IN THE months before the election the polls left no doubt that the Coalition was going to win comfortably, but Tony Abbott and his campaign team left nothing to chance.
Rather than take a risk and outline the savings measures he intended to introduce, Abbott chose a "me too plus" strategy. If Labor was going to have a national disability insurance scheme, the Coalition was, too; if Labor was going to lift funding for every school in the country, the Coalition was, too; if Labor had a paid parental leave scheme, the Coalition was going to have a bigger and better one; if Labor was going to get the budget back in surplus, the Coalition would get it there sooner.
Anyone who thought about it knew it just didn't add up.
It still doesn't.
And unless the government bites the bullet in the coming budget, the problem will haunt it until the next election.
The electorate was sold the proposition that the Coalition would cut two significant taxes, maintain Labor's promised spending on health, education, social services and defence, and reduce the deficit.
It just can't be done.
If the Coalition is true to its ideological base, in the budget in May it will break its health, education and social welfare promises and tackle the deficit it made such an issue of when in opposition.
Getting the dirty work over and done with as soon as possible after an election is the standard political procedure.
The hope then is that by the time the next election rolls around, voters will have forgotten the cuts.
But so far Abbott, Treasurer Joe Hockey and Education Minister Christopher Pyne have shown little sign that they will stick to their ideological guns.
Public debt was a major issue for the Coalition before the election, but now it has negotiated a sensible deal with the Greens to lift the debt ceiling altogether.
Australia never had a government debt problem and doesn't have one now.
International Monetary Fund statistics released in October show the net government debt is 13.7 per cent of GDP, or less than a fifth of that of the top 20 advanced economies.
If the Labor government's policies had been maintained, the debt would have fallen to 10 per cent of GDP by 2018, or less than an eighth of that of the G20 economies.
The debt ceiling never should have been introduced and it's a good thing to see it go.
Getting the structural deficit down is another matter.
Unfortunately, before the election, Abbott and Hockey never revealed how they intended to achieve this.
They refused to release the costings of many policies until just days before the election and hid the bottom-line outcome.
Post-election, it appears that Abbott and Pyne thought the public would not notice, or care, if they abandoned their promise to match Labor's school funding for four years. How wrong they were.
First and foremost among those who highlighted the pre-election promises were their Coalition colleagues, the premiers of NSW and Victoria. They were ably backed up by the Labor opposition and the education lobby groups.
It would have required some backbone to defend the cuts. Despite his physical fitness regimen, Abbott just doesn't have it. Recognising that if he stuck to Pyne's one-year-only funding proposal, he would face the issue in a year's time, Abbott simply caved in.
But where to now? Where are the savings that will enable a worthwhile cut in the deficit?
The Coalition's promise to cut an additional 12,000 public servants, saving $5.2 billion, is also on hold. Before the election the Coalition boasted this cut would come on top of Labor's increase in the efficiency dividend.
But now in government, Finance Minister Mathias Cormann is trying to claim no one knew that Labor's savings meant cutting staff. Of course we did. How else could the savings be achieved?
Hockey also tried to muddy the waters when he claimed that cutting the carbon and mining taxes would "save" the taxpayer money. What he is really saying is that cutting the measures Labor introduced to compensate for the taxes will save money.
Because of Kevin Rudd's poorly run election campaign and Labor's poor start as an opposition, Hockey was able to get away with this for a while.
The opposition foolishly made too much of Hockey's efforts to lift the debt ceiling instead of focusing on the cuts to expenditure that rile voters.
Carbon pricing was due to raise $6.47 billion this financial year and $9.6 billion over the following three years. The minerals resource rent tax is expected to generate a net $700 million this year and $3.7 billion over the following three years.
These sums would clearly make a significant positive contribution to revenue. If they are removed, savings measures must be found to fill the gap.
The measures to compensate for the loss of that tax include cutting benefits for small business and ending the low income superannuation contribution and the schoolkids bonus.
A political price must be paid for such action, but the Coalition can rightly claim it flagged these cuts.
Unfortunately, it also has policies that will add to the deficit. These include Abbott's favourite, the paid parental leave scheme, and the promise to lift indexation of military superannuation.
The government needs a miracle. We can only hope Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull finds a few billion dollars in savings from his new national broadband network, or better still, that the leaks that have emerged in the company tax system are plugged, or an upturn in employment results in lower social security payments.
But these are the figments of ministerial imagination.