Intellectually incoherent: Prime Minister Tony Abbott's first budget.

Intellectually incoherent: Prime Minister Tony Abbott's first budget.

It took a long time, but Bob Santamaria’s finally done it - we’ve got our first ever DLP Prime Minister. There’s no other way to describe someone who rips the guts out of education yet finds money for a school chaplaincy program; for a person who eviscerates payments to single mothers but still has a few bucks left over for family planning. This Budget marks a waypoint on a long march to possess the soul of the Liberal party. It’s intellectually incoherent: cutting services to all listening to a special interest group.

And this is its weakest point. The claim is that this is somehow akin to John Howard’s first budget in 1997. It’s not. That was good to business and established the country for decades of growth. This, by contrast, is a flabby effort that reflects its self-indulgent craftsmen. It genuflects, grudgingly, towards everything discovered since the 1930s but the Catholic mafia (Tony Abbott, Joe Hockey, Kevin Andrews, et al) have demonstrated convincingly that they can shape government in their image. Indulgence available upon application; see the padre.

Even so, it needn’t have turned out like this: with The Australian bearing front-page stories about Hockey’s spare millions and Abbott’s polling plunge. There’s another factor at work – something else is conspiring against the government, although none of its chiefs can quite put their finger on what it might be. Perhaps they should ask, ‘who’.

<i>Illustration:</i> Pat Campbell

Illustration: Pat Campbell

That’s because there’s been another big difference between this government and Howard’s, and that’s the way it communicates. Abbott’s chief-of-staff, Peta Credlin’s controlling the message: except she isn’t. She can’t. No single person could ever manage to be across the myriad of detail but that hasn’t stopped her trying. This is part of the reason the sales job has gone so pear-shaped. People need to be encouraged along on the journey, but this government’s just giving out the timetable and yelling at people to board the bus. And that’s why today, many, no most, people want to get off.

We’ve had the budget - and yet we still don’t really know where the money’s going. Don’t believe me? Probe the detail and you’ll see what I mean. Take defence. The headlines here have been just what the government ordered - news of a huge spending boost for the services and a return to spending two per cent of GDP on the military. Oh, and, of course, more boys in uniform and fewer public servants. The political message is difficult to mistake and, if it’s real, it seems like a direct appeal to Liberal heartland values.

But that’s the key - can the promise be delivered? This is where the devil’s in the detail; it’s easy to promise a big spending boost but quite another to make certain the money’s being well spent. I can’t properly decipher all those numbers, and that’s why I turned to the Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s Mark Thomson. In the Budget lock-up he was combing carefully through the figures to check out if they really did represent the much-claimed enhancement.

We mere mortals will have to wait for him to pronounce his verdict in a couple of weeks. But, in the meantime, I’m suspicious. The services are, basically, careful and professional in the way they spend money. They don’t rush off and buy tanks just because they can, and it’s not feasible to put thousands of young people suddenly into uniform so they can run around in the bush, even if they can be convinced to enlist. Andrew Carr and Peter Dean made a good point on this page last week: why wasn’t this money for the frontline being trumpeted. Part of the explanation is the government’s crappy sales job (and that can be directed straight back to Abbott’s office); the other possibility is that not all of the money will eventually arrive where it’s been allocated. Quite simply, Defence won’t be able to absorb it, particularly as it’s supposed to be sacking public servants at the same time.

The detail - such as it is - doesn’t make sense, although there is always the possibility that that’s just because our public servants are so brilliant their estimates are always correct. Take the National Disability Insurance Scheme. According to Budget documents it appears as if the original costing projections for the phenomenally complicated rollout were, in fact, absolutely spot on! Yes, that’s right. You can draw a (almost) straight line between last year’s figures and today’s. This isn’t to question the scheme; it just suggests that a great deal of the hard, crunching work is being done in the various ministerial offices. Perhaps the Treasurer’s too busy puffing on his cigar to trouble himself about the detail.

Foreign Aid provides an interesting case study in this regard. The laceration of the overall amount is well known and, if you exclude pushing hospital spending to the states and the education changes to families (making these off-budget items), this represented the biggest cut to government expenditure. You don’t need to be a pollster to understand that this is unlikely to change a single vote. In previous budgets a slim, blue book packed with figures has always provided the detail. But this time it wasn’t there. The morning after the release the ANU’s Development Policy Centre held one of the best forums yet on the Budget’s impact, but there was bemusement. It’s not that the government hasn’t thought about the detail. It obviously has. In this case there’s more to come and the gritty detail of the changes will be unveiled within weeks.

It will, however, take a year before the Defence White Paper is released and there’s a lot of water to pass under the bridge before then. It’s tempting to speculate a lack of coherence in the (new) DLP’s policy settings may lead to emerging tensions within the government.

Nicholas Stuart is a Canberra writer.