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Tony Abbott has stumbled in his attempts to sell his budget, asserting wrongly that the Howard government "took a big hit in the polls too" after delivering its first budget in 1996.
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Shorten's poll boost
Bill Shorten opens a lead as preferred Prime Minister as the government is hammered in the opinion polls. Nielsen's John Stirton puts the poll in context.
Rather than take a hit, the Coalition actually experienced a bounce from what was the best received budget in a decade, despite one in three voters thinking they would be worse off because of the tough measures it included.
The first post-budget Newspoll in 1996 showed a three percentage point increase in the Coalition's primary vote, to 50; a lift in Howard's approval rating, from 47 to 51; and an increase in his lead over Kim Beazley as preferred prime minister to a score of 53 per cent against Beazley's 24.
The message from Newspoll and the AGB McNair poll published in Fairfax newspapers was that a majority of voters saw the 1996 budget as fair, despite it breaking pre-election commitments. The Age Poll saw the Coalition holding its primary vote and slightly increasing its two-party preferred lead over Labor.
Much of the commentary at the time made the point that Howard's hand in negotiating tough measures through the Senate was strengthened by the movement in the polls. Such was the impact that Howard, who until then had been very cautious about speculating on a second victory, defined the Coalition's task as about "locking in good government".
The numbers in the polls after the first Abbott budget tell a very different story, with the Fairfax-Nielsen poll showing the Coalition primary vote slumping to 35 per cent (down five); Abbott's approval falling nine points to 34; and Bill Shorten for the first time in front as preferred PM.
The story in Newspoll, published in The Australian, is very similar.
The achievement of Howard and Peter Costello was to sell the same message that Abbott and Joe Hockey have been arguing both before and after the release of their budget – that the state of the books after the removal of a Labor government was so bad that very tough medicine was required.
The difference is that they did not have advance warning of the extent of the problem (it was Costello who introduced the charter of budget honesty and its pre-election fiscal outlook); they broke fewer pre-election promises; and the general consensus was that their budget was hard but fair.
The last two points are critical. While Abbott's daily four-point pre-election mantra including fixing the budget, he explicitly ruled out increasing cost of living pressures by increasing taxes or introducing new ones.
The toughest judgment of all in the Fairfax-Nielsen poll is that Abbott and Hockey failed to live up to their promise that the pain would be shared evenly, with 63 per cent of voters describing the budget as unfair.
The message from Abbott on Monday is that there will be no retreat from the "careful, thoughtful, measured" response to Labor's "debt and deficit disaster", but the challenge is immense.
No wonder the Prime Minister is adapting a phrase from another former Liberal PM, Malcolm Fraser, and saying: "We never said it was going to be easy."