Federal Politics


Things get interesting for Prime Minister Tony Abbott

Is there any more ominous curse than the Chinese saying, ''may you live in interesting times''?

The internet cannot say exactly where it comes from. Or if it is actually Chinese. But that doesn't matter. The ominousity remains.

For a man who promised a government of calm and methodical steadiness, even Tony Abbott conceded on Friday it had been a Chinese curse of a week for his government.

When out in western Sydney flogging the budget, the Prime Minister told reporters: ''I know it's been an interesting week or so for senior members of the government, but this was a good budget and this is a budget which will ultimately be seen as a watershed in the life of our country.''

The interesting week began with polls putting Labor out in front 55 to 45 and 56 to 44 and went downhill from there.

On Monday evening, Treasurer Joe Hockey appeared solo on the ABC's Q&A, where, along with being jeered at one point by the Penrith audience, he accepted that the GP co-payment was a t-t-tax. Or a pet.


''You want to call it tax, you can call it anything you want, you can call it a rabbit. I don't mind,'' he said, while no doubt hoping he'd disappear in a magical puff of smoke.

Then, amid a tsunami of radio interviews about budget 2014-15 on Wednesday, Abbott proceeded to get a right shellacking from talkback callers who were irate and proud of it.

Sheila told him he was treating voters like idiots. Rhiannon told him he was ''fear-mongering'' and ''lying''.

And then Gloria called up to talk about health costs, leading to the wink that stopped the nation.

You can argue all you want about the fact that the Prime Minister was simply agreeing to take the call, that he is allowed to have facial expressions and that it was a surprise that Gloria said she worked on a (tee-hee) sex line, but the fallout sideswiped the budget debate for a whole news cycle.

Even The Washington Post wrote about ''winkgate'' and observed that Australia's prime minister had recently ''bungled his way from one scandal to the next''.

The esteemed overseas publication also reported that the hashtag #morepopularthanAbbott was doing the Twitter rounds. Including responses like ''socks with sandals'', ''Vegemite ice-cream'' or, if you are Greens senator Scott Ludlam, ''eggplant'' (to which we say: but eggplant makes baba ghanoush!?).

Indeed, so out was the fall that by Thursday Abbott was telling reporters the wink was a regrettable mistake – which is no small thing for a prime minister to admit.

Meanwhile, while all this was swirling, voters were out marching against the budget, which is not the standard public response to one of these things.

At the weekend, the March in May protests saw thousands of people in capital cities turn out with all manner of banners. By mid-week, students were interacting with police in the streets over plans to deregulate higher education fees and no Coalition MP – either current or former – was safe on a university campus. Abbott himself cancelled a planned visit to Deakin University due to safety advice from the Australian Federal Police.  

However, Canberra was more concerned with the absence of a fee – with the Prime Minister having to answer many a question about the scholarship Frances Abbott received from the Whitehouse Institute of Design.

By Friday he was visibly annoyed by the subject, repeating that he had complied with disclosure requirements and noting with some steely force: ''I think that family should be off limits when it comes to party political contention.''

And yet, come next week, all of the winking and protests and rabbits may seem calm and methodical in comparison.

Abbott and Hockey certainly need to win over voters, but only eventually. Before that, they need to get their contro budget measures through the Senate.

Following a largely parliament-free past two months, MPs will now spend four of the next five weeks in Canberra to battle out the budget.

Labor and Greens are mighty unhappy. And the Palmer United Party wrangling is set to become the trickiest sport in town. For one thing, Clive Palmer has been switching his position on university fees with the sort of freewheeling ease of, well, no one ever before. 

Then there's the home front – otherwise known as the cohort of Coalition backbenchers who were just as surprised on budget night as the rest of Australia. And who have been left to deal with their electorates this week.

Oh to be a fly on the wall at the joint party room meeting on Tuesday morning. 

The interesting times are set to roll on. 

Judith Ireland is a Fairfax Media journalist