Grattan on Friday: A budget that desperately tries to avoid trouble

Prime Minister Tony Abbott has run shotgun on this second budget, knowing his political life depends on it. AAP/Bohdan Warchomij

Here we are with the budget almost upon us and Tony Abbott has had to assure the public, and Joe Hockey, that the Treasurer won’t be sacked if it’s a flop.

It’s an indication that while things have quietened within the government, under the surface the tensions, rivalries and fears still make for a febrile climate.

Abbott had the fire hose out after Australian columnist Niki Savva wrote on Thursday that government whip Scott Buchholz recently reported to the Prime Minister’s Office feedback from colleagues: if the budget went down badly, Abbott had to dump Hockey.

The Prime Minister said he’d told Hockey the story was a “complete invention”. Interviewed on radio, Abbott also said Hockey would be treasurer at the next election.

As for the budget, “it’s a team effort… It’s the government’s budget and if the budget doesn’t go well, obviously the government will suffer but I’m confident that this is the right budget for these times.”

Abbott has run shotgun on this second budget, knowing his political life depends on it, and having been given a terrifying reality check from the aftermath of last year’s.

After massively trashing ‘fairness’ in the 2014 budget, it has become the government’s mantra this time. “Fairer access to a more sustainable pension,” Social Services Minister Scott Morrison headed his press release on the asset test changes. “My determination is to ensure that this budget is fair,” Abbott says. “I don’t want anyone to say that this is an unfair budget.”

The budget is as risk-averse as it can be made, with ‘losers’ limited and ‘winners’ maximised. The pension changes hit the better off but the less well off get more in their pockets. In the child-care package to be unveiled at the weekend those on higher incomes are protected while there’s extra help for families down the scale.

The release of measures before the budget has been much more orderly than last year’s shambles of leaks and drops.

Consultation, arrogantly eschewed in 2014, is in fashion, with Morrison making it a hallmark of his approach, talking to stakeholders and crossbenchers.

Abbott is recalibrating his earlier description of the budget as “dull”, suggesting there will be “some excitement on budget night”. There is an as-yet-unrevealed initiative that is said to be significant.

The mood among the senior budget framers is somewhat apprehensive - because there is so much at stake - but they also think they’ve done all they can to avoid disasters. Abbott is said to be more at ease than the temperamental Hockey. The high profile of Morrison, who’s constantly on the media circuit and doing very well, is irking some colleagues and must be driving Hockey to distraction.

The unknowables are whether the government has got the balances right and how good the post-budget salesmanship of Abbott, Hockey and other ministers will be. And will the pragmatism needed to soothe voters attract criticism from some economic commentators and business voices?

Importantly, regardless of how the budget is received, will there be further bouts of mischief-making in Liberal ranks?

With less provocative measures in the budget, the Senate negotiations will be easier. The atmosphere on the crossbench is likely to be more benign. New leader Richard Di Natale represents something of a fresh start in the Greens’ relations with the government, although he’ll be constrained by his party. Clive Palmer’s power has all but blown away. And it is just possible that after the intransigence of last year, some crossbenchers might now be inclined to a more conciliatory approach.

Unlike for Abbott, next week is not make-or-break for Bill Shorten, but it holds its dangers.

Labor recognises that Abbott, despite continued voter antipathy to him and Labor’s lead in the polls, is slowly rebooting, and that if the budget goes down reasonably it will assist the process. To a large degree, Shorten’s continued good fortunes depend on the government’s misfortunes continuing.

And Shorten himself will be sharply in focus on Thursday when he presents his budget reply.

The budget run-up highlights that Labor still has the dilemma of how much policy to put out.

The difficulties are shown by what’s happened in relation to those the opposition has issued – plans for a crackdown on multinationals’ profit-shifting and for a cutback in tax breaks on the superannuation of higher-income earners.

The budget will see something in the first area. “We went to ensure that as far as is humanly possible, companies pay their tax where they make their money, so you can expect more on this on budget night,” Abbott said this week.

And the proposed asset test changes give the government an alternative on retirement income savings, so it can attack the opposition’s policy as “Labor wanting to put up taxes”.

Last weekend journalist Laurie Oakes started hares running about the possibility of an early double dissolution election. Abbott on Thursday said he intends to run full term. Accepting his word, what’s clear is that this budget is about trying to regain votes that were earlier squandered – votes desperately needed whenever the election is held.

Listen to the latest politics with Michelle Grattan with guest, Greens co-deputy leader Larissa Waters.