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Grattan on Friday: Budget blues as government reels under the blows

Prime Minister Tony Abbott has made a few embarrassing mistakes in a week set aside for selling the budget. AAP/Rob Blakers

How bad has this budget been for the government? You only had to listen Nine’s Today program on Thursday morning to get the answer.

“Will you make it to the next election as leader?” Abbott was asked by Karl Stefanovic. “I expect so,” the Prime Minister replied. “I think the Australian people are sick of governments which change their leaders mid-term.”

To have the durability of Abbott’s leadership a topic of discussion well short of the first anniversary of his election would have seemed inconceivable when he swept into office last September.

Abbott, Treasurer Joe Hockey and other ministers have been out in the traditional post budget “sell” these past days, but things actually look much worse for the government now than they did a week ago.

Abbott had another, viral, “Tony moment” with his wink when a pensioner said she worked on a sex call line because she needed the money (one political source says he often winks in a quite disconcerting manner). Confusion about individual budget measures has not receded but increased, and Abbott didn’t help by fluffing a couple of details. The backlash has intensified rather than subsided. And all that’s before the horse trading with the Senate begins.

In Coalition ranks some admit the budget was disproportionate to the size of the fiscal problem - which the government exaggerated anyway.

Members of the public haven’t bought the “crisis” talk, and as their individual circumstances become clearer many are horrified at what they will lose.

The budget is seen as harsh rather than just tough; the real sting, coming through strongly in polling, is that it is regarded as unfair.

Some government MPs had thought people might have accepted that the medicine had to be swallowed (they’d accepted the line themselves) and so are surprised by the intensity of the anger.

The budget has been sold poorly but its deeper problem involves the judgement (or lack of) that went into it.

The tone has jarred. In retrospect one has to ask whether the “age of entitlement” language – which reflects Joe Hockey’s philosophy, which turned into his mission and his passion – has been counterproductive.

It is one thing to say to people that when the budget requires repair their benefits need to be trimmed, or that pensions can’t increased so fast.

But declarations about having to end “the age of entitlement” carry pejorative overtones; it sounds like voters are being condemned in some moral sense for accepting handouts. In fact the middle class largesse in family payments and the like reflected the view of John Howard (whose cabinet contained Hockey and Abbott) that assistance should be provided to people for the cost of children.

Too much money was splashed, but would Hockey have done better to have nuanced the rhetoric of the turnaround?

Then, however, he would not have been able to make his point with the drama he wanted.

If the budget had limited its targets and aimed at them a little more gently, the government would be in a better place.

But Hockey was on a crusade and Abbott signed up to it. Just why the Prime Minister did so to such a degree isn’t entirely obvious. A glance at Battlelines reminds that his present stance on issues such as federalism and family payments are quite different to his past ones.

Changing circumstances don’t explain everything. Abbott might have chosen to be where many of his Liberal colleagues are or had a genuine ideological makeover.

When he embraces positions he espouses them with the fervour of the convert, one explanation for his willingness to walk over the blazing coals of his broken promises, sustaining burns that will scar.

Late this week, the government got whacks from David Gonski over its approach to school funding and from the Australian Medical Association over the harm the co-payment could do to the disadvantaged.

The AMA said some instances were being reported where the announcement effect (the co-payment isn’t to start until mid next year) had put people off going to the doctor.

Meanwhile the states’ rage about the funding squeeze on their money for schools and hospitals continues, while students revolt against the higher education changes.

How does the government begin to climb out of the hole it’s in? Some within it say it must just stick to the messages about debt and deficit. Perhaps - but there is no reason to believe people will buy them. They may have already decided it is false advertising.

There might be some room for selective tinkering, for example more protection for the vulnerable on the co-payment.

But to have any rethink on pensions for example, where the changes come after the next election, would produce more problems, going against what the government says is vital – to make the system sustainable long term. The pension measures sit there like a time bomb for the 2016 election.

Inevitably some changes will be made to various measures in the Senate negotiations. Those battles – in many cases with Clive Palmer – will guarantee the pain of individual items will continue to get maximum publicity.

The government’s hope that eventually the public will be impressed enough with its performance to forgive and forget looks, at least at this moment, excessively optimistic.

There are too many nasties in the pipeline, cutting in later this term, or looming as election issues. Also the premiers, especially the three Liberals with elections coming, are likely to continue unloading on the government. And Abbott’s limitations as an incumbent - as distinct from an opposition leader – exposed this week raise doubts about how well he can conduct a fightback.

The messages from the last few days are very much about Abbott. He obviously did not run a “reality test” on the budget. He was accident prone when in a corner. He has less authority than a leader would want, facing an ambitious agenda.

And as a Liberal backbencher noted: “There’s a kind of feeling he’s not John Howard, in terms of judging the [public] mood”.

Listen to Michelle Grattan’s newest podcast, with ACT Chief Minister Katy Gallagher, here.

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