Grattan on Friday: The challenge of budget selling for dogs with bad names

Treasurer Joe Hockey has a difficult job ahead in selling his second budget. AAP/Mick Tsikas

A shiver might have gone down Joe Hockey’s spine when he read a report that some colleagues were angry he’d missed Monday’s meeting of cabinet’s expenditure review committee.

It wasn’t Hockey’s fault - bad weather had stopped him making his flight from the United States.

Nor was it unreasonable that he’d been in the US, where he got the latest information about the international economy.

The most notable thing about the Fairfax story was that the “anger” was briefed to the media.

The leak was a small symptom of the big problems Tony Abbott and Hockey face in the next couple of months.

One can be summed up as the challenge of dogs with bad names trying to sell a budget. Another is the rivalries evident within the “pack”.

We’ve been told many times, by Abbott in particular, that the May 12 budget won’t hit households. In other words, it will be more voter-friendly than last year. But as they argue its merits the Prime Minister and Treasurer will inevitably carry baggage from their previous performance.

And many people will have factored in the hype about it being softer, so there may be a discount factor.

Budgets don’t usually give governments a bounce and this one has been officially labelled “dull” ahead of delivery. But the government desperately needs to avoid it being received negatively.

Apart from the overall picture, Hockey and others involved in the framing will have to be ultra-watchful. Sometimes quite small items can blow up badly.

Of course there will be some positives, including a child-care package and help for small business. But the child-care plan, a carrot for families, is due to be released beforehand and so won’t have the impact on the night.

From all accounts, the budget’s gestation is difficult. Not only has Hockey been absent, but now Abbott is overseas, first in Turkey and then in Europe. Hockey missed last Monday’s ERC; Abbott won’t be at next Monday’s.

Abbott was always going to be (and should be) at Gallipoli for the ANZAC centenary, but his travel complicates the budget making.

As have the mixed messages. The confused storyline has read in part: the budget won’t be too tough BUT fiscal repair must continue as a priority BUT there will be no date on return to surplus.

The imperatives of gradualism (because of the delicate state of both economy and electorate) and repair aren’t necessarily contradictory, but they often come across that way, especially in a frenetic media cycle.

The budget’s critics are likely to include the premiers. Despite Abbott last week calling a July leaders’ “retreat” on federalism, Hockey on Thursday confirmed that the 2014 budget’s clobbering of the states on health and education will not be softened this time. “The position we took in the last budget stands,” he said.

Within the government, there’s a certain holding of breath in anticipation of May 12.

Abbott has had some “clear air” to try to regroup after the disastrous start to the year. He appears to have consolidated his position. Whether this is real or superficial is another matter.

The Conversation’s poll analyst Adrian Beaumont says that since February’s unsuccessful spill motion, the Coalition has improved from 44-56% to now only be behind by about 47.5-52.5%. Abbott’s Newspoll net ratings have improved from -44 to -26.

But Beaumont adds: “A caveat is that much of this improvement is due to NSW, where the easy Coalition win seems to have boosted the federal Coalition. Much of the improvement came by early March and the polls have been on average stable since then, though with some volatile individual poll results.”

The budget has always been seen as another seminal moment in the Liberals’ judgement of Abbott, and mid-year is traditionally a dangerous time for leaders under pressure.

Both Malcolm Turnbull and Julie Bishop continue to subtly or not so subtly display their availability, and to differentiate themselves from Abbott.

In an interview in GQ, Turnbull once again noted that “spin and slogans are self-defeating. Not all slogans are bad, but people are incredibly alert to political spin because they see so much of it.”

The Abbott machine spins until it is giddy.

As foreign minister, Bishop enjoys enormous publicity (no doubt to Turnbull’s frustration – there are limited opportunities around the NBN). This week she was more nuanced, less lecturing than Abbott when commenting on what Europe should do after the horrific drownings in the Mediterranean.

The reaction to the budget and the polls will be main factors in whether the leadership question flares again before the Parliament ends its next session in late June.

But other matters play into the mix such as the behaviour of the Abbott office, about which some Liberals are once more starting to mutter.

After complaints from ministers and backbenchers about her in-your-face style, chief of staff Peta Credlin became less visible. But according to one MP, “The PMO seems to be reasserting itself. Word is starting to come back. Credlin is in more evidence. She’s bobbing up in meetings.”

The Abbott office is at the centre of a controversy about a $4 million government grant for a policy centre at the University of Western Australia headed by Danish climate contrarian Bjørn Lomborg.

And then there is always the danger for Abbott of deliberate trouble-making from within his own side. A crisis is not that hard to foment if critics have the motive and desire.

In the GQ interview, Turnbull likens politics to big wave surfing. “A surfer is in a volatile environment. They don’t know where the next wave is coming from or how it’s going to break, but success depends on their agility, their ability to be ready for anything.”

Abbott might be good on his board but whether he could withstand a new big wave of the political variety is problematic.