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Hockey should stop making threats about the future and try to manage the present

Joe Hockey should be trying to negotiate passage of as much as possible of the budget, not threatening the Senate. AAP/Joe Castro

Treasurer Joe Hockey, just back from holidays, seems to be suffering from a nasty bout of tin ear.

With the Senate in logjam, querulous and with many budget measures still to be debated or even introduced, Hockey on Wednesday was already getting out a new big stick.

If the Senate didn’t co-operate in fixing the budget, the government would just have to make more cuts, he said. Ones that didn’t require legislation (as, he pointed out, those already made in foreign aid do not).

Such a threat is bad tactics, on a couple of fronts.

The multiple savings and imposts announced have managed to alienate almost every section of the community. Are voters, already offside, likely to be impressed by the prospect of more, unspecified, cuts? The senators whose arms he is trying to twist won’t be - they have their own political agendas.

And by warning that if the Senate doesn’t co-operate he’ll need to resort to savings that don’t require parliamentary sanction, Hockey just appears to be showing disdain for the legislature at a delicate stage of budget deliberations.

The immediate fallout from Hockey’s threat was that Labor had the opportunity in question time to stir up fresh fears of what might come.

Hockey should be moving one step at a time, trying to negotiate passage of as much as possible of the budget. As things stand, the bottom line will take a big hit. But the government should wait to get a better idea of the damage before it suggests it will stride on to a new battleground.

Its handling of its budget program so far has been unimpressive, and it can’t put all the blame on the Senate. It has seemed remarkably slow in getting its bills onto the parliamentary treadmill.

Hockey’s political deafness was also evident when he was talking about the government’s changes to Labor’s Future of Finance Advice (FoFA) legislation. The regulations it has brought in will stand, thanks to a deal with Clive Palmer. But the changes remain under fire from seniors groups and other consumer representatives.

When pressed on the FoFA changes Hockey defaults to the fact that Labor “introduced 16 amendments to their own bills in the parliament” and the relevant minister, Bill Shorten “had five different explanatory memorandums for his own bill”.

As was pointed out to Hockey in his Sky interview, the issue that consumers care about is getting good advice.

It’s all very well saying Labor had a messy process in finalising FoFA and left (the Coalition claims) a system with too much red tape. The outcome of Labor’s efforts made consumers without expertise feel more secure in dealing with their superannuation and other investments.

Now their representatives, especially in the seniors sector, say these people are worried (an Essential poll this week found 49% had little or no trust in financial planners to give them independent and appropriate advice). People do not want a rant about how Labor handled FoFA. They will need to be convinced about this government’s changes, and there is little sign it is making any progress with that.

At the same time, Labor’s performance on Wednesday also slipped up. Shadow treasurer Chris Bowen, due to lead a matter of public importance debate in the House, couldn’t do so because he’d been thrown out, so it had to be pulled.

Speaker Bronwyn Bishop relishes ejecting Labor MPs. Even taking this into account, it is a mystery why senior opposition members think it is sensible to give her excuses to do so. They presently have so much ammunition against the Coalition that you would think they’d want to stay around in the chamber to fire it.

Listen to the latest Politics with Michelle Grattan podcast, with guest Senator Sam Dastyari, here.