As Tony Abbott and Joe Hockey fight an apparently losing battle to persuade the public of the virtues of the budget, government sources say they expect bad polls to continue for months. It’s rather reminiscent of Gillard’s Labor, when we were always being told the polls would take a long time to recover. They never did.
In the hyper poll-driven political climate in which contemporary politics is conducted, a prolonged slump would be an interesting test of government nerve. The backbench could become quite jittery, one would think. The three Liberal premiers facing elections over the next year could be reluctant to have the Prime Minister too involved in their campaigns, especially after condemning him for doing them down.
Abbott might prefer not to think that far ahead. He’s having too difficult a time in the present. Wednesday was particularly bad.
Leaders operate in an environment when everything is caught on camera. An unfortunate incident is replayed over and over. Social media goes wild when the bland mask slips, especially if the politician is unpopular.
Abbott’s wink, when 67-year-old pensioner Gloria from Warburton told him on talk-back that she worked on an adult sex line to make ends meet, went viral. His office’s spin was to say he was just signalling – after seeing the expression on the face of interviewer Jon Faine – that he was cool with the question. Abbott himself explained later: “Jon was smiling at me and I responded to him.”
In the same interview Abbott made a mistake about the budget changes to university fees. Not being across the detail of an area students were taking to the streets about was, to say the least, careless.
The former university radical who once revelled in demonstrations and causing mayhem had already had to cancel a visit to Deakin University, on police advice.
Adrian Beaumont confirms, on the basis of polls so far published that this is “the worst-perceived budget since 1993”. Prime minister Paul Keating never recovered from that budget.
Late last week some Coalition backbenchers thought the government had got its budget story together, but it’s clear it hasn’t. The measures have gone too far; the narrative of Labor’s “debt and deficit disaster” is not prevailing over the assessment that the budget is unfair in how it distributes its burdens.
The intense feelings Abbott provokes make it tougher for the government to get on top of the budget argument.
The negativity about him personally runs deep – as, for much of her term, did the dislike of Julia Gillard.
Melbourne radio presenter Neil Mitchell raised the issue directly with the PM on Wednesday.
Mitchell said: “It’s almost as if you attract, personally, a certain level of vitriol … People don’t just disagree - and it’s a very strong word - but they tend to hate, they tend to be very passionate about it, and before the budget that was the way. Is there some sort of personal thing against you, do you think?”
Abbott responded not with a denial but with an anecdote. “I was cycling along Beach Road on Sunday and there was a fellow about 100 yards ahead of me, so I sped up to catch up with him. When I caught up to him he looked at me - suddenly a look of surprise spread across his face - and he said, ‘Oh congratulations.’ And I was wondering whether he was congratulating me on the budget, on being elected or on catching him, because it turned out that the last election was the first election he’d ever voted in – he’d be in his 30s, I would say – and he said, ‘You know, my girlfriend hates you more than any other person on earth.’
"But we had a good chat … this fellow and I, and he took a few photos on his mobile phone so he could take them home and show them to the girlfriend, presumably to let the girlfriend know that this fellow was a human being, on the bike at least.”
When Mitchell then asked, “So, why this hatred and does it concern you?” Abbott replied, “I’m just not going to go into that. I’ll let others analyse that.”
It was a revealing moment - because he chose to tell the story and because the tale itself had loose ends. It was as though Abbott was frankly admitting the problem to which he does not have a solution.
He surely knows that the antagonism he elicits from many voters will be a liability for his government and that the harder the times, the larger it will loom.