Baird victory not necessarily good news for Abbott

Much has been made in the past 48 hours of Mike Baird’s likeability. Federal Social Services Minister Scott Morrison said yesterday the NSW Premier was “popular but not a populist”, noting also that he had a “winning smile and that incredible natural charm, which only a few people are blessed with”.

Many others have made a similar distinction. Considerable attention has also been given to Baird’s risky decision to be up front with the voters of New South Wales about his plans to privatise the state’s electricity infrastructure.

According to much of the commentary, Baird has shown his Liberal colleagues how to successfully sell reform. In the words of Scott Morrison, this involves not just the selling of change, but also the benefits of change.

It’s no coincidence that the need to “sell the benefits of change” has become a mantra chanted by leadership agitators at the federal level. The incantation was evoked not only by Morrison in recent days but also by Foreign Minister Julie Bishop in response to Baird’s re-election.

But to infer that Baird essentially charmed his way back into government despite an unpopular privatisation agenda would be to misunderstand the NSW election result. It wasn’t Baird’s popularity or charm to which voters responded; it was his integrity.

Integrity is defined as the quality of being honest and having strong moral principles. Like authenticity, it’s hard to fake. According to three captioned pictures that reportedly hang on his office wall, Baird’s driving principles are integrity, passion and results.

So it was in accordance with those principles that the neophyte premier promised to restore integrity to the government when Baird replaced the former NSW Premier Barry O’Farrell last year.

Baird delivered on that promise, overseeing the resignations of 10 Liberal MPs from the party after they were exposed by ICAC to have accepted illegal donations, declining to run Liberal candidates in the by-elections brought about by the resignations of sacked Liberals as an act of “atonement”, and driving reforms to clean up political donations in the state. As a result, Baird is now a politician that people trust.

Even Baird’s opponent, Labor leader Luke Foley, recognised in his concession speech on election nightthat Baird embodies that elusive quality, calling the re-elected premier an “honourable man”.

It may well be that NSW voters re-elected Baird because he successfully communicated the benefits of his privatisation agenda. That’s certainly what his reform-minded colleagues at the federal level are counting on. But it is more likely the state’s electors decided to go with Baird because they trust him to do the right thing for the state, even when it comes to an unpopular policy like selling-off or leasing state-owned assets.

This is what is really meant when it is said that Baird’s election strategy was based on that of John Howard when the former PM took the GST to an election in 1998. In contrast to Baird, Howard was never popular in the traditional sense, although he achieved the second highest approval rating ever as prime minister (67 per cent in May 1996). But in those days, before the Tampa and Work Choices, there were enough voters who nevertheless trusted the relatively unpopular Howard to do right by the nation to see him re-elected at the GST election, albeit with less than 50 per cent of the vote but enough seats to retain government.

Based on last weekend’s election, Baird’s trust factor is far superior to Howard’s, having won 55 per cent of the two-party vote with 48 per cent of people supporting the privatisation proposal, up from only 23 per cent in February. A Newspoll in late February found 75 per cent of NSW voters would describe Baird as trustworthy.

Consequently, the Foreign Minister Julie Bishop was only partly right when she claimed the take-out message from the NSW election was “people are ready for reform as long as it’s explained to them”. As she separately recognised, trust was also a key factor.

Considered from this perspective, the NSW election result is not particularly good news for the PM. It would be fair to say Abbott has minimal integrity in the eyes of Australian voters, given his track record in breaking promises and telling little white lies, such as “we have fixed the budget”.

Unsurprisingly, the most recent Newspoll to measure perceptions of the federal leaders’ attributes, conducted in February, found only 43 per cent consider the PM to be trustworthy. While no similar measure is available for another of the government’s key salespeople, Joe Hockey, a recent poll found only 27 per cent approve of the job he is doing as Treasurer.

Now the NSW poll is out of the way, federal Liberal MPs will again turn their minds to their own election prospects, as well as the government’s fractured reputation for sound economic management. This reputation must be repaired if the Coalition is to retain incumbency.

As the PM said in his congratulatory statement to Baird, the NSW premier is a man of integrity who “stayed the course in the face of a concerted scare campaign by Labor”. In contrast, Abbott is the man who has wilted in the face of opposition, dropping or abandoning $27 billion of budget measures, and who has shown little integrity in ditching $3 billion worth of unpopular reforms in the past six weeks simply to shore up his embattled leadership.

In considering what to do next, Liberal MPs will give further scrutiny not only to the PM but also the Treasurer.

In doing so, three things will quickly become apparent. Neither man retains an appetite for the required economic reforms, the skill to communicate the worth of reform, nor the perceived integrity to secure voters’ trust to implement the reforms.

The real question is whether there is anyone at all in the Liberal Party, man or woman, who can fit this bill.

Baird and the budget to decide Abbott’s fate

Baird and the budget to decide Abbott’s fate

When Liberal MPs gave the Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, more time to “prove himself” after the failed spill motion in early February, the May budget signified the outer boundary of that time limit.

If Mike Baird’s Coalition manages to prevail in the NSW election this weekend, Abbott will be considered to have “passed” that test, leaving the federal budget’s reception by voters as the ultimate indicator of his favour in the community.

Realising the success of the budget is inextricably linked with his own tenure, the PM last week reversed five years of shrill warnings about the dire state of the budget to unexpectedly announce that most of the hard lifting on the budget was done.

What made this declaration such a surprise was that its foundations in truth were flimsy at best, given that much of the budget’s savings have either been rejected or held up by the Senate.

Yet the PM brandished a chart published in the Intergenerational Report to claim the budget would “broadly” (read, almost) be balanced in five years’ time. However, this balance is mostly achieved by reducing funding to the states and territories by $80 billion, and is fleeting. Treasury officials have confirmed that without additional cuts there will be no budget surplus in the next 40 years.

The Prime Minister’s declared preference for a “glass half full” approach to the budget – focusing on what has been achieved instead of what has not – has been depicted in the media as complacency. In fact, Abbott is doing anything but resting on his laurels; he is positioning the budget to put himself in the best light once it has been delivered.

Traditionally, federal budgets don’t give the government of the day an opinion poll boost. There are exceptions of course, with one analysis of post-budget polls in 2010 concluding the only bounces in the previous two decades were for Howard in 2000 and Rudd in 2009. No such bounces have occurred since that analysis was undertaken.

However, Abbott can’t afford not to get a poll boost from this year’s budget. His detractors will depict any voter antipathy towards the May economic statement as failure on the PM’s part (and that of his Treasurer), and use it as a springboard for the next leadership challenge.

Abbott’s strategy is to lower voter expectations about the budget so far that it is ultimately anticipated to be a non-event; in the words of the PM, a “dull” budget due to the Government having “got the budget situation from out of control to manageable”.

Then when the budget sweeteners are unveiled, including new childcare initiatives and a tax cut for small business, Abbott is counting on voters being pleasantly surprised, with an attendant uptick in the opinion polls.

The risk for the PM is that engaged voters may have already “banked” these initiatives, which have been widely telegraphed in media commentary on the budget, and give the Government no further credit for their confirmation on budget night.

The secondary risk is that PM Abbott’s seeming abandonment of the reform agenda is causing serious consternation among his supporters in the Liberal Party, the business community and the conservative commentariat.

Not unsurprisingly, Abbott’s still undeclared rivals for the leadership continue to spruik their own reform credentials. A leak to the media from last week’s meeting of the Government’s full ministry disclosed Foreign Minister Julie Bishop had raised concerns about the communication of last year’s budget and stressed the importance of an overarching budget narrative, such as those employed in the Howard era.

The week before, Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull noted in an address that “governments delivering good economic and fiscal outcomes are very rarely ejected” but “governments judged to be inept economic managers … seldom survive the next election”.

Turnbull’s point has particular resonance today, with a new opinion poll finding the economy and finances has become the second most important issue to voters (at 67 per cent) after health (at 80 per cent). Only 19 per cent of those surveyed rated the Government as doing a good job on the economy.

Quality of government is now rated as the fourth most important issue, with 13 per cent of respondents rating the Coalition as doing a good job in upholding quality of government. The Gillard government was rated at 15 per cent on this measure during its darkest days in June 2013.

The survey raises yet another troubling conundrum for the PM, in finding immigration, border security and defence to be middle-tier issues that are of less concern to voters than health, the economy and education. The survey analysis concludes “a strategy of focusing on defence and immigration-related issues, although it does play to the Government’s relative strengths, is unlikely to meaningfully change opinions about performance.”

Government backbenchers will be thrilled at this revelation, given they’ve been told to reverse years of rhetoric on fighting debt and deficit to focus instead on “actual” achievements of the Government such as cracking down on foreign investment in real estate and introducing country of origin labelling for food.

Granted, the optimal way to sell the federal budget may well become a moot point if the NSW election sees the defeat of Mike Baird’s Coalition government. It is possible, as NSW Opposition Leader Luke Foley declared on the weekend, that “if Mr Baird goes next Saturday, Mr Abbott goes on the Monday.”

However if Baird survives, Abbott will too, at least to fight on until the federal budget. If the PM’s “nothing to see here” approach to the budget pays dividends, and he gets a poll boost from appreciative voters who have the memory spans of goldfish, Abbott may even make it to the end of the year.

But where does the Government go from there? Abbott is sacrificing the Coalition’s single greatest strength – its reputation as a sound economic manager – just to save his leadership.

If the PM’s colleagues allow him to do so, the Government will find itself in an intractably losing position at the beginning of the 2016 election year. Without economic credibility as its foundation capability, not even Bishop or Turnbull will be able to save it.

The myth of two Malcolm Frasers

The myth of two Malcolm Frasers

The tribute, if it could be called that, from Greens leader Christine Milne said it all.

Adding her words to the growing commentary on the death of former prime minister Malcolm Fraser, Milne said: “Fraser’s memory will never be free of the controversy and turmoil of the dismissal of the Whitlam government. But then and also in later years he courageously offered leadership in social justice and provided a vision for an Australia that truly embraced a fair go for everyone including refugees.”

In drawing the distinction between Fraser’s actions in opposition and then government (when he was vilified by progressives) and during his twilight years (when he became their darling), Milne attempts to reconcile the right-wing and left-wing philosophies espoused by Fraser as being from different periods of his life.

But is this an accurate characterisation? Can Fraser only be feted as a progressive hero because of what he did in his latter years? Or is the insistence on ignoring his moderate credentials while PM more a refusal to acknowledge that socially progressive views can sit comfortably with conservative economic views, as they once did within the Liberal Party?

Fraser’s political philosophy was always unapologetically of this nature: a lefty on social issues while staunchly right-wing on economic matters.

The Australian Conservation Foundation notes today Fraser was a committed conservationist back in the mid-1960s when he was an early member of their governing council. On coming to government he was able to realise that philosophy, ending sand mining on Fraser Island, proclaiming Kakadu National Park, prohibiting oil exploration and drilling on the Great Barrier Reef, and declaring the first stage of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park.

It was also as prime minister that Fraser first put out the welcome mat for refugees, fostered the beginnings of a multicultural Australia, and established the Human Rights Commission. His government introduced the family allowance for low-income families, indexation for pensions and unemployment benefits, and extension of the supporting mothers’ benefit to all sole parents.

However on economic issues, Fraser was a conservative – a protectionist who resisted his colleagues’ inclination to open up Australia’s economy to international markets, and a harsh critic of the trade union movement. He oversaw a period of high unemployment and inflation, and a drop in the real value of welfare payments. He also scrapped the universal healthcare system, known at the time as Medibank.

Milne and others who inhabit the left side of the political spectrum are not alone today in grappling with the allegedly dichotomous nature of Fraser’s politics.

The former PM is the third longest serving Liberal prime minister, yet his former party colleagues are having to tread carefully today to pay fair tribute to the man who brought the party back from the ignomy of defeat by the populist Gough Whitlam, but in recent years also very publicly disowned the Liberal Party as a hollow fraud.

Fraser resigned from the party he once led in late 2009, after arch-conservative Tony Abbott prevailed over the moderate Malcolm Turnbull by one vote in a leadership ballot, due to concerns the party had lost its way and no longer represented traditional liberal values.

Once Fraser’s resignation became known, conservative MP Andrew Robb dismissed it as unimportant, noting, “We’ve become used to Malcolm disagreeing with our positions on many issues for nearly a quarter of a century,” while the progressive Petro Georgiou (and former Fraser staffer) said the former PM’s resignation “should be viewed with a great deal of sadness. It should be viewed as the action of a man who takes his convictions very seriously.”

Fraser’s criticisms of his former party have ramped up since then, particularly on human rights’ issues and the Coalition Government’s treatment of asylum seekers. In recent times he took to the progressives’ favourite medium, Twitter, to share these views. And in his last opinion piece, published just last month, Fraser defended the Chair of the Human Rights Commission against the Government’s attacks on her integrity, saying the HRC is more important than ever to safeguard our existing freedoms.

It would be wrong to characterise these as the words of a former conservative ‘destroyer’ now seeking redemption through progressive utterances. On the contrary, the man who brought down the Whitlam government is the same man who until yesterday railed against the injustices of the Abbott Government. The same man with the same deeply held conservative beliefs on economic issues as well as progressive beliefs on social matters.

Considering the state of today’s political landscape, it would be fair to say most of Abbott’s Liberals are as uncomfortable with a Liberal holding both those views as Christine Milne appears to be.

Former Liberal PM John Howard stuck to the safe territory, quoting political chronicler Paul Kelly on Fraser’s contribution in government:

Fraser was a very good prime minister, much better than people would have suspected in 1975. He ran a government of above average competence by Australian standards with acumen, dedication and professionalism.

On the more thorny question of the former PM’s contribution to political life after government, PM Abbott could only bring himself to note, “In a long and active retirement, he maintained a keen interest in our country’s direction.”

And so, typically, we must revert to the once-great Liberal Party moderates to hear tributes befitting the man.

Fraser government minister Fred Chaney said the former PM’s death had caused the nation to lose “one of its great moral compasses”, while Georgiou noted “he brought into the centre of our life that we were a diverse society and that diversity should be respected”.

It’s no coincidence both Chaney and Georgiou retired as Liberal MPs when they could no longer endure representing a party that refused to accommodate the mix of social progressivism and economic conservatism that Fraser and they believed in.

The death of Malcolm Fraser is a poignant reminder of a time when it was not considered weak or permissive to be a progressive in the Liberal Party; a time when a Liberal politician and a government could be economically as well as socially responsible.

Such a combination should not be a relic of the past to be wistfully remembered, but a feature of today’s politics. The sadness of Fraser’s death is magnified by his loss as a role model for modern Liberal progressives.

Turnbull’s new pitch as Mr Right

One of the challenges posed by the unofficial contest for leadership of the federal Liberal Party is that contenders don’t want to be seen as actually campaigning.

To do so would invite accusations of Rudd-like destabilisation and treachery.

But when you’re running for the leadership of a party, people want to know what you stand for, and perhaps even more importantly, what you don’t represent. This is particularly a conundrum for one time Liberal leader, Malcolm Turnbull, whose progressive views on climate action were seen as a bridge too far by arch-conservatives in the party, and one of the main reasons for his removal.

Turnbull has spent the years since being deposed in 2009 rebuilding his reputation with the broader Australian community, but has been less successful in convincing Liberal supporters and MPs that he’s no longer the lefty tyrant they distrust and fear.

At last count, 38 per cent of Coalition voters still prefer Tony Abbott as prime minister compared with 30 per cent for Turnbull, although a 17 percentage point gap between the two has shortened to eight points since November last year. And there’s new evidence today that Abbott is on the nose in the pivotal electoral heartland of western Sydney.

This has left the Communications Minister with little choice other than to eke out a leadership manifesto, piece by piece through media and other public appearances, in the hope of assuaging the concerns of the right while not scaring off the bulk of his progressive support base.

The “righting” of Turnbull started with his appearance on ABC’s 7.30 almost a fortnight ago, ostensibly to discuss proposed changes to Australia Post’s mail delivery service. During this interview the Minister didn’t exactly shy away from leadership questions, and in response to a query about whether his progressiveness was at odds with the bulk of Liberal supporters, Turnbull stressed he and the Prime Minister were not that different on some social issues, such as marriage equality:

The reality is that Tony Abbott and my position on gay marriage is very close. Both of us believe the party room should decide whether there should be a free vote … So you know, the idea that there’s this massive gulf between us is quite imaginary…

Former assistant treasurer Arthur Sinodinos backed up this assertion during an appearance last week on Lateline, emphasising the Liberal Party was a broad-based party “made up of a number of broad strands” including moderates and conservatives, but that the party was not defined by any one part of its base:

So it’s a furphy to say that X or Y is somehow outside the mainstream of the party. The fact of the matter is, Turnbull is a capitalist, he believes in market principles … he’s “socially progressive”, in inverted commas, on certain issues, but so are many others in the party and others are more conservative.

Having made the threshold attempt on 7.30 to re-adjust the right’s perception of him as a rabid lefty, Turnbull has stepped into the fray several times since in further attempts to “rightsize” his reputation.

Last week he defended the Prime Minister against attacks over Abbott’s “lifestyle choices” comment, claiming no other non-Indigenous member of the Parliament had “more involvement with, or more understanding of, Indigenous communities than Tony”, and that there should be a rational discussion of the issue “without turning it into a let’s-give-Tony-Abbott-a-belting occasion, as often people like to do”.

This statement sits in stark contrast to Turnbull having essentially given Abbott an implied belting just weeks earlier when he defended Human Rights Commission president Gillian Triggs against criticisms from the PM and others, saying “I don’t want to get into that. Other people can do that if they wish”.

And then there was Turnbull’s deliberate intervention last week in support of last year’s budget, which is still being championed by the right (and the Treasurer) as the cure for the nation’s future economic woes.

In a speech that was an appeal to those, either in his own party or the conservative commentariat, who believe he’s too soft on economic issues, Turnbull talked tough on economic reform, stressing the budget was not a failure but that “we clearly haven’t been able to achieve the degree of fiscal repair and reform that was and is needed”.

The social progressive flicked the switch to economic conservative, claiming the unpopular budget was simply misunderstood and that this could be rectified with an “evidence-based, spin-free, fair dinkum debate about the budget position and what we should do to fix it”:

Once you’ve explained an issue often enough that people understand there is a genuine problem and “something” must be done, you can have an intelligent discussion about what that something might be – and just as importantly, your opponents will face public pressure to come up with their own “something” if they are not prepared to support yours.

Given this speech was all about self-promotion, the Communications Minister then went on to explain how his management of the NBN and Australia Post reforms was the model for successful implementation of the budget’s unpalatable reforms.

In short, the speech was intended to add the missing economic reform chapter to Malcolm’s Manifesto for Leadership. Yet read in its entirety, the speech also presents uncannily like a budget address from the Treasurer.

Perhaps the speech forms part of Turnbull’s Plan B: to secure the Treasury portfolio as a consolation prize if the Liberal leadership goes to one of the conservatives’ preferred candidates, Julie Bishop or Scott Morrison. For let’s face it, Turnbull has been willing to play the long game for the past five years, and perhaps is prepared to wait out the tenure of the next Liberal leader if he could further consolidate his leadership credentials as Treasurer during that time.

Whatever Turnbull’s plan, there’s no denying there is one, even if his resolute determination to avoid being seen as a spoiler means we are afforded only glimpses of what that plan entails. Whether he’s wooing the conservatives, or attempting to wedge Abbott on media reforms, everything Turnbull does is a move calculated to progress his leadership campaign just that little bit further.

The end of the Age of Clive

And then there was one. In the Senate, at least.

Palmer United Party’s Glenn Lazarus announced overnight that he’d left PUP to become an independent, leaving the party with only one vote in the upper house.

Lazarus made the announcement via Facebookand Twitter just after midnight, noting this was a difficult decision and hinting at irreconcilable differences with party leader Clive Palmer:

I have a different view of team work. Given this, I felt it best that I resign from the party and pursue my Senate role as an independent Senator.

A media report suggests Lazarus took this action after his wife was sacked as his chief of staff.

The departure of Lazarus leaves Palmer with only former employee Dio Wang in the Senate and next to no negotiating power compared to what he wielded in that chamber for a few tumultuous months in 2014.

Since his election to the Australian Parliament in 2013, Palmer’s power has not come from his single vote in the House of Representatives but from the three-vote bloc that he controlled in the Senate. Since the new Senate commenced on July 1, 2014 with the eight-Senator crossbench, the Government had to secure six votes from the crossbench to pass any legislation opposed by Labor and the Greens. However, only three votes were needed to block any such legislation.

This essentially gave Palmer the right of veto, and played to his grandiose perceptions of importance and influence.

Only those delusions could explain Palmer’s decision to share the stage with former US vice-president Al Gore to announce a “dormant” emissions trading scheme while simultaneously committing to scrap the carbon tax.

Only an overwhelming sense of self-worth could have produced Palmer’s trenchant statements of opposition to a panoply of government policies, followed by audaciously nonchalant changes of course when the political headwinds shifted.

This inconsistent and autocratic style would have been less an issue if Palmer had been the sole PUP member of Parliament. However it is difficult to manage a party using only tyranny and cronyism.

It may well have only been a matter of time before PUP’s tyro senators began to better appreciate their individual power and got an increasing urge to use it, but Palmer’s overbearing “my way or the highway” style would have undoubtedly contributed to their restlessness.

Former PUP Senator Jacqui Lambie was the first of the party’s federal MPs to expose the dissent behind PUP’s shiny yellow façade. After Palmer was less than effusive about her proposed “burqa” ban, called her a drama queen over her campaign to improve defence force pay, and then suspended her from attending PUP party room meetings, Lambie moved to sever ties with the man who bankrolled her campaign.

In truth, Lambie was never a good fit for PUP. Her penchant for straight-talking and reluctance to toe the party line made her a likely candidate for leaving Palmer’s eponymous party.

But the man who left PUP today would have been considered much less likely to do so. If there’s one thing the former rugby league hero lacks, it’s certainly not the capacity for loyalty. His fidelity to family and the voters of Queensland certainly sit comfortably with the report that the sacking of his wife forced Lazarus’ hand.

For his part, Palmer might not particularly care. Having witnessed the defeat of his nemesis, former Queensland premier Campbell Newman at the recent state election, and the ongoing electoral deterioration of his other foe PM, Tony Abbott, Palmer may well feel his work here is done. His attendance record in the Parliament certainly doesn’t indicate a burning desire to participate or contribute.

This might be just as well, considering Palmer is no longer the media’s darling, partly because he’s no longer particularly relevant but also because he treats the press with impunity. His recent “accidental” call for Abbott to commit (political) suicide was not indulged as it once might have been, and instead was called out for being the desperate ploy for media attention that it was.

The trajectory of Palmer’s hobby-political party has now followed that of his hobby-football team. After recruiting a number of disaffected conservative MPs from other parties in Queensland and the Northern Territory, and then losing them again, PUP has gone from controlling a peak of nine MPs around the country to two – Senator Dio Wang and Palmer himself.

PUP offered voters an alternative to the major parties and a commonsense approach to contentious policies. But in truth it was nothing more than the hollow sales pitch of a white-shoed wannabe.

For the good of the nation, let’s hope today’s departure of Lazarus from the Palmer United Party brings an ignominious close to the Age of Clive in Australian politics.

And the subterranean campaign for leadership continues

And the subterranean campaign for leadership continues

Another day, another opinion poll, another round of speculation as to what the tea leaves really mean.

Today’s Newspoll will be studied closely, as usual, by political observers hoping to get a handle on what voters think of the shenanigans in Canberra. And what that might mean for the future of Prime Minister Tony Abbott.

Continue reading “And the subterranean campaign for leadership continues”

One upcoming budget, three jostling narratives

Aside from its inherent meanness, the thing that damned the 2014 budget was that its messages were mixed. Not only did it preach an equitable sharing of the burden while heaping pain on those least able to bear it, the budget also claimed fiscal responsibility while pouring money into slush funds for roads and research instead of reducing debt.

In short, it had two compelling narratives but didn’t live up to either of them, leaving it impossible to defend even by those who supported its harsh approach.

This year’s federal budget, now only nine weeks away, also runs the risk of being undermined by messaging. While last year’s budget simply didn’t live up to its rhetoric, this year’s budget will be expected to resolve the three conflicting narratives that have emerged in the past week.

Firstly, there is the ‘official’ line from Treasurer Joe Hockey. This time last year Hockey was doing his best to soften up voters for a tough budget, but his “end of entitlement” campaign was hindered by the deliberate holding back of the Commission of Audit report, which was meant to provide the context for a tough budget but had to be hidden to avoid scaring Western Australians before the Senate election re-run in that state. Hockey’s campaign was also thrown off-stride by the highly distracting week of Knights and Bigots.

Nevertheless, the Treasurer did a reasonable job of creating a public expectation that the budget would be tough but fair, even if that expectation was shattered once the detail of the economic statement became known.

Using the same basic approach, Hockey is using the Intergenerational Report to set the scene for the upcoming budget. The IGR is apparently meant to start a ‘conversation’ in the community about the unavoidable need to corral the burgeoning cost of our ageing population, even though it’s also an inherently political document that shamelessly depicts Labor as wanton profligates and the Coalition as saints of fiscal rectitude.

Hockey’s overriding message is that, while last year’s budget tried to do too much too quickly, it was fundamentally on the right track. Hockey remains a stalwart defender of that budget’s deep spending cuts, perhaps on a philosophical basis but clearly also because to abandon them would be to admit his own failure.

While Hockey calls for more of the same budgetary reform, his putative successor circles the wounded Treasurer, crooning a different fiscal message altogether. Social services minister Scott Morrison is ostensibly on the same page as Hockey, that is, looking for ways to manage the cost of an ageing population. However Morrison is talking about a more incremental approach to reforming welfare spending, and even shockingly has proposed the Government may have to initially spend money now for it to be able to save money later.

Unlike Hockey, whose bull-headed approach is due as much to protecting his own hide as it is the budget bottom line, Morrison has no similar need to protect a legacy. The social services minister has been gleefully throwing overboard every piece of unpalatable baggage left behind for him by his predecessor, Kevin Andrews.

First to go were the pre-marriage counselling vouchers, then there was a softening on the six-month waiting period for young unemployed, and now there is a proposed rolling back of the decision to peg increases in the aged pension to inflation rather than real wages.

Morrison’s cleanskin status (at least in his current portfolio) also gives him the opportunity to offer the hand of conciliation to voters who remain distrustful of the Government due to last year’s budget and are leery of reform in general.

In his recent address to the National Press Club, the Minister acknowledged this antipathy and offered a way forward, for his own part by being upfront about what he intended to achieve and the options for getting there. In turn, Morrison called for the Opposition and crossbench to look beyond short-term populism, and for the community to consider more than what’s in it for them “in the next two minutes”.

Granted, this is an audacious move from a member of the most blatantly obstructionist opposition known in modern Australian politics, and the Minister who ruthlessly milked community anxiety about asylum seekers for his Government’s political gain. But if Morrison could initiate a change in the current political environment, from one that is pointlessly adversarial to one that is more a willing contest of ideas and solutions, he might go some way to atoning for those previous actions.

This assumes that Morrison’s budget message of incremental change can take precedence over Hockey’s more antagonistic message about the urgent need to slash and burn. It also assumes Morrison’s more conciliatory approach can withstand the third narrative vying for public attention as we head towards the next budget.

That narrative is that budgetary reform is less important than political survival. This message is being conveyed by a prime minister focused on a political future that has been reduced to the weekly and fortnightly prognostications of the published opinion polls. Having pointed to a succession of not-horrendous polls in the past few weeks as the reason not to dump him, PM Abbott must now resort to shaping his every move and announcement to influence the next poll – and the one after that – in the knowledge that any future bad poll could well be his last.

If this means turning a multimillion tender process for submarines into an expensive shambles, so be it. Likewise the reversing of a previously intractable decision on defence force pay, and the dropping of the Medicare co-payment, both of which will make huge hits to the budget bottom line.

There is none of Hockey’s budgetary tough love or Morrison’s conciliatory approach in Abbott’s narrative. Along with the PM’s attack on the Chair of the Human Rights Commission, and his blatant use of the national security card (incidentally while Newspoll was last surveying voters), Abbott is signalling he’ll do whatever it takes to maintain his core base of conservative voters, with little regard to the consequences for the budget bottom line.

This year’s budget, like its predecessor, will live or die on the balance it achieves between fairness and reform. Its success will also depend on how well it’s communicated, both before and after the official statement is delivered in Parliament.

Having three competing narratives jostling for our attention will do little to create favourable community sentiment for the budget. But that is hardly surprising given that each of the narratives is more about securing its narrator’s political future than successfully delivering the budget.