An equity war could stifle the post-budget glow

Two post-budget polls show the Government is back in voters’ good books, but how long this lasts will depend on the ill-advised equity war Scott Morrison seems determined to fight.

Two post-budget opinion polls have thudded onto our electronic doorsteps this morning, heralding good news for the Prime Minister and Treasurer on their “save our jobs” budget.

Yet the man feted only a week ago as the master budget salesman, Social Services Minister Scott Morrison, has suddenly gone missing in action.

According to the Newspoll and Ipsos surveys, voters are considerably happier with this year’s budget than they were with the 2014 economic omnishambles.

Newspoll found 46 per cent of voters believed the budget would be good for the economy, compared with 28 per cent who thought it would have the opposite effect. Last year only 39 per cent thought it would be good, while a whopping 48 per cent denounced it as bad for the economy. This year’s Newspoll approval rating is the also highest for a federal budget since the first brought down by Kevin Rudd and Wayne Swan in 2008.

Fairfax’s Ipsos poll reflects similar voter sentiment, finding 52 per cent of voters are satisfied with this year’s budget, with the same number also judging it as fair, compared to 33 per cent on both counts last year. The proportion of voters who perceived the budget as unfair dropped from 63 per cent last year to 33 per cent.

This will undoubtedly come as a relief to PM Abbott and Treasurer Hockey, who have both had to abandon any attempt at budget repair to restore the Government to voters’ good graces and thereby drag their political futures back from the brink.

The kicker in this morning’s polls however is that the budget doesn’t appear to have been embraced by women.

In the Newspoll, 44 per cent of women believe the budget will be good for the economy, compared with 48 per cent of men. Analysis of the Ipsos poll shows that while the Government’s primary vote from men has improved by six points to 46 per cent over the past month, the shift from women has only been two points to 41 per cent.

However, until pollsters ask specific questions about Minister Morrison’s vaunted “jobs and families” package, it’s difficult to judge the extent to which it has (or hasn’t) been well-received by Australia’s women.

Some commentary has laid the blame for Morrison’s paid parental leave missteps to the all-male Expenditure Review Committee. This observation neatly ignores the fact that one of the three departmental secretaries involved in delivering the budget was Finance Secretary Jane Halton, and of course there was the uncredited involvement of the PM’s chief of staff Peta Credlin.

Setting aside the question of whether the ERC needs to be representative of any group in order to effectively do its job, the committee’s real failure in developing the budget was that it placed too much store in Morrison’s unwavering self-belief. It let Morrison’s hubris override what should have been the group’s sound political judgement.

Admittedly, the Minister hadn’t made a wrong step in the lead up to budget week. It’s even understandable that he and other ministers may have been concerned that voters would not accept public servants and employees with generous employer-paid parental leave schemes also having access to the minimum wage safety net. Let’s face it, the campaign against Tony Abbott’s PPL was aimed squarely at such women getting more than their lower income-earning sisters.

However, Morrison’s mistake was not to restrict parents to only having access to one PPL scheme. The extra money for child care had to come from somewhere. The Minister’s error was to turn the issue into an equity war where parents who lawfully accessed the taxpayer-funded scheme on top of an employer-provided one were depicted as having an unfair advantage over those who only got the taxpayer-backed minimum-wage version.

Morrison compounded this poor judgement by labelling those who could legitimately get two payments as rorters.

The Minister should have known Australians don’t respond well to confected class wars. They didn’t like it when Labor opposition leader Mark Latham tried to invoke one against John Howard in 2004. Nor did they take it well when Labor treasurer Wayne Swan did something similar in 2012.

Former Liberal leader John Howard did have some success with a class war against Paul Keating in 1996, eschewing Keating’s interests as elite and esoteric while vowing to govern “for all of us”. But Morrison is no Howard, and neither is Abbott. Neither man has the political capital necessary to generate the esteem voters had for Howard at that time.

Since stumbling with the rort-gate comments in the immediate aftermath of the budget, Morrison has gone unusually quiet. He’s posted a couple of happy snaps on Twitter and issued a couple of media releases, but otherwise the Minister is keeping a low profile. Despite this, it’s clear the Minister has convinced the Government to push on with the equity war.

Using an interview in the Government’s preferred Sunday tabloid, the Treasurer highlighted yesterday the disparity in disposable income between taxpayers and welfare recipients. Hockey said this year the budget papers provided information on different households’ disposable income, tax contribution and welfare bill because:

People need to know where their taxpayer money is going. This gives them the chance to see – and if they are receiving payments, it doesn’t come from a money tree in Canberra, it comes from someone else’s taxes.

Hockey later denied the information was provided to build resentment between taxpayers and welfare recipients. Yet it’s hard to see how it would serve any other purpose, particularly given the Government’s already disclosed tendency to demonise some welfare recipients.

We should expect to hear much more of the equity war from now until the next election.

The political fortunes of the main players in the Coalition have shifted in the past week, not only due to the bounteous budget but also the political acuity of the protagonists.

PM Abbott and Treasurer Hockey are back in the voters’ good books for handing out the largesse and not making any obvious gaffes. The biggest turnaround, however, has been for Minister Morrison. He now sits chastened in the background, counting his regrets over ill-chosen words, and plotting the next move in what will prove to be an ill-advised equity war.

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