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.

Coalition needs a better budget, not better PR

Slick media strategies and strong narratives are of no help to a flailing government if its political decisions are flawed and its policies untenable.

It’s hard to know why some of the Abbott Government’s biggest and most vocal media supporters have chosen the past week to complain about its abysmal performance.

Other than the Government’s abysmal performance, of course.

Last week’s Newspoll shows Labor has a 10-point lead on the Coalition once notional preferences are distributed, and that any increased approval rating for the Government from the national security issue has been short-lived.

This deterioration confirms the trend highlighted by polling analyst Andrew Catsaras on yesterday’s Insiders program, in which the Abbott Government is consistently faring less well than it did at the federal election. This is in stark contrast to the first-year polling performance of the previous Howard and Rudd governments:

… for the first 15 months the Howard government averaged a vote of 55.5 per cent, 2 per cent higher than the election. The Rudd government averaged a vote of 57 per cent, over 4 per cent higher than the election. Whereas the Abbott Government has averaged a vote of 48.5 per cent, 5 per cent lower than the election.

Catsaras also emphasised that polls are reflective, not predictive, so it’s curious why members of the Government’s conservative media cheer squad have turned into nervous nellies two years out from the next federal election.

Yet rightwing shock jock (and staunch Coalition supporter) Alan Jones berated the PM last week for failing to meet the “pub test” on the free trade agreement with China. Conservative blogger (and arguably the nation’s biggest Coalition fan) Andrew Bolt followed swiftly with a 19-point deconstruction of the Government’s woes entitled “The Abbott Government must now change or die”. And then The Australian newspaper, which has unambiguously nailed its colours to the Coalition mast, joined the lament with an editorial insisting that “The Abbott Government is doomed without narrative”:

Limply, the Prime Minister is losing the battle to define core issues and to explain to voters what he is doing and why. At stake is his political credibility, no less. Mr Abbott risks becoming a “oncer” if he allows his opponents to constantly control the agenda.

Amongst this litany of complaints, the common thread is that the Abbott Government’s problem is one of poor communication; that the Coalition’s less than sterling performance would be remedied with better media staff, a more strategic approach to communications, and a narrative.

These could help, but as former prime ministers Rudd and Gillard could attest, a slick media strategy or strong narrative are of no help to a flailing government if its political decisions are flawed and its policies untenable.

The Abbott Government is not lacking a narrative, as claimed by The Australian, but saddled with one that is not of its choosing. Having been presented with the Government’s weasel words and black-is-white recasting of commitments and lies, voters have taken a lead not from its rhetoric but the Coalition’s actions to identify its narrative.

In its own words, The Australian’s editorial best encapsulates that narrative:

Voters are left with the impression that Mr Hockey’s May budget was a litany of broken promises, designed to inflict severe pain on low-income workers and the poor, and that the deficit crisis was not as acute as the Coalition presented it.

Well, yes.

And there is next to nothing, in the Government’s words or deeds, to suggest that voters should think otherwise.

Voters did feel more receptive to the Prime Minister when he was fulfilling his “protector of the realm” role after the MH17 tragedy and in response to the heightened terrorist threat from Islamic State, but that perception took a hit at the G20 when Abbott ended up looking cowardly and weak through no-one’s efforts but his own.

This has increased the pressure on Treasurer Joe Hockey to successfully “sell” the budget and the Government’s broader economic reforms in order to protect its only remaining perceived strength – that of superior economic management. Hockey’s next best chance to retrieve this sales job is the Mid Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook report, which is due in December.

The Government could roll out a shiny new narrative at that time, which more successfully pitches the prosperous Australian future that will emerge as the result of everyone taking on their “fair share” of the burden created by the necessary economic reforms.

And Coalition MPs could refrain from foolishly drawing attention away from that message with political self-indulgences like cigars, Knights and Dames awards, whining about being unloved, or Gonski-type triple backflips.

But none of this will be enough.

As Abbott’s mentor, former PM Howard, made clear when he spoke at the National Press Club earlier this year, the community will only respond favourably to the type of change envisioned in the Coalition’s budget if it is satisfied the reforms are in the national interest and fundamentally fair.

And there’s the rub. The Abbott Government won’t be able to satisfy this fundamental requirement. The budget is neither in the national interest nor fair, and no compelling narrative or fine media strategy will be able to fix that.