Christian Kerr writes:

On Budget day, the Prime Minister told the
Joint Party Room meeting that the polls were better than they might be at this
stage in the electoral cycle. That was then but this is now. Today’s Newspoll continues to a show a slump for the Howard Government.

The Coalition’s primary vote is down three
points to 40%. Labor support remains unchanged on 39%, but the
two party preferred vote splits the opposition’s way, giving them a 52 to 48% lead over the Government.

Unlike the past few years, two Newspolls
and a Nielsen now suggest Peter Costello’s efforts haven’t given the Government
and Budget bounce. That has leadership implications, as well
as the obvious flow-ons for election strategy.

Ross Fitzgerald spelled it out in The
Australian
yesterday:

On
the face of it, things seem rather good for Peter Costello at the moment. He
has just had a go in the Prime Minister’s chair, even if it was only for three
days. With the conspicuous exception of maverick MP Jackie Kelly, Costello has
been endorsed as the next Liberal leader by Coalition backbenchers, many of
whom previously had the Treasurer’s photo on their dartboard. And he is sitting
on top of a treasury surplus that has never been bigger.

The
one stain on the Treasurer’s squeaky clean suit at the moment is the pesky
problem of the Budget, or to be more specific the fact that the Treasurer’s
11th Budget has sunk like a stone.

Costello
must have choked on his Froot Loops when he picked up his newspapers last week
and saw the results of the latest post-budget polls. About $60 billion worth of
spending, including tax cuts for every taxpayer, and the Government has gone
backwards in every poll since the Budget. It is the equivalent of putting a
pool in your backyard and seeing the value of your house decline. The
Howard-Costello formula of big taxes and big handouts no longer passes muster
with most voters.

The received wisdom in Canberra today says
that voters want more – but what? This is Fitzgerald’s suggestion:

Tax
cuts and cash payments are always welcome, but what the latest polls have shown
is that voters want more than instant gratification. Voters want knowledge that
the money they contribute to the Treasurer’s coffers in these good times is
being invested to set Australia up for the tough times that may lie ahead.
Investing for the future is what families do when times are good…

Voters
can tell the difference between a grab bag of economic announcements and a
coherent plan to strengthen the economy. They can tell the difference between
tax measures that deal with the most egregious elements of the tax system, and
those that tinker at the margins of the tax system…

The Government’s offering neither of these.
That’s something they can tackle in the pre-election Budget next year – but it
may be too late for Peter Costello.

The man putting himself forward as the face
for the future doesn’t have a plan beyond becoming leader. That’s looking like a problem for the
punters – let alone his colleagues.