Earlier this year, on issues like the apology to the Stolen Generations, and the 2020 Summit, the Prime Minister used declarations of bipartisanship to play Brendan Nelson off a break. For a long time, Nelson was wearing the fixed grin of someone who knew he was being treated like a mug, but didn’t have the faintest idea what to do about it.

Now the Government has used the Budget to hand out similar treatment to Malcolm Turnbull.

Turnbull has already demonstrated a willingness to take risks as shadow Treasurer. His whole “what inflation?” routine flies in the face of every credible economist in the country, not to mention the Reserve Bank and Treasury. So the Government gave him enough rope to hang himself with in its pre-Budget rhetoric. Rudd, Swan and Tanner endlessly talked about how tough the budget was going to be, and how unpopular many of their decisions would prove, and Turnbull took the bait, repeatedly warning against substantial spending cuts.

Now the Budget has delivered what Swan termed a “mild tightening” of spending – 1.1% real growth, well below the spending increases of recent Coalition budgets but still not the wholesale slaughter of the first Costello effort. The meat axe was nowhere to be seen – just a rather bloody scalpel which has been used to cut a few programs out of every portfolio.

Turnbull was left with nowhere to go. He’s been played for a mug. So, with nothing else to do, he turned on a dime last night and began criticising the Government’s profligate spending. You get the feeling that another billion or two in cuts and he would’ve been getting stuck in about that, in line with his original strategy.

It’s not only Nelson who seems to have a problem with keeping his message consistent from the start of the soundbite to the end.

Some Liberals are still adjusting to their changed circumstances. One backbencher yelled out “give them back” when Swan last night noted that the surpluses belonged to taxpayers, suggesting the Budget bribe mentality dies hard in Liberal ranks. There’s also press speculation about possible amendments to Budget measures in the Senate. If they have any brains, the Coalition won’t go near that. The Government would love to have a double dissolution trigger up its sleeve.

And we’ll be seeing a lot more of this “politics of envy” rubbish from the Opposition. It’s a ridiculous cliché, dreamt up by conservatives to demonise anything faintly progressive in government taxation and spending policies. Taken to its logical extreme, it means we should abandon progressive taxation and give everyone a set amount of Government payments, regardless of circumstances.

The electorate also reckons it’s rubbish, with means-testing having widespread support – and at lower levels than $150,000.

Brendan Nelson has reserved his position on means-testing family payments and the baby bonus, and he and his advisers have some hard thinking to do on it. They can take a public stand in support of millionaires getting welfare, or they join the rest of us on Planet Earth. Don’t bank on the latter. Nelson told the Coalition partyroom yesterday that the Government was “reverting to type” – i.e. turning socialist. There’s about as much chance of that happening as of Brendan Nelson becoming Prime Minister.

And on current form, Malcolm Turnbull doesn’t look like doing much better.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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