Tony Wright is, um, right: the Coalition should allow themselves just a little celebration over today’s Nielsen poll. Mitch Fifield declared “all corks are staying firmly in place”, but when you’ve been on the receiving end of a hiding for so long its mere cessation is good news. At least have a beer, Mitch.

Even better than for the Coalition, the poll is good news for Australian politics. It is unhealthy for a Government to sit on such massive popularity and never use it when there are significant reforms that need to be undertaken. There may have been no direct trade-off in voters’ minds, but the poll reads like a fall from the stratosphere because of last week’s Budget and some of the less popular measures contained therein. The only disappointment is that such an innocuous reform as lifting the pension age sometime between now and the middle of the 2020s to a whopping 67 apparently aggrieves so many voters. It should go up to 70, or even 75.

Against that, I guess, you could note that the Government’s changes to the indexation of both Family Tax Benefit rates and the threshold at which means-tests cut in have so far not drawn the attention they warrant, and won’t until voters on the threshold of $150,000 start losing their handouts, which won’t be until well into next financial year.

Those are painless cuts to middle-class welfare, which don’t generate much in the next year or two but will, over the next decade, hand back billions. They don’t go far enough and still give this Government the air of one too timid to make unpopular decisions, but they can be repeated and extended elsewhere in successive budgets. It’s a coward’s way of hacking into middle-class welfare, but when the alternative is courage in the Yes, Minister sense you can see the appeal.

While middle-class welfare gets all the attention, business welfare takes a decent chunk out of the budget too and this Government has shown a willingness to ramp that up, not cut it back. That’s not merely the case with high-profile industries like the automotive sector, where billions of dollars will prop up 60,000 jobs and some of the Government’s biggest union supporters (compare and contrast the pittance the textile, clothing and footwear sector received last Tuesday). For example, the Government announced last week it was spending $1.4b overhauling the Research and Development Tax Concession, even if the research in question relates to intellectual property held offshore.

The debate on the merits of this sort of assistance only breaks out when it comes uncomfortably close to outright protectionism, like the Government’s car package. There’s no focus on business welfare among prominent economists and the commentariat like there is on handouts to middle-class voters, even when the financial link between the Government and the trade unions that directly benefit from such assistance, particularly in the manufacturing sector, is self-evident. There’s a discussion to be had on just what benefits such handouts are providing to the economy, who should attract such largesse, and what should be their responsibilities in return.

That debate won’t occur in the political domain. The Coalition only ever criticises the Government for doing too little on industry assistance. But the long-term transition to a structurally-balanced budget warrants such a debate.