The federal government has a lot of explaining to do, at least to the nation’s media …

The Australian has welcomed the commission’s recommendations, though its writers differed in how much blame for Australia’s “long road to ruin” went to Abbott. Dennis Shanahan had some unusual criticism, saying Abbott couldn’t entirely blame Labor for the mess.

  • Paul Kelly: “While the Commission of Audit report has a truckload of politically untenable ideas, it reveals the direction in welfare eligibility, health and education that is essential to restore a robust budget surplus over a decade.”
  • Dennis Shanahan: “The Commission of Audit has identified all of Abbott’s problems but has offered few practical or realistic solutions.”
  • Judith Sloan: “The hard part starts now — to have the political courage to implement the recommendations to put the budget on a stable footing for the future.”
  • Editorial: “… As the Commission of Audit has stunningly documented, we are on the long road to ruin.”

The Australian Financial Review didn’t go hard on opinion — it mostly laid out the facts. Jennifer Hewitt and Laura Tingle commented on the politics. Readers had to go nine pages in to be told whether the audit was good or bad.

  • Alan Mitchell: “Australia is not in the grip of a full-blown fiscal crisis, as the … audit numbers clearly show.” But we still have to raise taxes on the middle classes, or cut services. The pain must be shared, as “anyone who thinks the answer is to tax only the rich is dreaming”.
  • Editorial: “Its mostly sensible approach would make it more likely that this Australian compact can be sustained by requiring more of those who can help themselves to do so and getting rid of much wasteful government  and bureaucracy …”

The Sydney Morning Herald made the equation simple: “pay more, get less”. But as journalist James Massola noted, there’s three categories of recommendations: “Those likely to be adopted, those that will be adopted in part, and those that would … require a considerable dollop of ‘political courage’.” Economics editor Ross Gittins (and the editorial) told everyone not to panic.

  • Peter Hartcher: “[Joe Hockey] is conducting what the military calls ‘psyops’, the psychological operations to unsettle an enemy and allow easier conquest in the engagement to follow.”
  • Ross Gittins: “Don’t be too alarmed by the startling proposals by the National Commission of Audit. Few of its recommendations will make it into the budget on Tuesday week. They were never intended to.”
  • Editorial: “This audit was commissioned by a philosophically and fiscally conservative government which essentially outsourced the process of reform to the Business Council of Australia …”

The Age put its fist through the reforms, declaring “everyone set to suffer” in four pages of largely negative coverage. Its panel of ordinary folks — a pensioner, two students and a family of three — were worried. “I just get so cross that we are always talked about as a ‘budget problem’,” 80-year-old Anne Learmonth said.

  • Peter Martin: “What’s missing? Tax. The National Commission of Audit has decided not to consider it. That means also not considering something more fundamental: tax expenditures.”
  • Columnist Waleed Aly: “Abbott has wound up looking rather like Labor does when it tries to outmuscle the Coalition on asylum-seeker policy: disbelieved by those he is trying to convince, and disrespecting of those on his side.”
  • Editorial: “The recommendations vary from the sensible to the unacceptable … However, this Commission of Audit has been a worthwhile exercise, particularly in bringing back into prominence the debate on federal-state relationships.”

The Daily Telegraph went after middle Australia — the front page shows a fat slob being told to “wake up”. That didn’t stop them giving the “true battlers” — like the family profiled on page 5 — an easy run. Mother-of-three Karen Caccamo (they’re in private school) may have to go back to work to pay the mortgage on their five-bedroom house in Sydney. That’s because the audit recommended cutting family benefit payments to those on over $100,000. The editorials were broadly supportive.

  • Simon Benson said the audit had highlighted a dilemma the government was too timid to do anything about. “So the time has now come for Australia to not only wake up but grow up. We are living beyond our means and it cannot continue.”
  • Economics editor Jessica Irvine agreed. “These are the cuts Australia has to have if we ever want to see a surplus again.”
  • Editorial: “We’re headed towards the very same economic disasters that have befallen the likes of Greece and Spain, where big spending governments realised too late that they were earning too little and paying too much.”

The Herald Sun put the audit on the front page, but didn’t run hard. It was more reassuring, telling certain demographics they’d be safe. Pensioners won’t be touched, it pointed out, and Terry McCrann said there was no need to worry as most of the cuts would never happen. But the front page screamed “tough love”.

  • Terry McCrann: “Bluntly — brutally — this is less a road map to a sustainable fiscal future and more a road map to political oblivion. The only way most recommendations — certainly, the big ones — could ever be implemented is with bipartisan support. Opposition Leader Bill Shorten and shadow treasurer Chris Bowen made it crystal clear yesterday that was absolutely not going to happen.”
  • The editorial called for preserving spending on pensioners and retirees, including the current tax treatment of the family home, and said Abbott had to go to a second election for a mandate to deliver more taxes. “Mr Abbott must adhere to his election promise of no new taxes and look instead for spending cuts. Otherwise, his word is only as good as that of his predecessors.”

The Guardian was broadly critical. Lenore Taylor wrote “the budget may yet advance long-term measures that hit the wealthy, but so far the heaviest lifting is falling on the poorest and weakest members of the Australian team”. The news reports either reported the review straight, or highlighted the backlash.

Business Spectator‘s Alan Kohler said the key to the audit wasn’t the recommendations, but the “clear, public picture it paints of Australia’s hopeless fiscal mess, the clarity with which it describes the duplication between the Commonwealth and the states and its pitiless examination of the efficiency and purpose of the public service”. Economics editor Callum Pickering said the audit’s assumptions about revenue were, though alarming, likely to turn out even worse.

Over at MacroBusiness, Leigh van Onselen fingered the baby-boomer commissioners for declaring war on the young. “The younger generations — “generations rent” — will be required to bear the full burden of adjustment while their relatively well-off parents continue to enjoy their full entitlements …”