“Politics is a fast moving business,” Christopher “The Fixer” Pyne said this week, shortly before what was left of his higher education reforms — “fixed” together with string and chewing gum — fell apart in the Senate. Fast indeed, because it’s only been a couple of weeks since Social Services Minister Scott Morrison tried to appropriate the title of “fixer” for himself; in the interval, Pyne had darted in and nicked it. Perhaps Morrison will have it out with him in cabinet over who’s got dibs on “fixer”, kinda like that rugby match a few years back when a NSW forward nicknamed “the Beast” played against a South African team also containing a forward nicknamed “the Beast”.

It’s an idle and not particularly useful observation, that this is a government in which ministers can’t even decide on their own nicknames, but it’s not totally irrelevant, because there is genuine, deep-seated confusion about this government currently, as if the thick fogs that envelope Canberra in winter have descended even before the leaves have turned. It doesn’t matter what newspaper you read — the Oz, the AFR, the SMH/Age — there’s a prevailing sense of utter chaos about what the government’s budget and economic narrative is. No one has a damn clue.

It was only a fortnight ago that the Intergenerational Report was released, designed to reset the government’s budget narrative about the need for serious fiscal action if Australia’s federal budget is to be sustainable. An effort was made to hang a $5 trillion debt on Labor, and the government’s 2014-15 budget — unamended — pitched as the way to sustainability. An advertising campaign was mounted and Treasurer Joe Hockey appeared in the media as often as his courtroom schedule would allow, making a genuine effort to engage the electorate on long-term fiscal priorities. Now, suddenly, according to the Prime Minister, it’s fiscal smoko time. Put the feet up, kick back and relax — the May budget will be a boring affair, the hard yakka has all been done already, debt at 50-60% of GDP isn’t so bad.

Cue confusion and dismay from editorial writers and business leaders.

But this flip-flop shouldn’t surprise anyone. The Coalition has constantly shifted its position on the budget for political convenience in recent years. Remember how former Labor treasurer Wayne Swan’s efforts to reduce expenditure on family tax benefits was damned as “class warfare” by Abbott, Hockey and their News Corp cheerleaders? Yet that didn’t stop Hockey declaring at the start of 2013 that, in contrast to Labor’s inability to control its spending, he would deliver a budget surplus in his first year and every year after that. Six months later, once Kevin Rudd had returned and boosted Labor’s polling, Hockey’s tone had changed — he stopped committing to surpluses at all, while his leader promised no spending cuts in a range of high-profile areas. Then, after they were elected, almost as if they wanted to fulfil Labor’s campaign warnings that they would pursue savage cuts regardless of what they said before the election, the “budget emergency” rhetoric emerged (along with the return of a Hockey favourite, the “age of entitlement”), to pave the way for a hardline budget.

Meantime, Hockey began complaining about revenue shortfalls, despite having attacked Wayne Swan for doing the same — and despite having given up $12 billion in revenue by dumping the carbon price, mining tax and super tax concession changes. That contained its own flip-flop — the 2013 Mid-year Economic and Fiscal Outlook was supposed to “draw a line in the sand” on revenue write-downs, until revenue got written down again in the budget, and again in the 2014 MYEFO.

Each of these reversals were driven by political expediency, and they still are — although now it is about what is politically expedient for a beleaguered Prime Minister, not his party. And the flip-flops in government are connected to those of opposition, because it was in opposition that the Coalition surrendered the skill of arguing a positive agenda in favour of relentless oppositionism. Not merely is the Abbott government not sticking to a single message about what it wants to achieve, it seems unable to do so because its senior ministers, and most particularly Tony Abbott, don’t have even the most basic political communications skills when they have to argue something other than “no”.

The penny must now be dropping, even among Abbott’s hardened supporters: it is not the case that Abbott stubbornly won’t change, but that he is unable to change, that he lacks the skills to even stick to a single message, let alone sell that message effectively. The problem is, who among his colleagues has those skills? Joe Hockey is even worse and is widely regarded as an interim treasurer. Julie Bishop has not been tested in domestic politics and economic issues. Only Malcolm Turnbull — partly because he’s a natural orator, but partly because he insists on talking to voters as if they have an IQ above room temperature — has the skills to be able to explain to the electorate what a government is doing, why it is doing it and what the benefits will be.

And we come back to the point Crikey has made time and again: all this is about more than whether Tony Abbott remains Prime Minister or not, it’s about whether this government is able to meet the economic and fiscal challenges ahead. We have a long-term budget deficit and the economy is barely growing. How many people, even within the government, think this lot are up to dealing with that?

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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