It took 15 minutes for the ABC’s Eliza Borrello to ask Joe Hockey the question the papers will no doubt continue to ask tomorrow. Given the budget emergency hadn’t improved materially under his watch, why does the Treasurer deserve to keep his job?

It was the most pointed question in a half-hour lock-up grilling of Joe Hockey and Mathias Cormann, during which the Treasurer and Finance Minister tried to convince the nation’s press that things were getting better.

Hockey’s answer to Borrello was that the budget trajectory was positive. “I would love to do more, but we’ve got to get the balance right,” he said.

At the customary lockup presser, the Treasurer, flanked by two Australian flags, tried to convince the press to “look at the glass half full”. Things weren’t going amazingly well, he admitted, but they’d be a lot worse if not for the government’s actions. “Because we have changed the nature of the Australian economy, we have been able to cope.” By getting rid of the carbon and mining taxes, and signing free trade agreements, the budget wasn’t as bad as it would be otherwise, he said. And savings were high, interest rates were low, and businesses were keen to invest, if only given the nudge. “This isn’t the end of the process — it’s a step along the way.”

But why wait? The Australian’s David Crowe asked Hockey that given the budget papers identify further budget repair as necessary, why didn’t the Treasurer do it now? Cormann jumped in to answer the opening question — which was a little jarring, given it was addressed to the Treasurer. “We have made responsible decisions without going too far,” Cormann said.

But how serious is the government on really repairing the budget? The Fin’s Phil Coorey asked what would happen if the instant small-business asset write-offs were more expensive than anticipated, with small businesses splurging on cheap photocopiers and the like. That’d be great, Hockey answered. No, he wouldn’t consider capping the measures, he added. The ABC’s Annabel Crabb piped up from the floor: if the tax measures exceeded the allotted expenditure, would Hockey be “a happy man”?

Cormann sounded almost offended. “It’s not expenditure … The Labor Party is quite happy to call tax cuts expenditure. The Coalition doesn’t.” It’s a tax cut, Hockey said, one that could help Australian small businesses become the globally disruptive businesses of tomorrow. What’s a little budget overrun to help build the next Google?

The Oz’s Dennis Shanahan wanted to know how the government plans to get the measures through the Senate, given its experience last year.

“The heat’s now on Bill Shorten,” Hockey said. It was a sentiment he repeated to answer a question from Paul Osborne only moments later. The AAP chief wanted to know what had happened to the government’s previous priorities — to address the costs of education and healthcare.

“We are absolutely determined to put it back to the Senate,” Hockey said, referring to the education changes. “It’s one of our structural reforms … we are absolutely determined to continue with our structural reforms.”

Quentin Dempster, now of The Sydney Morning Herald, wanted the Treasurer to admit his budget relied on cutting $80 billion in health and education from the states. “Some of the states are running a surplus. We’re not running a surplus. Don’t shed a tear for the states,” Hockey quipped.

Sophie Morris, of The Saturday Paper, wanted to know whether Hockey would consider reinstating some of the onerous requirements on those unemployed and under 30 outlined in the past budget. Hockey was happy to rule it out. “No, we listened and we heard. [The previous proposal] is off the table.”

The ABC’s Tony Iggulden returned to a thread first spun by Fairfax’s Mark Kenny — what if the forecasts were wrong. Iggulden wanted to know if the Treasurer had “war-gamed” different budget scenarios if the economy didn’t hold up. “Our numbers are the best available numbers,” Hockey said.

Aunty got another question — 7.30‘s Sabra Lane noted the 40% cut in foreign aid to Indonesia, and wanted to know how that figure was decided. The implicit question — whether the executions of Myuran Sukumaran and Andrew Chan had led to the cut — was dismissed by Hockey, who said Julie Bishop had embarked on a comprehensive assessment of Australia’s aid spending without singling out any one country as a starting point. “No specific country was targeted — not at all,” Hockey said. “I want you to take that out of your mind.”

Radio National economics wonk Cheryl Bagwell wanted to know what had happened to the much-discussed bank deposit tax the government was supposedly considering. Surely there was a temptation to put it in, given it would go straight to the bottom line, she suggested. It was still under consideration, Hockey said, but not today. “We will respond to that particular initiative when we respond to the Murray Inquiry.”

Paul Bongiorno wanted to know when the government would be poised to hand back some of the bracket creep it was enjoying the benefits of. Hockey insisted he’d love to give it back. “If bracket creep continues … it will ultimately slow down the economy.”

A few questions harked back to happier times for the Coalition. Cormann and Hockey celebrated with cigars last year. The Mandarin’s Tom Burton wanted to know what the plans were this time, but Hockey wouldn’t be drawn. “We’re focused on the job at hand.” Peter Helliar from The Project had been itching to ask a question all conference, but again, Hockey wouldn’t be sidetracked. As the Treasurer wrapped things up, Helliar went for the one he could fit in. “Where’s the after-party Joe?” No response from Hockey. If his performance in the lockup is anything to go on, he’ll be the image of earnest sobriety this evening.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey