Barnaby Joyce
Barnaby Joyce (Image: AAP/Mick Tsikas)

Once upon a time, Treasurer Josh Frydenberg deified Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, architects of the great neoliberal experiment.

But the pandemic killed ideology, as Frydenberg himself once put it. On Tuesday night, he hammered another nail in ideology’s coffin, delivering a big-spending budget that appeared to stray a long way from much of the Coalition’s traditional small government ethos.

Not all conservatives are happy with that drift. Nationals MP Barnaby Joyce told Crikey he had concerns about the size of the budget deficit, and the difficulties future generations would face paying it all back.

“I can’t change my position about debt when I’ve been speaking about debt my whole political career,” the former deputy prime minister said. “We’ve got $1.2 trillion worth of debt. That’d be like $100 bills end to end going around the world 45 times.”

Joyce joins a rump of conservative backbenchers, crossbenchers and pressure groups who have criticised the government’s about-face — wholeheartedly embracing a historic budget deficit after years of slamming Labor over their failure to reign in a far smaller one.

On Tuesday night, LNP Senator Matt Canavan, also a former cabinet minister, told Sky News he was “concerned” about the debt levels. He later went on to suggest the pandemic budget could put Australia at a disadvantage in an increasingly tense stand-off with China.

“We have a higher debt-to-GDP than we have ever had since the end of World War II and, without being too dramatic, we could be on the edge of WWIII with all the tension in our region,” Canavan said.

Queensland LNP Senator Gerard Rennick who, along with Canavan, recently broke ranks with the government over the India travel ban, also said he was “not at all comfortable” with the size of the deficit and the growth of public service departments.

“Labor-lite’s probably a polite term,” he told Crikey.

There’s also some frustration on the LNP backbench over how big-spending measures were dropped to the media before being discussed with them.

Over on the crossbench, former Coalition MP Craig Kelly made his thoughts on the debt known by holding a press conference next to a giant stack of fake trillion dollar bills in the Parliament House mural hall on Tuesday morning.

But it isn’t just the Coalition’s fringes who aren’t happy about the budget. The Institute of Public Affairs, a libertarian think tank that forms a kind of link between the Liberal Party and Sky News, said Labor would have been proud to deliver Frydenberg’s budget.

“The Coalition appears to have given up making the argument for economic reform and smaller government,” director of research Daniel Wild said.

While not strictly affiliated with the Coalition, the IPA is hugely influential in conservative circles, counting Senator James Paterson, backbencher Tim Wilson and speaker Tony Smith among its alumni.

It’s been a confusing budget week. The Coalition’s generosity — investment in childcare, billions for aged care and mental health, and an abandonment of their deficit-hawkishness left Labor (who for years dealt with body-blows over their own deficit spending) red-faced. Some Labor observers noted that Frydenberg appeared almost apologetic about delivering a Labor-tinged budget.

Still, the Coalition has largely fallen in line behind Frydenberg’s ideological about-face. But the party is a broad church, and there will always be a few rabble-rousers up the back.