Tough year: Support for Treasurer Joe Hockey has slipped away since his delivery of the budget. Photo: Andrew Meares
Treasurer Joe Hockey woke last week to an unwelcome invitation from the government’s most ardent supporter in the media, The Australian. Hand over to Malcolm Turnbull if you are “not hungry enough” for the job, the newspaper editorialised.
How things have changed since budget day 2014, just over six months ago.
A review of newspaper editorials from budget week reveals the nation’s major papers largely failed to anticipate the strength of the backlash to the first Hockey budget.
There was little sign the government’s fiscal blueprint would come to be viewed as the most “unfair” budget in decades and its most controversial elements would still be marooned in the Senate by the end of the parliamentary year.
In its budget editorial “A modest but purposeful start”, Fairfax Media’s The Australian Financial Review lamented that Prime Minister Tony Abbott had been “boxed in” by his own election promises and could not cut deeper into government spending.
The newspaper lauded the idea of deregulated university fees as “ground-breaking reforms of the higher education sector to promote excellence and much-needed competition among our universities”.
Sydney’s Daily Telegraph also rued election promises getting in the way of more radical fiscal surgery. “These promises place a moral restriction on the Coalition to retain certain levels of spending when extensive cuts are obviously required,” it said.
Its News Corp stablemate, The Australian, welcomed a $7 GP co-payment and described the $20 billion medical research fund it would create as “a clever political fix that should produce laudable results if well implemented”.
The Australian did foresee a backlash to the co-payment, saying: “These are brave political decisions that will attract loud protests, but are necessary in order to stem ballooning health costs and engender a sense of personal responsibility.”
But it also warned against opposing the budget in an editorial on May 15: “The Green-Left critics and Fairfax Media and ABC sympathisers badly underestimated John Howard. They are making the same mistake with Mr Abbott. Rather than sealing its demise, this first Abbott-Hockey budget gives the Coalition a strong sense of purpose and a serious reform agenda that, in the medium term, could sideline its opponents. The Australian believes most voters will embrace the budget repair task, so long as the government brings them along in the discussion.”
And a day later: “Joe Hockey’s first budget has brought out the whiners and whingers, the grifters and grumblers, the loonies and looters. The culture of complaint is alive and well in our noisy democracy, with myriad platforms available to those who want to participate in an orgy of angst or add to a bonfire of miseries.
“That the supposedly serious end of the fourth estate is prepared to be barkers for a carnival of bellyaching where ‘everyone’s a loser’ is invariably disappointing, but hardly surprising in a dumbed-down era of short attention spans and voluble expression. It is pretty puerile stuff and Bill Shorten’s budget-in-reply speech last night sits comfortably within this immature, facile political debate.”
Three months later, in another editorial, The Australian walked away from its support for the medical research fund. “We see no compelling reason to invest the proceeds from a $7 GP co-payment – an important price signal to reduce unnecessary visits to the doctor – into a Medical Research Future Fund,” it wrote.
The Sydney Morning Herald‘s budget-edition front page was headlined “Hockey’s world of pain”, which turned out to be more predictive of the Treasurer’s own experience in 2014 than the financial burden he was asking the electorate to bear.
The Herald’s editorial slammed Mr Hockey for “myriad broken promises. And many surprises”. “The public can ask whether the government’s zeal for shifting the burden of economic change risks jeopardising the sort of national unity needed if Australia is to accept many of the necessary reforms in this budget,” it opined.
“The Treasurer is looking like a man in too great a hurry.
“No doubt he is gambling that an unviable opposition under Bill Shorten will pose little obstacle.”
The Age predicted Mr Abbott would be forced to “seek forgiveness” for breaking promises in the budget. “It is hard to escape the conclusion that this government lacks compassion for the most vulnerable in the community,” it said.
Mark Textor, the Liberal pollster and key Abbott adviser on public messaging, conceded last week that in its first budget “perhaps the government was trying to do much” and should have focused on “restorative” elements.
But he dismissed any danger to the government from recent attacks by conservative columnists such as Andrew Bolt not seen six months ago.
Veteran Labor campaign operative Bruce Hawker, who steered Bob Carr’s long reign as NSW premier as chief of staff and headed Kevin Rudd’s doomed tilt at re-election last year, said newspapers often did not understand their own readers.
“There are two types of treasury in this country. The one in Canberra and the one around every kitchen table where families work out how they are going to make ends meet,” he said.
“Sometimes the people sitting in ivory editorial towers don’t understand the impact that measures like the Medicare co-payment, deregulating university fees and cutting pension entitlements will have on ordinary households.”