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Position vacant: Politician who can keep promises

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As Tony Abbott and Joe Hockey struggle to sell their slash-and-burn budget to a cynical electorate – and miffed group of Premiers – voters could be forgiven for thinking ‘here we go again’. Just as John Howard told fibs before his first budget, and Julia Gillard misled over plans for a carbon tax, so too are the Prime Minister and Treasurer paying a heavy price for being loose with the truth.

At least the Treasurer had the ticker and decency to admit, during a wild and riveting episode of Q&A on Monday night, that the Government has a case to answer on some election promises.

He didn’t have much choice. The audience rocked with laughter when Hockey, who is finally showing his true reformist colours, tried to cover up the fact that the Coalition had broken its pre-election promises on spending and taxes. Better to ‘fess up now, and try to win back voter trust.

The PM will never be popular but his hope is to win the grudging respect of the electorate for taking the hard decisions.

After all, the mob are hardly surprised at the idea of politicians telling porkies. It is, unfortunately, grist for the parliamentary mill.

In one sense, the Prime Minister and Treasurer are merely continuing a rich tradition. The risk is their actions will leave a permanent stain, and their reputation a hammering with voters.

Lessons of recent history

The PM, in particular, should understand the risk.

Abbott was masterful in his ruthless pursuit of Julia Gillard after she reversed her ‘no carbon tax’ pledge after the 2010 poll. Gillard never recovered once she’d lost the trust of the mob.

Now, Abbott and Hockey have to try and win back public trust. It’s a big ask and the Senate – where the real action will play out – is unlikely to do the Government too many favours.

Labor, the Greens and Clive Palmer have all signalled plans to oppose key budgetary measures. Unless something gives, the Government will be left with a multi-billion shortfall.

The opposition parties appear in an unforgiving mood and have been exploiting the public backlash over the budget to further their own fortunes.

Palmer, never one to miss a trick, has been tweeting photos of Tony Abbott, standing in front of the ‘Real Solutions’ billboard he rolled out during last September’s campaign.

The billboard has morphed into a ‘“pledge” of broken promises’, according to the self-proclaimed billionaire miner, who clearly is  enjoying being portrayed as a potential kingmaker.

Room for Clive to squeeze in?

Abbott has gifted Palmer a golden opportunity to exploit voter distrust with the Coalition and build his own Palmer United brand.

The big Queenslander is cleverly developing his own political brand, trading on a unique brand of authenticity – coupled with a personal fortune that he is using to bankroll various election campaigns. Thus far, it has worked a treat with Palmer bringing into parliament an eclectic bunch of people who, individually, would have no chance of success.

While the Coalition’s first budget has divided the nation, Palmer trades under the political banner ‘Bringing People Together’.

Like his soul mate Bob Katter, the Queensland MP is asking voters to take him as they see him, an authentic and fair dinkum politician who won’t resort to telling fibs.

It’s been a successful formula so far. Palmer can expect to gain further support if the Coalition ‘bleeds’ votes on the Right. Like Pauline Hanson, Palmer is reaching out to disaffected folk who want a ‘no bull’ MP sitting on the leather benches in Canberra.

Other winners include …

Bill Shorten, too, has been a big winner from the first Coalition budget. The Opposition leader has been strong and forceful in denouncing the Budget, and his standing has soared. He needs to ensure though that Labor doesn’t engage in foolish obstructionism.

As for the PM, well, he doesn’t need to panic yet.

Abbott is determined to push ahead with the big structural reforms announced last week. He’s not about wasting time in the Lodge or strutting the global stage as some itinerant statesman.

The PM will never be popular but his hope is to win the grudging respect of the electorate for taking the hard decisions.

Abbott sees himself in a long line of reformers. He won’t die wondering, that’s for sure.

That may be, but his major challenges it to persuade a sceptical electorate that he can be trusted to act in the national interest, and that’s it okay to mislead when circumstances change.

It’s a big ask. Voters are yearning for political leaders to trust; bright-eyed souls who’ll really keep the bastards honest. No matter what the cost.

Steve Lewis has 22 years experience in reporting Canberra politics, and is a senior advisor with Newgate Communications. He is also co-author of the best-selling political novel, The Marmalade Files, and the forthcoming The Mandarin Code

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