After a bruising three months since the release of its first budget, the first signs of compromise may be emerging from the Abbott government as it tries to convince a hostile Senate to pass a range of unpopular measures.
Over the weekend, Finance Minister Mathias Cormann said the government would consider an “adjustment here and an adjustment there” to the budget, but ruled out wholesale changes amid reports the Coalition was considering concessions on the $7 GP co-payment, university fee deregulation and the mining tax.
In an effort to push the budget through the Senate, senior ministers were reportedly prepared to revisit some of the more contentious measures with crossbenchers who still oppose the health, education and welfare proposals.
“There may be an adjustment here and an adjustment there, but we are absolutely determined to get our budget through,” Senator Cormann told reporters in Perth.
“There is still time … to engage in good faith with the crossbenchers in the Senate and work these issues through.”
Echoing Mr Cormann’s words, the Prime Minister Abbott said on Sunday: “I am confident that perhaps with an adjustment here, perhaps with an adjustment there, the vast majority of our budget measures will get through. They are the measures that this country needs in order to give ourselves a sustainable fiscal future.”
The change in tone comes after a horror week for Treasurer. Mr Hockey was forced to publicly apologise after remarking that the poorest people “don’t have cars or actually don’t drive very far” during the ongoing debate about the impact of higher petrol prices.
Already facing massive public opposition to his budget, Mr Hockey was subjected to a barrage of criticism for the comments, which fuelled allegations that the new government was “out of touch”.
When asked about the comments, the Prime Minister failed to support the Treasurer, saying “plainly, I wouldn’t say that.”
Chris Pyne, the Leader of the Government in the House, was asked six times on Channel Nine to support Mr Hockey’s comments, but defaulted to backing the Treasurer’s general performance.
A contrite Mr Hockey took to the radio on Friday afternoon to apologise, describing his own comments as “hurtful” and “insensitive”.
The blunder came with the government already on the back foot in efforts to sell the budget to voters. The re-indexation of fuel excise, which is expected to add about one cent to the cost of a litre of petrol, is one of the measures the government is struggling to negotiate through the Senate.
But reports in the News Corporation press over the weekend suggested senior government ministers were moving to “reboot” the budget strategy, possibly with a more “family-friendly” focus.
According to The Australian, this would include broader community consultation, further meetings with crossbench senators and concessions on the mining tax, university reforms and the GP co-payment fee.
Last week, business leaders including the bosses of the Commonwealth and ANZ Banks urged the government to find a way forward for the budget, fearing a loss of confidence among businesses and consumer if the impasse continued.
But the ALP’s Tanya Plibersek dismissed reports that the government was changing its budget strategy as “tinkering”.
“They should just go back to the drawing board,” the deputy Labor leader said on Sky News.
“This is a stinking budget. It’s a stinking budget because it breaks so many promises and because it’s so profoundly unfair.”
—with AAP, ABC