News National As the government talks debt, the right has its own agenda

As the government talks debt, the right has its own agenda

Turnbull Christensen
George Christensen told Andrew Bolt he could no longer serve under Malcolm Turnbull. Photo: AAP
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If there was any doubt the Liberal Party’s conservatives had decided to run amok in the lead up to the release of the Turnbull government’s key economic report card on Monday, one needed to look no further than their pin-up boy George Christensen.

The conservative disrupter has kept the pressure on the PM ever since Malcolm Turnbull returned to the Liberal leadership, going rogue on the right’s pet issues such as the Safe Schools program, superannuation reform, marriage equality and the backpacker tax.

turnbull cabinet reshuffle
Coalition conservatives remain a thorn in Malcolm Turnbull’s side. Photo: AAP

Not content with the week’s full-on assault against non-Christians, non-Monarchists and the unemployed, Mr Christensen decided to add the war on drugs to the melee.

At least that was his excuse for praising the admission by Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte that during his time as mayor he had personally killed criminals.

Asking rhetorically on his Facebook page what the problem was with “a leader who personally sees off drug dealers”, Mr Christensen later said he didn’t want an elected official in Australia to run around shooting people but “we’ve done our namby-pamby war on drugs in the west and it’s been a complete failure.”

Coalition shift on debt

At this point it’s hard not to feel sorry for the Turnbull government strategists who’ve been working all week to build momentum towards the release of the Mid-Year Economic Forecast and Outlook on Monday.

The MYEFO provides an update on the nation’s economy at the mid-point between the most recent federal budget and the next one.

Treasurer Scott Morrison has spent recent weeks softening us up for the announcement, trying to shift voters and the media away from talk of a budget emergency (which is great fun for oppositions but not so much for governments), and create an acceptance that there is such a thing as “good” government debt when it is incurred on wealth-creating activities such as infrastructure.

Even at the best of times, that would be no easy feat.

Liberal and Coalition governments at the national and state levels have been so successful at demonising debt in the past 20 years that they are now seen by many voters as the only administrations capable of exorcising it.

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Treasurer Scott Morrison has tried to shift conversation away from a “budget emergency”. Photo: AAP

To have Treasurer Morrison now proclaim that it’s okay to embrace the demon will be an unsettling experience for many voters.

And Labor won’t make the task any easier given every Liberal leader in recent history, but most particularly Tony Abbott, painted Labor as an economic wrecker for trying to make the same case about “good” and “bad” debt during its own time in office.

The Turnbull government’s net debt is expected to be worth around 20 per cent of the economy when it is announced next week, compared to half that when the Abbott government Treasurer Joe Hockey blamed Labor for leaving it with a budget “crisis”.

Abbott out and about

So it will be interesting to see whether the great warrior against “debt and deficit”, Tony Abbott, will comfortably make the rhetorical shift to “good debt” next week.

Mr Abbott’s behaviour in recent times suggests he won’t be that obliging.

tony abbott
Tony Abbott spoke often about a “budget emergency” while Liberal Party leader. Photo: AAP

Like his protégé Mr Christensen, Mr Abbott is more interested in holding Mr Turnbull’s hand to the fire to extract concessions for conservatives than he is being a team player.

Continuing his “Pick me for cabinet, or else” tour of conservative chat shows, the former PM turned up on talkback radio this week, reaching out to strengthen his connection with the blue rinse set by telling Ray Hadley that too many people on the disability support pension were bludgers with bad backs or a bit of depression. And that dole bludgers should take any job they’re offered.

While this tough talk dovetails to an extent with the Social Services minister’s message earlier this week on the need to crack down on welfare rorters, it still leaves room for Mr Abbott to complain after MYEFO that the Turnbull government is not as committed to reining in budget spending as his was.

And it is likely Mr Abbott will do so, encouraged by an opinion poll released this week that claims 41 per cent of Coalition supporters would vote for a breakaway conservative party that offered him as a candidate.

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