Treasurer Scott Morrison is carrying a huge burden on his shoulders as he prepares for his second budget. The government is in urgent need of a circuit breaker.
Here we are, just eight months since the Coalition won an election, and already there is talk of a leadership change. Talk spurred by last week’s appalling Newspoll showing the government trailing Labor by 10 points.
The jitters in government ranks in Canberra will only worsen if the Western Australian state election sees the fall of the Liberal government in what has been a conservative bastion.
It is not only the Nationals in Canberra who fear that “Turnbull is terminal”. There are many Liberals, and not just the hard-liners, who are worried.
Their fears would have been further exacerbated by a column in the Fairfax media by conservative commentator, long-time mate of Tony Abbott and a failed Liberal pre-selection candidate for the right, Tom Switzer.
“The scene is now set for a merciless and bloodthirsty civil war,” Mr Switzer wrote. “It will be very hard for Turnbull to survive the carnage.”
We got a taste of it when Mr Abbott proffered an agenda to save the government, and indeed Australia, from Malcolm Turnbull’s ‘Labor lite’ policies.
There is a sense of a messianic mission here. Liberal MPs are bracing for more.
One veteran backbencher says the influential Murdoch tabloids are distancing themselves from Mr Turnbull in favour, at this stage, of Immigration Minister Peter Dutton.
Channel Seven news last week speculated Mr Dutton and his exercise partner Mathias Cormann are engaged in coup plotting on their morning walks.
Mr Dutton laughs it off, but what is no laughing matter is the malaise engulfing the barely re-elected government.
No mood for austerity
One hopeful sign for the troops is Treasurer Morrison, who unlike his predecessor Joe Hockey realises that though this is a first budget of the three-year term, voters are in no mood for severe austerity.
“A lot of middle Australians, hardworking Australians, middle-income Australians, they rely on Medicare or the other services and the budget needs to ensure that these things are guaranteed and we will certainly do that as we have done in our previous budgets,” Mr Morrison told Radio 2GB.
Well, “the previous budgets” bit is a stretch. But in talking of a “credible budget” Mr Morrison means that if the unpopular leftovers from the 2014 fiscal failure do not survive wrangling over the Omnibus Bill in the Senate, they will be abandoned.
In raising Medicare, he can only be talking of ending the doctors’ rebate freeze and doing more for hospitals – otherwise he can forget applause from the bleachers.
The Treasurer is also signalling housing affordability as a centrepiece. Again he will have to do more than blame the states and do something to curb investors crowding out home buyers from the market. Here, both he and the Prime Minister are leaving tax tweaking on the table.
But budgets, especially popular ones, have a habit of quickly fading from view. Voters tend to take them as their due. It is the unpopular ones that fester.
Compounding the difficulty is the Pauline Hanson factor. There is little doubt she and her One Nation party are far more disruptive for the Liberals and the Nationals than Labor.
But whether voters will continue to see her as a vehicle to express their disdain for the major parties is by no means certain. We will get something of a steer on that at next Saturday’s WA election.
Two polls in recent days have One Nation below 10 per cent. There are even indications that the party’s decision to preference the unpopular Liberals ahead of Labor has cost it support.
Whether her weekend praise of Vladimir Putin and her defence of penalty rate cuts and opposition to paid parental leave will further erode her standing in voters’ eyes will also be another test of just how Teflon coated she is.
If Ms Hanson succeeds in getting the balance of power in Perth her influence will be enhanced nationally.
It will take more than a budget circuit breaker to contain it.
Paul Bongiorno AM is a veteran of the Canberra Press Gallery, with 40 years’ experience covering Australian politics. He tweets at @PaulBongiorno