News National Now for the hard part – selling the budget
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Now for the hard part – selling the budget

Scott Morrison and Malcolm Turnbull
Scott Morrison and Malcolm Turnbull are preparing for Tuesday's budget. Photo: AAP
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The Prime Minister waxed eloquent as he gratefully accepted the invitation to spell out what the first budget of his new term in government would have as its goals.

In three words Malcolm Turnbull said the 2017 budget would be committed to “fairness, opportunity and security”.

Hard to disagree with that, or his agenda of “jobs and growth”. But just as this election prescription failed to fire the nation’s enthusiasm, Treasurer Scott Morrison’s fiscal fix is in danger of similarly fizzing. And for the same reason: the spectre of government disunity.

The PM and his Treasurer have a threefold selling task: convince the public, the Parliament and their own party room. This last constituency has been poisoned by the willingness of Tony Abbott to be a lightning rod for dissent and criticism.

Forget all the pious statements about freedom to debate “professionally and respectfully” inside a democratic party. Everybody knows the rules of the game, especially in the Australian context, that demand such debates are kept behind closed doors and motivated by what’s best for the elected leader of your own government.

The precedents are well and truly set. The Rudd-Gillard-Rudd wars did Labor’s government down. The Turnbull-Abbott imbroglio is now similarly playing out much to the chagrin of many in the parliamentary party. But it is real and damaging.

There is now somebody with a Twitter account claiming to be the work of a “grassroots movement” with the hashtag #BringBackAbbott. Labor apparatchiks deny they are behind it but are delighted with its emergence.

Mr Abbott himself has set the scene for another stoush in Tuesday’s government party room. He has publicly criticised Mr Turnbull’s enlisting of Labor’s education reform champion David Gonski. He has rejected the core of those reforms, the fair funding level bringing schools up to a national benchmark of pupil performance.

Budget papers
The 2017 budget will be committed to “fairness, opportunity and security”, the PM says. Photo: AAP

Never mind that the Treasurer is pumping $18.6 billion back into schools after Mr Abbott’s first budget took almost $30 billion out, the former prime minister is forecasting the government will be forced to dump the idea.

He told students at a Catholic college in Perth last Friday: “Knowing a little bit about politics I suspect that the government will decide that it’s on a loser if it does anything that looks like it’s disadvantaging Catholic schools.”

The suspicion is Mr Abbott’s outspokenness has more to do with undermining Mr Turnbull than anything else.

The heat is now on him to deliver and lead the debate in the party room.

“If he doesn’t he will lose all credibility with his colleagues”, is the view of one backbencher.

Mr Abbott has tapped into concerns in the party about the schools funding package but unlike him most are prepared to keep them in house.

Victorian Liberal Russell Broadbent believes the pushback from the Catholic schools is a worry. He says “there is room for further discussion with the Church’s educators”.

Mr Abbott’s close ally, Tasmanian Liberal powerbroker Eric Abetz, is not so coy. Like his former leader he is still smarting over being excluded from the ministry. He went on Radio National to fire a broadside at the Treasurer’s defence of going further into debt to stimulate growth.

Mr Abetz says the nation still has a debt and deficit disaster and he regrets the Abbott government winning Greens support to scrap the debt ceiling. A sorely needed restraint, he believes, on the Treasurer.

And for good measure, he too thinks the embrace of Gonski could put in jeopardy the Liberal holy writ of parental choice and worse, and is a betrayal of the conservative view that throwing money at schools doesn’t lead to better education outcomes.

Mr Turnbull is looking for the budget to be a circuit breaker. It may well raise his stocks but it’s only half the battle.

Paul Bongiorno AM is a veteran of the Canberra Press Gallery, with 40 years’ experience covering Australian politics. He tweets at @PaulBongiorno

For more columns from Paul Bongiorno, click here

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