Scott Morrison is by nature a chameleon. There is the aggressive, crash through – and often crash – hyper-partisan Scott. And then there’s the Scott we observed in the budget and on Wednesday at the National Press Club.
There he appealed to the media not to see everything in terms of conflict and personalities (ironically, he was answering a question about the new levy that has infuriated the banks). “For people who aren’t in this room today, they’re sick of that nonsense”, he said, which is true though not something normally to trouble the Treasurer.
And Morrison used the emotional personal story of his brother-in-law Gary, who has multiple sclerosis, as part of his pitch to “end the political games” and “gather together and meet in the middle as a parliament” on funding the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) with a rise in the Medicare levy.
Apart from the brawl with the banks, the government this week has mostly adopted a more humble tone, well removed from the earlier lecturing, we-know-best-approach. Everyone assumes it’s doing what the focus groups are telling it.
A self-styled whatever-it-takes budget has been all about a government that’s galvanised by the spectre of defeat acknowledging realities and switching tack. No good railing any more about the Senate refusing to pass savings. “We can’t whine and whinge about that … Let’s be honest about it. Rule a line. Move on, apply a solution,” said Morrison.
In 2001 John Howard, in as deep a hole as Malcolm Turnbull is now, ruled lines and moved on. His budget was part of resetting and regrouping and it worked a treat.
Turnbull needs the 2017 budget to play the same role for him.
Whether it will is quite another matter.
The public could respond in one of two ways. They could accept the government’s turnaround and indeed see it as the re-emergence of “the real Malcolm” – which it might be – the centrist and pragmatic Malcolm. Or they could be sceptical, regarding the drastic makeover as just another example of politicians being expedient.
There is a third possibility – that voters have switched off.
It will be a while before we get an accurate reading.
Deputy Liberal leader Julie Bishop, exhorting backbenchers to sell the budget hard in their electorates, said at Tuesday’s party meeting that it could take a couple of months for the full implications of the budget to be reflected in public opinion and the polls.
Budgets don’t usually produce poll bounces and indeed even what observers think in the first week may not be their later assessment. The Hockey 2014 budget received a better reaction initially than subsequently, when it came to be regarded as a horror, certainly in political terms.
While budgets don’t usually push the polls up, Turnbull will be desperately hoping this one breaks the mould, because he needs an early boost for party morale. It’s been a confusing budget for Coalition backbenchers, with its dramatic repositioning – they just live in hope it will work.
But backbenchers these days are as impatient as voters. They want to see instant results. If the polls stay negative they’ll become jittery.
As the government sought to fireproof itself in Labor’s areas of strength, the budget produced a new challenge for Bill Shorten.
Its widespread tagging as “Labor-lite” was embarrassing for ministers but potentially dangerous for the ALP. In his Thursday budget reply Shorten went out of his way to stomp on the claim.
But given the Coalition is crowding into Labor’s space, Shorten had to quickly re-establish as much distance as possible distance between the parties.
There was no way he could give Morrison an easy pass on the Medicare levy increase - but he couldn’t afford to appear unreasonable either, when the NDIS was involved. So Labor will oppose a rise for those on incomes under $87,000, thus standing as protectors of workers on low and middle incomes.
To raise extra funds, an ALP government would reimpose the deficit levy on high earners that comes off automatically on June 30. The combination of the Medicare levy rise and the reimposed deficit levy would put those with incomes of more than $180,000 on a marginal rate of 49.5%, but these people are not Shorten’s crowd.
With the government embracing Gonski and proposing a substantial funding injection into schools, Shorten confirmed Labor will stick to its election commitment - an extra $22 billion over what the Coalition is now planning to spend. The opposition will exploit to the maximum the Catholics’ discontent with the government’s blueprint, which unravels the special deals they have had.
Shorten has also declared Labor will fight the budget imposts on university students, so the government will have to battle those out with the crossbench.
He has not indicated what an ALP government would do about the already legislated company tax cut – for businesses with a turnover of up to $50 million. Sources say the future of that cut, for at least some businesses, is definitely on the table. The government revealed on Thursday that the total cost of the company tax cut, legislated and unlegislated, is $65 billion over the upcoming 10 years.
Labor has responded to the Coalition’s offensive and defensive moves in Tuesday’s budget by going further in protecting its territory, in terms of both issues, notably health and education, and constituents – lower and middle income earners.
“They tried to be a better Labor government than us – and they can’t”, said one Labor man after Shorten’s speech.
Authors: Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra