Voters may shun brazen budget, but Albanese is not over the line

The problem with Josh Frydenberg’s fourth and possibly last budget, win or lose the election, was not whether it was good or bad, or right or wrong.

The problem always was that more was expected of it than it could ever possibly deliver.

Frydenberg’s task was to produce a budget that would lift the Coalition from its present unwinnable position in the polls, to bring it within striking distance at the start of the official campaign (expected in days), to instil confidence, to maintain credibility, to restore trust in a government in desperate need of it, all while wedging or squeezing Labor.

Treasurer Josh Frydenberg delivered the Budget speech on Tuesday.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

It shaped as a crushing burden, a phenomenal weight resting on a single event and mainly on the shoulders of one person who happens to be the most popular in the government. It is hard enough, even in the best of times, to reconcile the competing tensions of economics and politics and to meet such soaring expectations. Yet these are pretty close to the worst of times for the Morrison government.

In a better world, Frydenberg’s budget would have been both fiscally responsible and electorally appealing. At any other time a bribe, a fistful of dollars neatly tied with a bright red bow, delivered in a brown paper bag on election eve, would have been tarted up as a stimulus package driven by economic imperatives.

In the end, faced with an economy roaring back, threatening to make them victims of their own success as living costs spiral, Frydenberg delivered a brazen, nakedly out and proud pre-election budget with no pain, god forbid no hint of reform and no pretence that it was driven by economics or anything other than the desperate need to win votes. This accompanied by a jaw-dropping expectation of applause for an estimated deficit of a piffling $78 billion for 2022-23.

There was an air of devil may care, more redolent of Morrison than Frydenberg, in the formulation of this more-is-more budget.

If the billions in extra spending succeed in securing a fourth term for the Coalition, then feed into inflation, which then forces interest rates higher than they otherwise might have been, it will have the luxury of three years on the treasury benches before it has to front voters again. And that’s probably with a new leader, most likely Frydenberg depending on who is left standing.

If the Reserve Bank had any ticker it would puncture the Coalition’s bravado by raising rates now. But Philip Lowe will not do to Scott Morrison what Glenn Stevens did to John Howard during the 2007 campaign. The bank will wait until the election is over, although delay also counts as political intervention.

If Labor wins, after backing the $8.6 billion cost of living measures, then it can kiss goodbye a post-election honeymoon as it confronts the wrath of mortgage holders and the ticking time bomb of the temporary halving of the fuel excise. If petrol prices stay as high as they are now, or worse, there will be intense pressure to keep the cut for longer.

Jim Chalmers, Labor’s shadow treasurer who has much in common with Frydenberg – he knows his stuff, is a good communicator and good-humoured as well – has said in a number of post-budget interviews no treasurer from either side can afford to extend the cut beyond September. Frydenberg has been similarly certain. Their leaders haven’t been as emphatic.

Prime ministers have a habit of turning to jelly when the polls hit.

But there is no guarantee Anthony Albanese will have to confront that dilemma. From now on, Albanese has to concentrate on making the case for himself and for Labor rather than against Morrison. People are all too painfully familiar with Morrison’s character flaws. They want to know more about Albanese and what he has to offer.

There is a sullen mood in the electorate. People have been worn down by the pandemic, devastated by fire or by floods then floods again, anxious about war in Europe and cynical about a government that seldom gets it exactly right led by a man whose words often cannot withstand scrutiny.

Even so, there could still be a bounce from this budget, partly because opting for change requires effort and partly because there remains hesitation about Albanese.

The Opposition Leader has to tackle that more conscientiously and with more discipline, beginning on Thursday night with his budget reply speech and in every media appearance which follows. He will reveal one new policy tonight. Those close to him, who warn he should not be underestimated on the campaign trail, believe it will help convince voters he does indeed have a plan for the future.

Rather than reflexively slinging off at the Prime Minister – plenty of others are doing that – he needs thereafter to dwell ad nauseam on the detail of his policies to secure jobs, lift wages and make child care cheaper.

Otherwise he won’t make it.

If the budget does work, if the government survives in a minority, there will be scant gratitude for Morrison. The view is if it happens it will be in spite of him, not because of him. At the NSW Liberal Senate pre-selection last weekend, his handpicked proxy Alex Hawke was described as visibly shaken after being booed by hundreds of party members. That was a clear message for Morrison, who is close to toxic in his own party in his home state, a message amplified by Concetta Fierravanti-Wells, a warrior for the Liberals for decades, who was relegated to an unwinnable spot on the Senate ticket at that meeting.

In her excoriating speech hours after the budget, Fierravanti-Wells said publicly about Morrison what her factional allies have been saying privately, even though some of them also abandoned her at the weekend.

So badly is Morrison on the nose that it’s Frydenberg, a Victorian – who could be the first of his state to lead the Liberals since Andrew Peacock – who will be invited to campaign in at-risk, inner-urban Liberal seats. If they hold, it’s Frydenberg who will be rewarded.

Jacqueline Maley cuts through the noise of the federal election campaign with news, views and expert analysis. Sign up to our Australia Votes 2022 newsletter here.

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