The one certain thing about Tony Abbott’s first budget is that it has produced a lot of unhappiness, and not only among his political opponents; many of his supporters have been weeping quietly in their electorate offices, and among the public at large there has been general wailing and lamentation.
So it is entirely appropriate that Abbott is taking a methodical approach to dealing with the outbreak of grief; he is apparently working his way through its five stages, as identified by the Swiss-American psychiatrist, Elisabeth Kubler-Ross.
Fortunately for our prime minister, the first of these is a response at which he is both practised and accomplished: denial.
Having summarily dismissed the science of climate change as ‘crap’, he had no trouble in declaring that his own unequivocal and well-documented election promises were equally irrelevant: what mattered was his commitment to tackle Labor’s debt and deficit crisis and bring the budget back to surplus.
When it was pointed out that there was no immediate crisis, and even if there had been, Joe Hockey’s manifesto did nothing urgent about it, Abbott continued to reject reality. But of course this did not work – as Kubler-Ross has shown, it never does. So on to stage two: anger. Face down the outrage of the electorate with outrage (confected or real, it doesn’t matter) of his own.
Abbott waxed indignant: the media, the public, the AMA, the AIG, and even members of his own party were obviously too thick to appreciate the underlying wonder and beauty of his concoction. They wanted to wake up and confront reality: sure, there may be some short-term pain, but when the smoke haze lifted and the rubble was cleared away, a glorious future awaited: a medical research fund, more roads, and above all tax cuts. And if people didn’t embrace that new and glittering promise, then that was their own damn fault. They could take the nasty medicine, or after the next election he would dish up a real shit sandwich. No more Mr Nice Guy.
But once again there was less than universal rejoicing (except, inevitably, in the columns of the Murdoch press). And worse, emboldened by the opinion polls which showed the budget to be about as popular as cholera and Abbott rather less so, the political opposition hardened its stance. The recalcitrance of Labor and the Greens was both expected and, to an extent, even welcomed: if a scapegoat was needed, they were the obvious choices for the role.
But the crossbenchers were another proposition entirely. Abbott had hoped that the incoming ragbag of senators would be, on the whole, sympathetic; after all, apart from the ever enigmatic Nick Xenophon, they all claimed to represent parties stationed on the right of politics, some very close to the lunatic fringes – soulmates, in fact. And since they seemed ready, and in most cases eager, to embrace the abolition of the carbon and mining taxes, the recycling of the inquisition into the building industry and the restructuring of Fair Work Australia so that it is more work and less fair, Abbott figured that they would come to the party on the rest of his merciless agenda. But it has proved not to be so: his furious demands left them unimpressed and unmoved. So, somewhat reluctantly, Abbott has moved on to stage three: bargaining. Last week he met – or at least planned to meet – three of the new boys who will take their seats next month: Bob Day from Family First, John Madigan of the DLP and David Leyonhjelm of the Liberal Democrats. The best that can be said of the duologues was that there were no reports of physical violence, but there was not a lot of mutual hugging either. Day and Madigan are both on record as being concerned about the impact of budget measures on families; Leyonhjelm wants to abolish welfare altogether and replace it with tax cuts.
But the real problem is that even if Abbott can lure all three on side, and rope in Xenophon as well, he still needs at least two more votes. And the only place to procure these is from the well guarded compound of Clive Palmer. Abbott made his first, and obvious, move: try and wedge off what looked like the weakest link, Ricky Muir of the Australian Motoring Enthusiasts Party.
Shortly after being elected as senator with a primary vote of just 0.51 per cent, Muir formed an alliance with the Palmer United Party, although it has never been entirely clear just how tight this alliance is. Abbott obviously thought it was flexible and invited Muir to a meeting. Muir, a Gippsland sawmiller, declined: he was busy trying to feed his family, he said, and would come to Canberra when he was paid to do so and not before. Madigan suggested Abbott should go to Gippsland to talk to him, but the mountain remained unmoved.
The other three PUP senators have also refused to meet: Palmer says they won’t talk until Abbott grants them more staff. And even then the outcome might be, well, problematic. The two who have submitted themselves to an interview with the ABC 7.30’s Sarah Ferguson, Jackie Lambie from Tasmania and Dio Wang from Western Australia, seem at best unpredictable; the third, Queensland’s Glenn Lazarus, The Brick with Eyes, has opted to let his bulk answer the questions, as it did on the rugby league grounds.
Any progress appears unlikely unless and until Abbott overcomes his obvious dislike of the flamboyant billionaire supremo and opens up serious negotiations.
If and when he does so, it may or may not be a circuit breaker; it will certainly be a show stopper.
In the meantime, Abbott has little option but to move on to stage four: depression.
If the business and consumer confidence surveys offer any guidance, this appears a possible outcome for the economy.
And if that doesn’t bring the voters to their senses, there is always the final stage: acceptance. But just who will be accepting what, and who will be doing the grieving, we probably won’t know until the next election in 2016.