The entrance to Tony Abbott’s office has become something of a revolving door.
But as he and Treasurer Joe Hockey seek to balance the budget, pay off Labor’s debt and explain the government’s philosophy, most are leaving the PM’s Parliament House suite empty-handed.
Whether this new frugality – seen most recently in knocking back SPC Ardmona’s request for $25 million to shore up thousands of fruit grower and processing plant jobs – is resonating with voters will be tested this weekend.
Labor candidate Terri Butler appears on track to win Saturday’s by-election in former prime minister Kevin Rudd’s Brisbane seat of Griffith.
The Liberal candidate, Bill Glasson, is up against history.
No government has won a seat held by the opposition at a federal by-election since 1920.
As well, the coalition has been trailing Labor in national opinion polls since late last year and pundits believe the gap is wider in Queensland.
Rudd’s early retirement, while treated with scepticism by some, is unlikely to be much of a factor as his personal vote had been trending down since the high-water mark of 2010 when he had 58.5 per cent of the two-party vote.
With federal parliament returning from the summer break on Tuesday, a retained seat will put a spring in the step of Opposition Leader Bill Shorten and his caucus.
A big win might even give the government pause for thought.
Abbott, having declared Australia as “open for business”, will be forced to defend how jobs can be created by knocking back industry assistance, calling on big business to reduce working conditions, cutting the public service and urging the Fair Work Commission to take a fresh look at penalty rates.
The joint coalition party room meeting on Tuesday is expected to be feisty, with The Nationals seeking a better deal for drought-stricken farmers in Queensland and NSW, and Victorian Liberal MP Sharman Stone having accused the PM of “lying” over SPC Ardmona worker pay and conditions.
There’s also potential for state-based rifts, with Tasmanian coalition MPs – whose state colleagues face a winnable election on March 15 – thrilled with the government’s support for a grant to chocolate giant Cadbury’s but those in SA and Victoria wondering why Holden and SPC got short shrift.
In Abbott’s corner will be Treasurer Joe Hockey, who has embarked on a campaign to explain the government’s strategy to a doubting public.
The public release of an initial report by the commission of audit, which is expected to be handed to the government in the coming week, is one of the keys to any explanation.
Hockey initially indicated the commission’s final report – due in March – would not be released until very close to the May budget, as Labor did with the Henry tax review.
Now the treasurer has signalled an early release to help public understanding of the scale of the government’s task in winding back debt and returning to a budget surplus within a decade.
“You’re not using money that belongs to some oblique body called the government,” Hockey says.
“You’re actually using someone else’s hard-earned money when you use taxpayers’ money. You have to be very careful and prudent with it.”
Shorten has found fertile ground in the Griffith by-election by pointing to Queensland premier Campbell Newman’s own commission of audit which inflicted “pain and hardship” on the state.
Hockey, he says, has deliberately delayed the release of the interim audit report until after the by-election “to make sure any cuts stay hidden” until after the polls close.
Abbott is expected to use parliament to remind voters his government is getting on with core election promises.
The boats are stopping and laws to abolish the carbon and mining taxes have been introduced but are being held up in the Senate by Labor and the Greens.
He will also seek to shift public focus onto indigenous disadvantage with the his first annual Closing the Gap statement, which is likely to be heavy on the need for Aborigines to help themselves get ahead.
Abbott and Hockey’s message of individuals and businesses needing to take responsibility for their own destinies has both political dangers and merits for the coalition.
If voters are not convinced, the government itself might be the next one going out the revolving door.