The Top Tucker Takeaway near my Melbourne suburban office just changed owners, and the other day I ordered a large hot chocolate and was charged $5. Previously the price was $4, so I queried the sudden 25 per cent increase.
The new Top Tucker top banana shot a Julie Bishop death stare. ‘Because I can,’ she replied. Having in those three words alienated a loyal customer, only then did she explain about the rising cost of milk, rent and whatever. Her irritated explanation was reasoned and quite plausible. But the damage was done: my loyalty to the Top Tucker vanished in an instant.
The proprietress defended her hot choccie pricing in much the same way as Tony Abbott’s government defended its first budget. Like her, Abbott and Treasurer Joe Hockey essentially declared that they’re doing things because they can, even though what they delivered on budget night varied significantly from what was expected before last September’s election.
Only after the initial shock did the government really get going in making its case. But by then the Prime Minister, Treasurer and other key ministers were overwhelmed by a vicious backlash going far beyond the Abbott-hating redoubts of the ABC, the Age and the Sydney Morning Herald.
Even in the hedonistic paradise of Melbourne’s Patterson Lakes where I live, where conspicuous consumption reigns and good taste applies mostly to beer, people who normally don’t give a proverbial about politics are asking ‘How the f— is a medical research fund going to help me when I’m six hours in casualty with a sick kid?’ The government’s line, that investing in medical research might one day lead to said kid being cured of cancer, merely raises howls of derisive laughter.
Yet some aspects of the budget don’t get short shrift from Patto’s dominant cashed-up tradie demographic. They think requiring people to do more for themselves and pay their own way is not a bad thing at all. The $7 GP minimum co-payment, and tightening access to Newstart and welfare, are popular in a community dominated by tradesmen and small and medium business owners who work long and hard to earn their canal-fronting palazzi, European cars and other statements of their material success. There are no job snobs in Patto, only people willing to work who see recourse to public benefits as an admission of personal failure.
But what should particularly hearten Abbott, Hockey and jittery Coalition MPs is that in Patto the government’s decision to break its ‘no surprises’ pledge to apply tough fiscal medicine is really seen as a good thing. Patto residents ridicule opposition leader Bill Shorten and Labor’s populist budget rage as brazen effrontery after the disastrous Rudd-Gillard-Rudd years.
Inner-city elites sneer at them, but successful tradies understand better than most that what the Abbott government inherited from Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard was a fiscal basket case. They appreciate that the healthy surplus built up by John Howard and Peter Costello was, to use Patto patois, pissed up against the wall by Rudd, Gillard and their hapless henchman, Wayne Swan. As small businessmen and women, they very much understand that manageable debt helps businesses grow, but debt getting out of hand destroys not only businesses, but marriages, friendships and even health. They certainly understand that governments, like businesses, sometimes need to sell off bankable assets, let go staff and close outlets and services that are redundant or unprofitable.
Above all, they understand the difference between a quote and a contract.
Tradies are engaged on the basis of estimates of the scope and cost of the work to be undertaken. An experienced builder, plumber, carpenter or electrician will inspect the site, consider the customer’s budget and specifications, recommend on the products and materials best suited to meet these and quote on the cost. An honest tradesman does this to the best of his ability and on the facts available.
If unexpected factors are encountered after work commences, like unseasonally bad weather, the additional costs of addressing them need to be factored in. Only a foolish tradesman sticks to his estimate no matter the learned reality of the job. In Tradie World, cost variations are an everyday fact of life.
Surely this principle applies to a party newly winning government. Their election promises are like a Patto tradie’s quote: done on a best endeavours basis, using whatever publicly available information is available about the state of the national books. A first budget is a hard review of the original estimate with the benefit of hands-on knowledge about the scale, scope and true cost of the job. Most tradies try to honour the original quote as best they can. If this subsequently becomes impractical, the customer is entitled to an honest explanation of why recommended adjustments are unavoidable, and be satisfied that the adjusted price is affordable and fair. If the tradesman is frank and doesn’t gild the lily, more often than not the client will accept the varied quote.
Patto’s political lesson for Abbott and Hockey is clear. Instead of sounding like my dismissive takeaway proprietress, they should have said that, having quoted in good faith for the nation’s renovation business, the pre-election quote didn’t fully reflect the shoddiness of the work done by the sacked builders. That quote needed varying in the light of better understanding of the true financial picture, and the budget was that variation. To get its revised quote accepted, however, the government must negotiate if key reforms like GP co-payments are to be passed by its unpredictable customers in the Senate PUP kennel — even if it thinks those customers are capricious and unreasonable.
Unlike cautious Patto tradies, the Coalition made too many unnecessary pre-election commitments to keep this and not cut that. Now it is struggling to sell its varied budgetary quote, because key changes came from nowhere and its political customers are unimpressed. But it’s not yet too late if, like a good tradesman, it acknowledges its mistakes and makes a more effective policy and political case.
I may return to the Top Tucker Takeaway, because its tucker is indeed top. And if Abbott thinks more like Tony the Tradie, he likewise stands a good chance of winning back disillusioned voters through the quality of his prime ministerial workmanship.
Terry Barnes is a former senior ministerial adviser to Tony Abbott.
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