On the Friday evening after each federal budget senior Liberal ministers and adjoining local MPs, Bruce Billson and Greg Hunt, hold an annual fundraising dinner. The Gunnamatta Room at Victoria’s Mornington Racecourse echoes to the sounds of partying Liberal faithful, corporate donors and a smattering of federal and state Liberal MPs and poohbahs.
The big drawcard at these shindigs is PM Tony Abbott and, as my hedonists’ heaven of Patterson Lakes is up the road, I’ve attended the last couple. Between them they are a leitmotiv of the Abbott government’s fortunes.
Last years’ event was booked out in advance of the politically-disastrous 2014 budget. But come the night, that budget had been out for three days, and the political horror was sinking in. The ill-fated $7 GP co-payment was not only the centrepiece of political and media attacks; for many in the Gunnamatta Room of a certain age, there was disbelief and even anger at their own Coalition government.
Into this not-so-friendly crowd came the PM, with high-profile wingwoman Peta Credlin at hand. Abbott was rousingly introduced by the ever-effervescent Billson, who described him as a Great Helmsman guiding the ship of state through dangerous seas – forgetting the moniker was originally Mao Tse-Tung’s. Abbott himself launched into an earnest defence of his first budget, repeating Joe Hockey’s throwaway line of ‘lifters not leaners’. He hoped the electorate would respect the government’s toughness.
Whether buggered after a bloody tough week, or shell-shocked by the opprobrium heaped on the government and himself since budget night, Abbott merely went through the motions. His tone was as flat as the champagne. He sounded defiant yet tentative. His body language was defensive. And when he finished, the applause was as perfunctory as his speech. The Gunnamatta Room crowd certainly wasn’t celebrating the Coalition being back in charge after six years of Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard. Abbott left without fanfare shortly after, and the party soon petered out: 2014’s Gunnamatta Room extravaganza flopped miserably.
Fast forward a year. Abbott’s government has been flayed by a populist, opportunistic and unrepentant Labor opposition and mostly hostile media. Intransigent senators block what they don’t like, national interest be damned. The government’s own policy and political management has done Inspector Clouseau proud, culminating in January’s Prince Philip knighthood fiasco and Abbott’s ‘near-death experience’. Heck, Bill ‘Zinger’ Shorten even looked a Prime Minister-in-Waiting as his opponents did his dirty work for him.
But Abbott and his government have bounced back. After February’s near-death experience, he knows this budget is do-or-die for his prime ministership, his reputation and his legacy. And he’s not going to die wondering. The talk’s no longer of lifters and leaners. Now the Coalition is marching to the beat of a new, upbeat budget mantra: ‘have a go’. Gone is the budget emergency. Gone are the nasty surprises dropped on an unsuspecting public without warning or patient explanation. Gone is the sense of a government unsure and at war with itself, having handed control of its agenda and its fate to its political enemies and vested interests.Instead there’s a measured, strategic and politically-savvy budget narrative. Having improved steadily since February, the latest Newspoll and Ipsos numbers show the budget’s put Abbott and the Coalition firmly back in the game. Billson’s $5.5 billion package of tax cuts and asset write-offs for ‘Tony’s tradies’ not only appeals to Liberal values, but to tradesmen, shopkeepers and café owners in shaky marginals. The government’s sensible if modest structural reforms of aged pension eligibility and childcare subsidies (with, as always, the childless and infertile doing the heavy taxpaying to support fecund families) had the ground tilled exceedingly well in advance by Abbott’s increasingly heir apparent, Social Services minister and budget explainer-in-chief Scott Morrison. Except for a blip over double-dipped government and employer paid parental leave schemes thanks to over-egged rhetoric from Morrison and Hockey, this budget so far is a political success. So much so that Shorten in response was forced to offer not only qualified support for key government measures but – quelle horreur! – policy of his own. Alas, all Labor’s unfunded small business tax cuts, and HECS write-offs for nerdy boffins, did was prove that whatever deficit the Coalition runs, Labor’s would be oh, so much larger. Nice one Bill.
Compared to his first attempt, however, Abbott’s high-spending but reform-light budget is a policy disappointment. A Coalition government blithely spending more than one GDP dollar in every four as far as the eye can see offends all those who think smaller government and lower taxes is what Coalition governments are for. But at least it gives them a fighting chance of re-election, and offers hope that reform courage is rediscovered in a second term.
Which brings us back to the Gunnamatta Room. This year’s event couldn’t have been more different to the last. The audience was smaller but, as Abbott told me afterwards, ‘there was a good feel in the room’. He understated it. Instead of shocked restraint there was excitement, enthusiasm, exuberance. He and his support acts were cheered, the applause warm, long and sustained. Even Peta Credlin got a cheer: clearly, last year’s disillusioned and angry core supporters now are content. Abbott himself was on fire. Passionate, evangelistic and heartfelt, he spoke entirely off-the-cuff about why this budget matters so much to him. ‘We can’t help those who need a fair go if the rest of us don’t have a go!’ he cried. He believed in himself, and all present believed in him. It was a speech that deserves to go viral on YouTube to show the formidable campaigning Abbott that the Canberra press gallery doesn’t want you to see.
Indeed, the Gunnamatta Room’s Tony Abbott of 2015 couldn’t have been more different from last year’s. The polls indicate swinging voters share the party faithful’s rediscovered enthusiasm. Having found unexpected political redemption after 2014’s disasters, it’s up to Abbott to make the most of his second chance as the next election looms.
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