Treasurer Joe Hockey appeared on ABC’s Q&A this evening to talk about the federal budget, taking questions from an audience at Penrith Panthers rugby league club in western Sydney.
The budget has been the worst-received in 20 years. Recent polls have found three-quarters of voters believe the budget will leave them worse off, and more than half thought the government would not be good for the country. The polls have also shown dramatic falls in electoral support for the Coalition and for Tony Abbott as preferred prime minister.
Tonight’s appearance might not move the dial very much but Hockey did manage to cut through and directly address the concerns of people, including some who were vulnerable and clearly worried – scared, even – about the impact the budget would have on them.
Here are some key takeouts from the show.
Youth unemployment benefits. Young people who lose their job will not be eligible for unemployment benefits for six months under one of the most controversial budget measures. But Hockey was able to explain one of the important elements of this: you get a month’s credit for every year you’ve been in your job: so if you’ve been in a position for two years, you get two months taken off the six-month waiting period. A clear incentive not to quit a job you’re in but perhaps don’t like all that much, unless you have something better to go to.
Chronic illness management. In one of the most striking questions from the audience, Hockey was asked by a man who struggles with a range of physical and mental problems, including cerebral palsy, depression, and anxiety, how he could afford to continue making his regular medical appointments when each one would cost $7. Hockey explained that the man would not be forced to pay it, because he would be under a chronic illness management plan with his GP, and someone in that situation is exempt. (He also pointed out that a family in an emergency situation, such as having three children fall ill at the same time, could have their payments waived by their GP.) Hockey probably could have shown a bit more sympathy to the questioner, however.
Yes, there are tax increases. Hockey was prepared to admit this. Host Tony Jones asked Hockey point-blank about whether the reintroduction of indexing on the fuel excise was a tax increase, and he was happy to surrender to it. But he had just pointed out it will cost, at current prices, around 60c extra to fill up a Camry, and that the 60c will go into paying for new infrastructure.
Yes, there are cuts to the ABC. Hockey imposed an efficiency dividend on the ABC and he was prepared to have it described as a cut – a point of detail some have been raising given the pre-election promise from Abbott of “no cuts to the ABC”. Hockey explained that he couldn’t, “in good conscience”, not proceed with it when funding was being reduced in so many other areas of government spending.
Resolve. Hockey is steely about seeing this through. There were always going to be some painful and emotional questions in this encounter – and they came from pensioners, future university students, young people, tradesmen worried about having to work until they’re 70, the sick, and health workers among them – but the Treasurer took them all face on, and tried to assuage the concerns. He returned regularly to the importance of fixing the budget for the country’s future and his conviction on this was palpable.
An observation on the crowd: it started with quite a bit of jeering and laughter at some of Hockey’s points but after 15 minutes it died down and Hockey had everyone’s attention, with just the gentlest prodding from the host. Many people in the audience were clearly upset and angry about some of the decisions but overall there was decorum, in marked contrast to the feral antics of socialist protesters on the show two weeks ago.
As the polls in Monday’s papers showed, the government has a formidable challenge in trying to convince the electorate that the budget decisions are necessary. It’s clear some people who are among the most marginalised – pensioners and sick people, or families on extremely tight household budgets with sick children – are going to see the impact immediately, and invocations of the national interest or – as with the medical research fund paid for by the GP payments – possibly finding cures for illnesses in decades’ time, will be Arctic comfort.
But no disasters for Hockey, and the crowd wasn’t falling in the aisles at his explanations. It’s a start.
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