Tony Abbott's Australian budget: Brave or foolhardy?

Jon Donnison
Sydney correspondent

  • Published
Australian PM Tony AbbottImage source, AP
Image caption,
Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott is using his first term to push through the controversial cuts

Coming from a government elected just eight months ago on the promise of "no surprises" and no increase in taxes, Australia's first budget under Tony Abbott was either brave or foolhardy.

On the campaign trail last year, the conservative Mr Abbott didn't quite spell it out as memorably as George Bush Senior back in 1988 with his famous "Read my lips. No new taxes" but he wasn't far off.

And the Australian Labor Party has been quick to go for the same line of attack as news leaked out of what was coming up in Treasurer Joe Hockey's budget: a new income tax for those earning more than AU$180,000 (US$170,000; £100,000) a year, tax increases on fuel and a new payment for visiting the doctor.

You can expect more of that from Labor in the coming weeks.

Sweaty palms

In the days before the budget, Mr Hockey had warned that the age of entitlement was over for Australians, before sitting back with a nice Cuban cigar.

He also looked to have sweaty palms when he was asked live on TV why he had been dancing to "This is the best day of my life" in his office just before stepping up to give his budget speech.

Not great when thousands of Australians have learned they'll be losing their jobs.

Image source, AFP
Image caption,
Joe Hockey reportedly danced to "This is the best day of my life" before announcing the budget

This had been billed as a budget of austerity in an effort to reduce Australia's budget deficit.

But the truth is compared to most countries, Australia is doing relatively well.

Australia has a budget deficit of about just 3% of gross domestic product (GDP), while public debt is less than 20% of GDP.

This is not Greece, Portugal or Spain.

You look around you here and it doesn't feel like a country that is struggling.

It isn't.

Image source, AFP
Image caption,
Australians earn more on average than people in the US and the UK

Unemployment is still less than 6%. The median wage for a full time adult is AU$75,000 a year (US$67,500; £43,000)

But many in Australia, and certainly supporters of Mr Abbott, would tell you that in country which has enjoyed a huge mining boom for much of the last decade, there should be a surplus not a deficit.

Wrong-foot the opposition?

In opposition and now in government, Tony Abbott has talked down Australia's economy. Some believe he's talked up an economic crisis, which he can blame on his predecessors, to allow him to carry out cuts to suit his political agenda. Some 16,500 public sector jobs will go under the new budget.

It's also possible that this budget will wrong-foot the opposition. Will Labor be able to criticise the new deficit tax without seeming out of touch with the public mood? The majority of Australians will surely not oppose an increase in income tax for the few who earn more than AU$180,000 a year.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Petrol will be more expensive under the new budget

Will the Green Party really be able to oppose an increase in fuel taxes?

This budget could be a gamble. The tax increases will undoubtedly leave the government open to accusations of going back on their promises. Mr Abbott spent much of his time in opposition lambasting Labor with similar charges.

But the next general election is still more than two years away. If he can successfully reduce the deficit and keep the economy strong, those tax increases may be forgotten come polling day.

If, on the other hand, the economy goes downhill in the coming years, the prime minister will find it increasingly hard to keep blaming Australia's alleged fiscal woes on the previous government.

When it comes to future electoral success it may well turn out to be "the economy, stupid".