Illustration: Jim Pavlidis
Illustration: Jim Pavlidis.

The blurb for Madonna King's soon-to-be-published book on a treasurer who has just brought down his first budget, Hockey: Not Your Average Joe, begins with the tantalising question: "Will this man be Australia's next prime minister?"

''The son of an immigrant and a Bondi beauty queen, Joe
Hockey is one of Australia's most popular politicians with one of the
nation's toughest jobs," it continues. "So, how did he get there? And
can he deliver?"

It promises to be an absorbing read, but the popularity
claim is open to debate after the worst received budget in a
generation. While the published polls show Tony Abbott has borne the
brunt of voter anger, Hockey has also lost a serious amount of skin.

Polling by UMR research for the Labor Party confirmed Hockey
as one of the country's most popular politicians after the election,
with 51 per cent giving him a positive rating and just 30 per cent a
negative one, for a net score of plus-22. While the ratings held up
well until early this year, Hockey dipped into negative territory the
week before the budget, on the back of leaks suggesting pre-election
promises would be broken, and deteriorated further after this was

Hockey's net rating went from minus-9 one week out, to
minus-14, with 50 per cent of voters disapproving of his performance
and 36 approving. It is still better than Abbott's net rating of
minus-22, but it underscores the breadth and depth of the challenge now
facing the Coalition.

If anything, the second week after the budget has been worse
for the government than the first. Abbott has struggled as the
principal salesman, not least because of his stubborn refusal to
concede the breach of trust. Hockey hasn't fared much better.

A man who is known for his empathy tended to camouflage it while batting away questions on the ABC's Q&A
from those who say they will be hurt by the budget.  To Korey Gunnis,
who complained about the $7 co-payment to the visit the doctor, and
whose conditions included rheumatoid arthritis, cerebral palsy,
osteoporosis, osteoarthritis, chronic asthma, hearing loss and clinical
depression, Hockey simply replied: "Well, from what you said, you
wouldn't be hit by the so-called Medicare co-payment.''

As for whether the payment was a tax, the Treasurer
grudgingly conceded that it was, but only after a tedious exchange with
host Tony Jones. ''You want to call it a tax, you can call it anything
you want,'' Hockey flatly declared. ''You can call it a rabbit. I
don't mind. You can call it whatever you want but, it's a – it's tax.''

When Jones countered that, if it was a tax, it was a broken
promise, Hockey replied: "Well, we didn't say – we didn't say we
wouldn't raise any taxes." The problem here is that there are copious
pre-election quotes from Abbott suggesting the exact opposite. "What
you'll get from us are tax cuts without new taxes," is one of many.

Then came Abbott's exchange with Jon Faine on ABC radio on the reintroduction of indexation of fuel excise.

FAINE: But would you agree that in your budget you have introduced new taxes?

PM: I agree that the fuel excise indexation is restoring an old form of tax.

FAINE: Is it a tax?

PM: Excise is a tax – there is no doubt about that.

FAINE: So, you have introduced a tax?

PM: We have restored something that was there before.

Usually, budgets recede as talking points the week after
they are delivered, but not this one; it continues to provoke intense
interest on talkback radio and in the letters pages of the newspapers.

Beyond the semantics of broken promises is the question of
fairness, with modelling showing that those at the lower end of the
income scale will bear the most pain. Beyond that are the questions
still unanswered, including what impact the deregulation of university
fees will have on those who begin their courses next year. Professor
Bruce Chapman, the architect of the Higher Education Contribution
Scheme, sees the planned changes as more radical that the abolition of
fees by the Whitlam government or the introduction of HECS, saying fees
in some elite areas could go up by a factor of three.

And beyond the detail is the question of whose budget this
is anyway, and what is driving it. Is it Abbott's, or Hockey's? An
introspective Prime Minister acknowledged a level of public confusion
about his own motivations in one interview, observing: "Well,
pre-election, I was supposed to be some kind of old-fashioned DLP
pseudo-socialist. It's only subsequent to the election that I'm
supposedly of a different ilk."

This raises another question that was underscored by the
wildly divergent responses to Abbott's wink, when a pensioner claimed
on talkback radio that she worked on a sex call line because she needed
the money.  Who is the real Tony?

One of the biggest political dangers for the Coalition is
that it has booby-trapped its own budget, ensuring a flow of bad-news
stories until the next election as different harsh measures come into
play and have their impact on, for instance, the young unemployed (from
January next year), or doctors' patients (from July next year), or
university students (from 2016).

Then there is the impact of spending cuts in a host of
areas, including the one that Abbott is determined will define his
prime ministership for all the right reasons: indigenous affairs.

But the biggest danger for Abbott is that he  has, in the
minds of voters, done what Paul Keating did when he reneged on the
L-A-W tax cuts in 1993, or Julia Gillard did when she introduced a
carbon tax after promising there would not be one. That is, he has
breached a commitment that seemed so crystal clear, one that will be
easily recalled at the next election (and incorporated in ALP ads).

As the pressure is applied in the coming weeks and months,
the commitment of both Abbott and Hockey to their budget, and to each
other, will be tested on multiple fronts: by the special pleading of
sectional interests; the exposure of further inequities or unintended
consequences; the need to find common ground with a new Senate from July
1; and the response of aggrieved state premiers.

If Abbott and Hockey prevail, voters will come to see their
budget as a watershed in Australian history for all the right reasons.
If they fail, the Coalition could end up carrying not one fatally
wounded leader, but two.

Michael Gordon is political editor of The Age.