A subtle shift for Abbott's razor gang

Have you heard the one about the government that spent a nation into deficit? Chances are if you own a television, radio or computer you have. And for that you can thank the federal Coalition.

The Opposition’s pre-campaign campaign message has been simple: the Gillard government can’t be trusted as economic managers and they are fiscally reckless.

“Reckless,” “wasteful” and “irresponsible” are just a small sample of the Coalition’s seemingly infinite thesauri of terms to describe the government’s spending. As a strategy, the Opposition’s implanting of the idea of reckless government spending looks set to carry it into the Lodge in September, but the consequences of their crusade that will loom large over a first-term Abbott government.

So integral to the Opposition strategy was “waste” that following the 2010 election, Tony Abbott appointed Jamie Briggs, to head up a Committee on the Scrutiny of Government Waste.

The work of the committee has been evident in the Coalition message almost from the time of its inception, but it has become even more so in the run up to what is expected to be a bitterly contested, but ultimately one-sided election in September. Rather ironically though, the crowning achievement of the committee is simply its existence.

Controlling the message is a lot easier when you control, or at least influence the discourse. Where Labor cries ‘slash and burn’ and ‘cut to the bone’, the Coalition’s subtler approach has certainly been more effective.

Mr Briggs told Business Spectator the committee was born out of a need to rein in a government “with a spending problem, both in inefficient spending and just the fact that they spend too much.”

But the Coalition’s scrutiny of government waste will come at a price, and may become a double-edged sword. As Opposition policy, blame works fantastically well. In government it is far less becoming.

That is why budget week has seen a slight softening in the Coalition’s rhetoric of blame – not hugely evident, though noticeable. Tony Abbott seems to have woken up to the limitations, or rather, repercussions, of the message. In running such an effective and relentless campaign on government waste, the Opposition are hitching the reputation of a first-term Abbott government to their frugality.

Following the budget Mr Abbott said the government was “booby-trapping” the economy, while former Prime Minister John Howard has said the budget wasn’t so much focused on the future of the economy as much as it was “politically disadvantaging the Opposition”.

This is the razor-thin line the Opposition will need to walk between now and the election.

It’s a tweak to the message, more than an overhaul. An addendum that says the government has been reckless in their spending, but the fiscal environment holds its own challenges as well. And if it works, it will be a factor in ensuring Tony Abbott isn’t one term prime minister. Waste scrutineer in chief Mr Briggs knows that.

“We are in a difficult environment… we are undoubtedly now going to government with a massive debt, we have deficits as far as they eye can see,” he says.

“We don’t believe their claim they can get back to surplus, it’s based on assumptions, which are just fairyland stuff.”

Mr Briggs says there is “no question” a first-term Abbott government will be held to a high bar on spending.

“One of the key priorities is to live within our means, then everything else falls off that. So people will hold us to account if we are elected. Increasingly, you’ll see how we intend to do that.”

Tony Abbott’s budget reply went some way to showing how the Coalition “intends to do that”. More than anything it revealed the Coalition’s trap door for use in case of the party’s own ‘budget emergency’.

“Change won’t come overnight but a Coalition government will do what’s needed to strengthen economic growth and prosperity,” he said.

“The treasurer spent much of his speech complaining that he was the victim of a sudden collapse in government revenue.”

In setting an unprecedented benchmark on spending scrutiny, the Coalition may have created a rod for its back, one that a Labor opposition will be constantly watching for.

The recent tweak suggests they are aware of the risk. With it, Tony Abbott has articulated his desire not just to ride the wave of anti-Labor sentiment into government but to maintain that momentum beyond a first term.