Abbott’s Popularity Slumps in Australian Budget Backlash

Prime Minister Tony Abbott defended the budget and said Australians were put “on notice” about spending cuts before the last election, as polls showed his approval ratings and support for the government slumping.

“Doing nothing was not an option,” Abbott told the Australian Broadcasting Corp. “We’re not doing this because we are somehow political sadomasochists. We are doing this because it is absolutely necessary for the long-term welfare of our country.”

Abbott dropped behind opposition Labor party leader Bill Shorten as preferred prime minister for the first time, with 34 percent support to Shorten’s 44 percent, according to a Newspoll taken after the May 13 budget and published in The Australian newspaper today. The coalition government slipped 2 points on a two-party preferred basis to 45 percent, trailing Labor on 55 percent, the poll showed.

The government is cutting programs and imposing new levies, betting a firmer fiscal footing will help win over voters in time for elections due by 2016. The consolidation, which will see 16,500 civil servants lose their jobs, was described as a “headwind” for the economy by the central bank earlier this month.

“The coalition has been prepared to take a hit to its popularity early after being elected, it always knew there would be a political cost in bringing down a hard budget,” said Andrew Hughes, who conducts political-marketing research at the Australian National University in Canberra. “It’s betting it can turn around both the deficit and voters before the next election.”

State Protests

The government has come under fire from state leaders who face reduced health and education funding that wasn’t flagged before the September election. State leaders excluding Western Australia met in Sydney yesterday to discuss their response.

In a communique afterward they said the cuts were “unacceptable,” would cause “immediate and significant impacts on the hospital system” and called for an urgent meeting of the Council of Australian Governments before July 1.

The budget has also been criticized for the burden falling on the poor through changes to pension entitlements, tightening of welfare benefits for the unemployed and the introduction of fees to see doctors. Thousands of people rallied across state capitals yesterday to protest the measures.

Abbott denied in the interview that he was walking back on pre-election pledges.

Keeping Faith

“I believe that we have fundamentally kept faith with the promises that we made,” he told ABC TV’s ‘Insiders’ program. “We did say that we were going to get the budget back under control and I believe that this was what the people of Australia elected us to do. If I’m wrong, they will cast their votes accordingly at the next election.”

The Newspoll was conducted May 16-18 among 1,216 voters with a margin of error of 3 percentage points. Sixty percent of respondents were dissatisfied with Abbott’s performance as prime minister, while 30 percent were satisfied.

A separate Galaxy Poll poll published in News Ltd. newspapers yesterday showed 74 percent believed they would be worse off under the budget. The poll showed just 11 percent of 1,399 people surveyed May 14-16 said they will be better off.

The poll showed support for the major parties was little changed at 53 percent for Labor and 47 percent for the coalition. The Palmer United Party, led by Clive Palmer, which will hold the balance of power in the Senate from July 1, rose to 8 percent from 5.5 percent at the election, and has jumped 2 percentage points in the past two weeks.

Next Election

Abbott played down the prospect of calling an early double-dissolution election, a procedure for breaking deadlocks between the upper and lower houses of parliament, saying he expected the next ballot to be in “the middle of 2016.”

He again denied the coalition had misled voters before the election about its intentions to cut spending, and said nobody had expected a “soft option budget.”

“There is no alternative to getting Labor’s debt and deficit disaster under control,” Abbott told ABC radio today.

He noted that support fell for then Prime Minister John Howard’s coalition government when it introduced a “tough budget” in 1996, that led to a “‘decade of prosperity.’’

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