Like a reversed version of Pavlov’s dogs, mention the words ‘federal budget’ to voters and most times you’re going to get a negative reaction.
Australians have been conditioned to the budget slugging them with more taxes (remember “beer, cigs up”) or cutting spending on the things they expect governments to deliver, or both.
The Turnbull government’s second budget delivered last week was an attempt to break the mould.
And there is some evidence it has worked.
Two polls released on Monday show raising the Medicare levy, to pay for a tsunami of spending called the national disability insurance scheme, and a modest levy on the five biggest banks’ liabilities are popular budget inclusions.
The Newspoll found 39 per cent of voters believed the budget was “fairer” than previous efforts, compared with 36 per cent who disagreed and 25 per cent uncommitted.
While voters haven’t given a tick to the coalition as a whole, they have rewarded Malcolm Turnbull.
The prime minister’s net satisfaction rating – the gap between those satisfied and not satisfied with his performance – has risen from -25 to -20 points.
He’s also increased his lead over Bill Shorten as preferred prime minister 44 points to 31.
The coalition’s challenge is to translate this personal following into a better two-party preferred result, which has been in Labor’s favour now since last September.
Turnbull is also acutely aware he needs to translate voter approval of his key budget measures into parliamentary wins.
“The budget has got a big tick of approval … we want the senators to listen to that, the sentiment that’s being reflected from the public and support all those measures when they come to the Senate,” he told John Laws on 2SM on Monday.
The government has the Senate on board for its bank levy but the Medicare levy – while accepted in principle – will need some tweaking.
Labor, the Greens and most crossbenchers say it should not apply to low-income earners.
If Labor stands its ground, the nine Greens senators and one other crossbencher (the government needs 10 votes) could come to the rescue on a compromise.
More problematic for the government is its school funding package which Labor continues to describe as a $22 billion cut.
Again the Greens – whose primary vote sits on a solid 10 per cent – could provide a way forward.
While there will be some nervous-nellies in the coalition, the budget – as an experiment in shifting the Liberals to the centre – has avoided the groundswell of negativity most notably seen in 2014.
It might be worth their while to reflect on what Pavlov once said: “While you are experimenting, do not remain content with the surface of things.”