Pre-Budget cigar, dance not a good look

Joe Hockey deliverers his post budget address at National Press Club in Canberra yesterday. Photo...
Joe Hockey deliverers his post budget address at National Press Club in Canberra yesterday. Photo Getty
Australian Treasurer Joe Hockey should never have allowed himself to be photographed puffing on a cigar just before he brought down his first Budget.

And dancing in his office to the tune of Best Day of My Life as he was leaving to present it did not help either.

Yesterday morning the nation's first impressions were shaped by cartoons depicting the Treasurer as a cigar-smoking capitalist fatcat in guises ranging from a medieval executioner to the Texas chainsaw murderer and 19th century serial killer Sweeney Todd.

The bulk of the reaction to the Budget was barely kinder. While business has generally welcomed its measures, Hockey has been condemned by health advocates, doctors, nurses, specialists, welfare and community organisations, pensioners, unions, indigenous groups, the housing industry, local government, bus companies ...

Even the big Liberal states of New South Wales, Victoria and Queensland hit out, warning that A$80 billion ($87 billion) in cuts to health and education funding would seriously undermine their hospitals and schools. Queensland Premier Campbell Newman called for urgent national talks on "unfair and unreasonable" cuts.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott has chosen a high-risk path.

In the Senate, Labor, the Greens and mining magnate Clive Palmer's Palmer United Party - which will hold the balance of power there after July - will also vote against key measures.

The Government is already trailing badly in the polls and is expected to do worse now its economic strategy is out in the open. With some key measures not to come into force until after the next election, Abbott is betting that by then voters will have forgotten, or at least forgiven.

But across a broad spectrum of Australia, forces are massing against the Budget. And on the Ten network yesterday morning Abbott came face to face with public anger. He was confronted by 85-year-old Vilma Ward, who described the Prime Minister as a "comedian".

"I have never heard such rubbish in all my life," she said of his justifications. "Why are you picking on me? I challenge you: come out and meet some of the pensioners, they'll tell you a little thing or two."

But Abbott continues to deny he has broken any promises, despite his election pledges of no new or higher taxes, no changes to the Medicare universal healthcare or pensions, and no cuts to state broadcasters ABC and SBS. All were dumped in the Budget.

"I think we have fundamentally kept faith with the Australian people," he told the ABC yesterday morning. "That is the ultimate bond which should exist between citizens and their leaders: can you trust them to do the right thing by their country? And the answer, based on last night's Budget, is 'Yes'."

Opposition leader Bill Shorten said that while tough decisions had to be made, he did not accept that families, schools, the sick and motorists should pay for Abbott's failure to design medium-term structural changes.

Shadow treasurer Chris Bowen described the Budget as an "act of mass deceit".

Greens leader Christine Milne said it was a "divisive and brutal Budget, written in the boardrooms of big business". Her spokeswoman on family and community services added: "Tony Abbott is completely out of touch with people trying to live on payments like Newstart or Youth Allowance. These cuts will fundamentally damage our society."

Abbott's claims that the Government was faced with a budget and debt emergency have been dismissed almost universally. Commonwealth debt is among the lowest in the OECD, the deficit is considered a medium-term problem rather than a crisis, and all three major international credit-rating agencies have given Australia an AAA pass.

Despite this, Abbott has used his claims to attack support and services to the nation's most vulnerable, including Medicare, family benefits, pensioners, the homeless and the young unemployed. Health and medical advocates said the new charges for GPs and diagnostic services were an attack on universal healthcare that would push it beyond the reach of many Australians.

The Australian Medical Association said health cuts would overwhelm public hospitals, with longer waits for patients. The Consumers Health Forum said : "The Government has traded the Medicare card for the credit card."

The Australian Diagnostic Imaging Association said its services would be put further out of reach for those most in need and the Australasian College for Emergency Medicine warned the Medicare changes would disproportionately affect the elderly, low-income earners and those with chronic illnesses.

The Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation described the looming impact on healthcare as "devastating".

The Budget has also been slammed for cuts to family benefits. Labor frontbencher Jenny Macklin said that, combined with GP charges and the fuel excise hike, a single-income family with two children earning less than A$50,000 a year would have almost A$5000 slashed from their income.

The housing industry and the poor will be hit by the end of Labor's national rental affordability scheme to provide cheap housing. Real fears are held for the young unemployed - already facing high jobless rates - by changes that will restrict or deny dole payments.

Australian Council of Social Service chief executive Cassandra Goldie said those who carried the greatest burden from spending cuts in the Budget were those who could least afford it.

St Vincent de Paul Society chief executive John Falzon said the Budget could only be described as "tough but cruel. There are measures in this Budget that rip the guts out of what remains of a fair and egalitarian Australia."

Hockey has made it clear this was just the start, with more cuts to come.

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