Joe Hockey
Joe Hockey Lauren Reed

COMMENT: Hockey has a big job in selling tough medicine

TREASURER Joe Hockey will today begin again making the case for long-term, structural budget reforms.

But that case will be undermined if the government does not set about addressing a key problem: its claims to legitimacy.

The Intergenerational Report to be released this afternoon will lay out the state of play for the government's budget for the next 40 years.

Information out already shows a surplus is unlikely over that period, even if the government's agenda is taken on.

While the case for structural budget reform has repeatedly been made by successive Treasury secretary and leading economists, oppositions of both political persuasions have fought against the case.

Mr Hockey came to the Treasurer's office promising an "end to the age of entitlement", and his first budget made some attempts at ending those great expectations.

But it was widely seen as a "too much too soon" approach to rectifying the budget situation.

That budget has done untold damage to the government's standing in the community, and as late as this week, the government was still walking away from one of its most contentious budget measures - the much-maligned GP co-payment.

The conflicting pledges of returning the budget to surplus and Prime Minister Tony Abbott's election-eve promises of no cuts to health, education and a host of other portfolios have eroded the government's legitimacy in the eyes of many voters.

It is the question of legitimacy that the government, still in recovery mode after its first motion to spill the Liberal Party leadership, should be seeking to rectify.

Whether it succeeds will come down to both the Prime Minister's performance over coming months, and possibly more importantly, the shape of the government's second budget.

While definitions of legitimacy vary, United Kingdom political thinker and former advisor to Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, Geoff Mulgan, wrote that a government's claims to legitimacy could be measured in four key areas.

In his 2006 book Good and Bad Power, Mulgan wrote that the four "claims to legitimacy" could be defined as "protection, welfare, justice and truth".

"At a more profound level the four correspond with aspects of human nature: the drive for survival; the drive for happiness; the deep-seated dispositions towards justice and fairness (and resentment of free-riders, exploiters and bullies); and the apparently universal drive to learn," he wrote.

If the government's performance about halfway through its first term was measured against this metric; protection - from national security to border control - would be the key area where the government has a valid claim to legitimacy.

The government's positions on protection have, if the polls are to be believed, been the main area where most Australians believe it is doing the right thing.

But it could be seen as failing on the other areas Mulgan floated.

The Coalition must govern not just as protector, but as an impartial enforcer of justice, fairness, and truth if its legitimacy is to be accepted.

On welfare, the government proposed a raft of measures including forcing young Australians to face a six month wait to get Newstart payments if they cannot get and keep a job, a proposal it is now showing signs of walking away from.

On justice, the performance has been mixed - from cuts to legal aid funding to the widely supported stance on the future of Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukamaran.

On truth, perhaps the most important factor of the four in the eyes of voters disenchanted with question-evading politicians, the government's "broken promises" have done much damage.

The key problem with the government's first budget was the wide perception, and reality (according to Treasury modelling revealed last year by Fairfax Media), that it was not fair.

Despite Australian society not being as equal as many may desire, the perception of having a "fair go" is essential to the nation's dear-held ideals. It is why so many seek a better life, and refuge, in this nation.

The concept of a fair go is essential to the legitimacy of any Australian government, and if its agenda is not fair, and seen to be so, the government's claims to legitimacy will continue to erode.

As United States political thinker Francis Fukuyama wrote in his expansive work Political Order and Political Decay: "Legitimacy represents a broadly shared perception that certain social arrangement are just."

It is this justice, this fairness, the public will be searching for - moves towards structural budget reform must not just be for the good for one demographic or particular industry - but for the good of all.

When measures appear not to be fair, the government must explain why they are necessary.

As Mr Abbott told the nation at his swearing in as Prime Minister about 18 months ago: "We will be a problem-solving government based on values, not ideology. We will strive to govern for all Australians, including those who didn't vote for us."

The country is waiting for a government that delivers on such lofty ideals.

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