Desperate Abbott struggles to maintain control

Desperate Abbott struggles to maintain control

Of the many words that could describe Tony Abbott and his Government, “bumbling”, “incoherent” and “embattled” readily spring to mind. Yet in recent days, the most apt description of all would have to be “desperate”.

Like a cat struggling to avoid a bath, Tony Abbott has been scrabbling for purchase; desperately latching on to anything within reach in the hope of escaping his dire situation.

Abbott knows he’s in for a beating at the Canning by-election in a few weeks. Voters are likely to accept Labor’s invitation to send the PM a message, knowing there’s no associated risk of throwing out the Government altogether.

With the vote said to be close at the commencement of the by-election campaign, and the Liberal candidate placed sixth on the ballot paper, there’s a chance Labor may even win the seat. But whatever the magnitude of the final swing against the Government – and there will be one – Abbott’s opponents will ensure the PM is held responsible for the outcome.

Abbott could almost be forgiven at this point for wondering what on earth he has to do to win favour with Australian voters. He repudiated the unpopular 2014 federal budget and followed it up with an expensive do-no-harm budget in 2015. He stopped the boats (arriving), and demonised asylum seekers enough to get majority community support for offshore detention.

And then there’s the succession of flag-based announcements that he made to heighten voter awareness of the terrorist threat the Government is apparently protecting them from.

And yet voters have not responded according to plan, consistently indicating to opinion pollsters that they remain steadfastly ungrateful for the PM’s beneficence.

Similarly, Government parliamentarians are not feeling particularly grateful, especially those defending marginal seats. Coalition MPs are becoming increasingly anxious about the ineffectiveness of the “budget, boats and terrorism” strategy. And since the non-leadership spill in February, the Prime Minister has in turn become increasingly anxious about their anxiety.

The Canning by-election threatens to bring this simmering restiveness to a boil.

Abbott is said to have once told country independent MP Tony Windsor that he’d do anything to become PM, other than sell his arse. Yet now that he’s Prime Minister, it appears Abbott will do anything to save his arse.

That apparently includes bombing Syria, because there’s nothing like a bit of military action to warm the hearts of voters. The emergence of news that the PM’s office actually asked Washington to ask us to join the air raids, and that Australia’s involvement would add little to the exercise, confirms this latest sortie in Abbott’s war on terrorism is little more than a desperate grab for patriotic votes.

The involvement of Border Force officers in last week’s aborted Operation Fortitude could easily be seen in the same vein, despite the PM’s protestations of “nope, nope, nope” when asked if he knew about the exercise, and Minister Dutton’s denial that he or his office had sighted the offending media release.

If the initiative had proceeded, the working and middle class voters of Canning may well have approved of visa-rorters being summarily dealt with by jackbooted customs officers.

Despite beating the drums of war in the air over Syria, the PM is also waving cash under the noses of voters just in case the flags don’t work. Or at least the Treasurer is, with Joe Hockey raising the prospect of tax cuts, apparently coincidentally with the by-election.

Troublesome details, such as how the tax cuts will be funded, will not be known before the Canning poll, which renders Hockey’s proposal another likely act of last resort, simply aimed at winning over voters.

Regrettably for Hockey, once the Canning outcome is known and Government MPs call for retribution, it appears the PM is prepared to put even the Treasurer’s job on the line to save his own.

In a last ditch attempt to head off any leadership manoeuvring by Malcolm Turnbull or Julie Bishop in the lead up to the Canning decision, the PM’s office leaked a suggestion to the media that the ministry could be reshuffled at the end of the year. This tactic was aimed at dousing talk of another spill, hopefully due to ambitious MPs assuming they had a better chance of promotion under Abbott than his competitors.

According to media reports, the PM is considering giving the Treasury portfolio to Scott Morrison, who is increasingly seen as the heir apparent by the dominant conservative faction in the Liberal Party. The idea of dumping Hockey for Morrison was leaked to the media on Friday, and the news was followed by a hatchet job on the Treasurer on Sunday in the PM’s favourite tabloid.

If Morrison were to accept the role, he would essentially be siding with Abbott and no longer available to team up with Turnbull or Bishop in any leadership contest. Conservative Liberals would stick with Abbott and Morrison, ensuring that neither Turnbull nor Bishop had enough votes to prevail.

To gauge how such a change would go down with voters, the prospect of Hockey being dumped for Morrison has been leaked again to the media today, this time with a suggestion that a double dissolution election could be held in March. This move is the political equivalent of Abbott putting all his money on black; it’s a high stakes gamble by a luckless man who has everything to lose.

If he can survive the aftermath of the Canning by-election, the PM has just over a year until he faces the voters again. Even though the latest date on which the federal election can be held is January 14, 2017, the deadline is mid-December in a practical sense because elections are never held during the summer holidays.

Poorly polling governments such as this one have been known to turn their fates around in the final 12 months of an electoral term. But looking at the PM’s track record to date, it is difficult to say whether he has the political smarts or capacity to do so.

The increasingly desperate ploys being used by Abbott only reinforce that perception. The more he clutches desperately at ways to bring voters back to the Government, the more Abbott appears unfit to lead it.

Abbott’s mind should be on Canning, not Cape York

Abbott’s mind should be on Canning, not Cape York

This week, the Prime Minister will visit a number of remote Indigenous communities in northern Australia. According to media reports, the PM’s entourage will include cabinet and junior ministers as well as senior departmental officials.

No doubt a small battalion of support staff will be there as well, if only to marshal the journalists brought along to document the PM’s annual outreach campaign.

If this year’s week in the north is anything like the last one, it will be hard to identify what benefit, if any, this travelling road show brings to the local communities that feature as backdrops for prime ministerial pic-facs.

As Fairfax journalist Michael Gordon wrote last week, there has been little progress on Indigenous issues since the PM last went bush in 2014. Instead, Indigenous Australia has experienced:

…budget cuts, a growing shift away from Indigenous to mainstream organisations for service delivery, a Closing the Gap report card showing no progress in some areas and regression in others, and some ill-chosen remarks about “lifestyle choices” that were seen as provocative and utterly ill-informed.

There is of course the matter of constitutional recognition, but at times Abbott has vacillated on the question, most likely under pressure from conservatives in the Liberal Party.

There is little reason to doubt the PM’s good intentions when it comes to improving the lives of Indigenous Australians; he has been an advocate for change since visiting remote Indigenous communities as health minister during the Howard years.

Abbott’s visit to the grave of Eddie Mabo this week also suggests he is determined to be more than just another white fella PM who passes through before the wet season commences.

But there is also no denying the PM’s off-track tour conveniently gives him a reason to avoid campaigning in Western Australia for the Canning by-election.

Since the 2013 federal election, the PM and his Government have squandered a handsome electoral lead in the state, which no doubt contributed to the decision by WA MPs Luke Simpkins and, ironically, the former member for Canning, Don Randall to call the leadership spill vote against Abbott in February.

And now, at the commencement of the by-election campaign following Randall’s death, the new Liberal candidate for Canning faces a 10 per cent swing against him (or more accurately his party). If this threatened backlash persists until polling day, it could potentially wipe out Randall’s previously strong margin of 11.8 per cent. And if the Greens continue to grow their vote in the west, their preferences could even push Labor over the line, making life for PM Abbott considerably more difficult.

This makes Abbott’s decision to go north this week even more curious.

Everything the Government does in a communication sense over the next four weeks should be targeted at the voters of Canning. This is because the convergence of mainstream media paired with the adoption of social media ensures everything said and done on the east coast is transmitted to the west coast in real time.

So even if the PM thought it wise to physically stay distant from the Canning campaign (other than to appear at the launch), his advocacy of Indigenous issues this week simply muddies the campaign narrative.

Like most Australians, the voters of Canning are more interested in jobs than they are about constitutional recognition. A recent poll by the Australian National University found that 82 per cent of Australians supported removing clauses from the constitution that “discriminate on the basis of race”.

But when asked to nominate the two most important problems facing Australia today, only 1 per cent of respondents nominated Indigenous affairs. The top three issues were the economy/jobs, immigration and terrorism.

The Canning by-election is all about jobs, and Labor has wasted no time in staking out the “jobs” territory. This is somewhat ironic given “jobs and growth” is meant to be the Prime Minister’s latest mantra; at least it is according to twice-leaked Coalition talking points last week.

And it certainly seems to be the case given the numerous press conferences (read: picture opportunities) held by Abbott in past days, during which he apparently focused on jobs while variously climbing a fence, looking determinedly at cattle, surveying a shipyard, posing with cafe staff wearing pink uniforms, and looking at machinery while wearing a hard hat.

So if “jobs and growth” is the Coalition’s overarching theme at the moment, and if “jobs and growth” are so important in Canning, it is simply poor communication strategy for the Prime Minister to be on the opposite side of the country talking about Indigenous health, education and constitutional recognition.

Yes, it is important for Abbott to fulfil his commitment as the “Prime Minister for Indigenous Australians”. But given his need to do well in Canning – not to mention improve the Government’s poll standing more broadly – Abbott’s boys’ own adventure in Cape York seems like self-indulgence at a time when discipline in communication is particularly needed.

Royal commission stand-off could define the election

Royal commission stand-off could define the election

If there’s certainty about anything that will happen this week in politics, it’s that the Labor Opposition will do everything it can to bring down the royal commission into union corruption. Labor knows that doing so will seriously disrupt the Government’s re-election strategy.

The royal commission has always served a dual purpose for the Government. Over the short term, it’s been a mechanism for digging into the union pasts of Labor leaders in the hopes of tainting Julia Gillard’s legacy and crippling Bill Shorten’s future.

But over the longer term, the royal commission was intended to create voter distrust for the union movement – and by extension, Labor – by highlighting the worst behaviour of union officials.

The Government intended to exploit the resulting antipathy for unions by drawing Labor into a battle over laws meant to curtail union power. Accordingly, a bill to re-establish the Australian Building and Construction Commission is due to be debated in the Senate today.

Also to be debated today is the re-introduced bill aiming to establish a Registered Organisations Commission, which would have the power to “supervise” the conduct of employer organisations and unions, including the use of coercive investigatory powers and criminal penalties. Once Labor and the Greens combined to defeat this bill, which they can with the support of three other Senators, the Government would then have a double dissolution trigger.

At least that was the plan: the momentum created by the mounting evidence of union rorts at the royal commission, paired with Labor’s protection of unions by defeating the ABCC and ROC bills, theoretically would have created a favourable anti-union re-election climate for the Government either at the end of this year or in early 2016.

Labor knows this momentum can be arrested by killing off the royal commission.

It won’t be enough to protest about the perceived or real conflict of interest that has arisen from Dyson Heydon’s foolish acceptance of an invitation to speak at a Liberal Party function, or even to boycott the commission’s proceedings.

If the inquiry continues to publicly gather evidence of union thuggerydodgy deals and rorts, then the vast majority of disengaged voters will more likely dismiss complaints about the royal commissioner’s bias.

Only by bringing the royal commission to an early end will Labor have any chance of repairing the damage already done to the party – and its leader – through guilt by association with the dark element that patently exists within the labour movement.

According to another Drum columnist, Michael Bradley, Heydon’s removal would bring the inquiry to an end. But it is highly unlikely Tony Abbott will sack Heydon or impose on him to stand down – if reports are correct that the royal commissioner was his personal appointment, the PM can hardly afford to admit to another failed captain’s pick.

And given the royal commission has unearthed actual evidence of less than desirable union practices, it’s unlikely voters will raise arms against Heydon in the same way they felt compelled to do over the excesses of the former speaker, Bronwyn Bishop.

However, if Labor does manage to bring down Heydon and thereby the royal commission, the Government will have to rewrite this re-election strategy.

At least one commentator has pointed out that John Howard faced dire opinion poll ratings like those currently being experienced by Abbott, but that Howard turned this around with an ambitious reform agenda that led to re-election (albeit with less than an outright majority of the vote).

Yet there is nothing to suggest Abbott or his Government have the political nous required to devise, let alone run, an election campaign based on serious reform.

Treasurer Joe Hockey’s efforts to end our “entitlement” mentality have failed, thanks to an ill-judged first horror budget, an indulgent second magic pudding budget, and footage of stogies being puffed and helicopters landing on golf courses.

Parallel efforts to get the premiers to take the running (and grief) on increasing John Howard’s GST have been somewhat more successful, but the case for an increase (to pay for schools and hospitals) is much less electorally compelling than the original argument for the tax’s introduction (which included the scrapping of several other taxes and a tax cut for everyone earning up to $60,000).

Then there is the business community’s most favoured reform, workplace relations, which the PM will not even contemplate for fear of raising the ghost of WorkChoices.

Without a reform agenda, the Government is left with national security and asylum seekers – two sides of the same coin as far as the Prime Minister is concerned – on which to fight the next election. However, Labor’s recent decision not to rule out boat turn-backs makes it more difficult for the Government to argue it’s tougher on asylum seekers than the Opposition.

Whatever policies end up dominating the next 12 months and the next federal election campaign, trust and competence will be the underlying themes. This will not be so much a matter of “who do you trust to tell the truth?”, because no one expects politicians to be honest, but “who do you trust to run the country?”. This trust will be dependent on the extent to which voters are convinced the competing parties have cohesive, competent teams with economically responsible but fair policies.

Labor may manage to kill off the royal commission and neutralise public concern about its association with unions, but it will still have to contend with its Rudd-Gillard past and all that entails.

However, an even more difficult challenge faces Abbott and his team. The Coalition Government has proven to be neither cohesive nor competent over the past two years, and seemingly incapable of balancing economic soundness with the public good. It is on this that the Government will be judged on election day, and no amount of union corruption will spare it from that scrutiny.

The five key developments of the winter break

The six-week parliamentary winter break was meant to be an opportunity for MPs to recharge their batteries and reconnect with their electorates after the Parliament’s budget session. Yet it proved to be much more than that.

As the Parliament today witnesses the ascension of the fourth Speaker in four years, the Prime Minster and his opposition counterpart may well be contemplating the recent events that brought them to that moment.

Five developments in particular have shaped the political landscape that now stretches before them to the next federal election.

Community outrage has been unleashed

The Government’s plan for the recess was simple enough – continue selling the budget, modestly build the case for tax and IR reform, and stand by while Opposition Leader Bill Shorten looked dodgy at the union royal commission and his party squabbled at the ALP National Conference.

Yet the Prime Minister diverged from the plan, indulging in a culture war against Q&A and taking an inordinate amount of time to deal with the entitlements furore that enveloped the previous speaker, Bronwyn Bishop.

While the PM may now regret having taken so long to deal with Bishop, Shorten would also be assessing the wisdom of his chief parliamentary tactician, Tony Burke, wading into the matter. Perhaps it was only a matter of time until the media started unearthing the travel expense excesses of Labor MPs, but Burke made himself a target by trying to claim the moral high ground.

In drawing the media’s attention to himself, and thereby Labor, Burke has exacerbated voter disgust over the privileged lifestyle enjoyed and exploited by major party MPs. This outrage in turn has engendered a form of grassroots community activism, aided by online tools that can track and analyse MPs’ travel expenses, that should be the envy of formalised activist groups.

The Government and Opposition will be hoping that the colour and movement of a parliamentary session will distract the media from further investigations, and that the PM’s review of parliamentary travel entitlements will take the heat out of the issue. But there is no putting this genie back in the bottle, and all MPs should expect voters in their electorates to make travel entitlements an election issue.

Reform momentum is lost

Aside from the loss of its speaker, the greatest damage experienced by the Government over the break was its inability to sustain momentum for tax and IR reform. In both cases, PM Abbott had been trying to emulate the strategy used by John Howard to introduce the GST, creating a sense of inevitability in public discourse about the need for the reform. Last month’s love-in with the state and territory government leaders was meant to pave the way for a broader discussion on the GST, while a recent report from the Productivity Commission was intended to soften up voters on the need for workplace relations reform.

However, both issues were subsequently crowded out of the media – tax reform by the ALP National Conference, and IR reform by the ongoing entitlements saga – leaving them with as much momentum as a rusted hulk.

The Government will make attempts in the coming weeks to rekindle interest in the reforms, but it will likely require more time than is left to the next election to establish the necessary voter trust and acceptance.

IR battleground looms

Nevertheless, industrial relations will likely be one of the key issues over which the upcoming election is fought. The Government plans this week to bring on debate of its proposed legislation to re-establish the Australian Building and Construction Commission, while another bill will be re-introduced to establish an independent watchdog, the Registered Organisations Commission, which essentially is another union watchdog.

If the Senate rejects the latter bill, which is likely, the Government will have another double dissolution trigger, but the first from the current Senate. This would be important if the PM asked the Governor-General to grant a DD election. If Abbott concludes that he must hold an election before the next budget, then a DD is the best option for doing so.

Events during the winter break show the major parties relish the chance to fight an election on IR; the Government hopes the union royal commission has sufficiently tarnished Shorten and the labour movement, while the unions re-asserted their dominance at the ALP National Conference and are now finding new relevance with the impending fight on penalty rates.

The battle Abbott doesn’t want

There is, however, a different battle to which the PM will need to give his earliest attention now that Parliament has resumed. The cross-party bill to legalise gay marriage will be tabled by Liberal MP Warren Entsch*, with the attendant expectation that a decision will be made in the Liberal party room on whether MPs will be granted a free vote on the matter.

It’s possible a free vote would get up in the Liberal party room, but unlikely if the PM took the unusual but not unprecedented step of letting the Coalition party room decide instead. The failure to secure a free vote for Liberal MPs would end any chance of the cross-party bill being passed.

Meantime, Shorten, having managed at the National Conference to avert a binding vote on gay marriage being imposed on Labor MPs (with a bit of help from the labour movement), will keep the pressure on Abbott to let Liberal MPs decide. Debate on his marriage equality bill will continue on Tuesday.

Too late for a leadership change

The final key development to emerge over the winter break was opinion poll confirmation that voters are seriously unimpressed with the major parties’ leadership offerings. Neither Abbott nor Shorten are preferred by a majority of their own party supporters let alone the broader voting public.

However, both men can at least take comfort from the fact that none of the leadership contenders are stand-out competitors, and time is fast running out for a leadership change. In fact, it could be argued that time has already run out to sell a new leader to the voting public – and the PM was well aware of this timing constraint when he asked back in February for six months to prove himself.

Bishop has resigned, but the entitlements war isn’t over

Bishop has resigned, but the entitlements war isn’t over

And so it took three weeks – arguably two-and-a-half weeks longer than it should have – for the Prime Minister to deal with the excesses of his close friend and personal choice for Speaker, Bronwyn Bishop.

After a succession of Bishop’s extravagant and barely-legitimate travel claims were exposed in the media, the Government taking a hit in the opinion polls, and finally being likened to her chauffer in a weekend tabloid, Tony Abbott prevailed yesterday on the Speaker to resign. Which she promptly did.

Yet the PM was at pains to explain the tricksy entitlement system was in fact to blame for Bishop’s profligacy, claiming “the problem is not any particular individual” but “the entitlement system more generally”. Accordingly, the PM announced a review to produce a new entitlements system that is “simple, effective and clear”.

The review is undoubtedly a sop for outraged voters, but it will also provide cover between now and the election for any other MPs whose use of entitlements in dodgy-looking ways may arise in the days and weeks to come. Any such instances will be said to have been pre-emptively dealt with by the review, heading off the need for any disciplinary action or the vengeful sparking of a mutually destructive arms race.

The latter point is particularly important because no side of politics is blemish-free when it comes to the creative use of entitlements.

Perhaps the most common rort is to schedule an official commitment with a party or private event, so that the taxpayer foots any associated travel and accommodation bill.

This was likely the case when 16 Government frontbenchers happened to be in Melbourne for official business around the same time as a major Liberal fundraising event. And when former PM Julia Gillard used a RAAF jet to travel to Byron Bay to inspect roadworks the morning after she attended the wedding of two staffers.

There’s also the totally legitimate but politically questionable practice of MPs using their away from home allowance to pay the mortgage of a second residence in Canberra. The major parties even push the boundaries of MP entitlements at election time, leaving the official launch of the campaign until as close to polling day as possible, because at this point the taxpayer stops footing their travel and accommodation costs.

Not that any of this is news – or at least it should not be. The Australian National Audit Office’s most recent examination of parliamentary entitlements, published in June this year, found that even though there had been numerous reviews of the system, it was “difficult to understand and manage” because of its complexity and because there are no clear definitions of terms such as “parliamentary business”, “electorate business” and “official business”.

This vagueness helped former speaker Peter Slipper successfully appeal against his conviction for misusing travel entitlements.

The audit office also notes the last “root and branch” review of parliamentarians entitlements was held in 2010, and that by April this year only 17 of the review’s 39 recommendations had been implemented.

As a result, the audit office says, “fundamental weaknesses in the framework remain … because the independent recommendations for substantive legislative and administrative reform … have not been actioned”, with travel entitlements being “one of the areas most affected by those factors”.

Abbott would have known this when he fronted the media yesterday to regretfully announce Madam Speaker’s resignation.

Despite misjudging how “choppergate” would play out in the media, particularly once the revelation was followed by the litany of Bishop’s other extravagances, Abbott acknowledged that “we have a situation where spending is arguably inside the rules but plainly outside of community expectations”.

The PM knows this better than most, given he’s been under fire for claiming travel allowance to compete in sporting events.

The former Speaker may have been the worst culprit to date, but the culture of privilege among parliamentarians appears to be entrenched and in urgent need of addressing. According to the audit office, 72 separate allegations of potential entitlement misuse had been lodged with the Department of Finance between August 2009 and June last year. Only the Australian Federal Police has the power to investigate such allegations.

In seeing off one of the most partisan Speakers the Parliament has seen in a long time, Labor has taken a scalp and managed to further diminish the Prime Minister in the process. Yet if the party was genuinely concerned about the rorting of MPs’ travel entitlements, Labor had the opportunity to implement the recommendations of the last “root and branch” review held under their watch in 2010.

Labor’s reluctance to do so belies its indignation over the former Speaker’s excesses.

With the genie that is community outrage now released, the Opposition will have to genuinely participate in reform of the entitlements system, and show leadership by tackling the culture of privilege within its own ranks. In fact, Labor probably has more to lose if the latest review shows as little progress as the last one.

Voters will now expect Abbott to take a “fairer” entitlements system to the next election. If the expectation is not met, it may even be a vote-changer. And if Labor is unable to impose on the Government to produce an entitlements system that is also transparent and accountable, the Opposition will be seen to be as dodgy and untrustworthy as the other mob.