If, as Tony Abbott declared, good government started on Monday then, to borrow a Gillardism, it “lost its way” well before the week’s end.
The days after Abbott’s “near death” experience provided no evidence he can revive a leadership now put on a warning.
The public muddle over submarine policy; Abbott’s continued refusal to face up to the problem of his personal office; mixed policy signals from him and Treasurer Joe Hockey; and his shrill tone in attacking the Human Rights Commission over its report on children in detention all sent bad messages.
On top of that, a sharp jump in unemployment – with the jobless rate rising from 6.1% to 6.4% – underlined that it will be a difficult economic year. And the instability within the government will just further harm business confidence.
If there was a single symbol of how out of touch Abbott seems about his precarious position, it might be his reply to Neil Mitchell asking on Thursday whether he was going to change his controversial chief of staff Peta Credlin.
“That’s an impertinent question. I don’t ask you about the internal workings of your station,” Abbott said. He maintained he had a “great office”. Given how many of his MPs are feral over Credlin, if this is what he really thinks it suggests he’s in la-la land.
The submarine stuff-up is a complicated tale that comes down to a very simple explanation – the quest for votes. Votes in South Australia at the 2013 election. Votes against Monday’s spill motion in the party room.
Then-defence spokesman David Johnston went for broke before the election, declaring the Coalition was “committed to building 12 new submarines here in Adelaide”. The official policy promised to ensure that the “work on the replacement of the current submarine fleet will centre around the South Australian shipyards”.
In government, it became clear the Coalition was looking overseas, especially to Japan, for the subs. It’s not known how far Abbott went in his discussions with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, but the Japanese believed they have the inside running.That didn’t mean there wouldn’t be considerable work for South Australia, especially maintenance. It did mean the pre-election pledge had become disposable.
South Australian Liberal Sean Edwards revived the issue when, in the run-up to the spill vote, he demanded an assurance that the Australian Submarine Corporation could compete for the contract. He and Abbott had different versions of what Abbott had said.
Later, Defence Minister Kevin Andrews gave an incomprehensible shocker of a news conference on the subject – an illustration of why Abbott should never have put him in the portfolio in the December reshuffle.
After Monday’s humble I’ll-be-better language in the wake of a substantial minority of Liberals indicating they wanted to see the back of him, Abbott quickly moved into macho-aggressive mode. This sometimes works for him but often leads him to go over the top.
In parliament on Wednesday Abbott conjured up the image of former North Korean leader Kim Jong-il bidding for the subs contract, apparently forgetting the dictator was dead; on Thursday he referred to Labor causing a “holocaust of jobs in defence industries”, for which he had to apologise.
Abbott also made an extravagant attack on the Human Right Commission, headed by Gillian Triggs, whose report The Forgotten Children, tabled this week, presents a damning indictment of incarceration.
The government held back the tabling, which should have been done late last year, and has been generally trying to besmirch Triggs.
The Coalition might have an issue with why the commission did not do the inquiry when Labor had many more children in detention. But for Abbott to claim a “stitch up” and say “this is a blatantly partisan, politicised exercise and the Human Rights Commission ought to be ashamed of itself” is, apart from being wrong, just political folly. Taking on a respected articulate woman speaking out for children makes him look a bully.
It was also unfortunate for him that on the same day there was an account of his outburst last year against his youngest backbencher.
Niki Savva, in her column in The Australian, recounted how Abbott, at a dinner with marginal seat holders on May 25, rounded on Wyatt Roy, member for the Queensland seat of Longman. When the MPs were invited to make comments Roy had said broken promises were the fundamental cause of the government’s problems, and suggested Abbott apologise to the people.
Abbott, according to Savva, yelled at Roy, “then directed his remarks to all of them that there were no effing broken promises and no one should concede there had been”.
Asked about this in question time, Abbott did not contest the account but said that “when I gave the answer in question to the Member for Longman, it was absolutely true. But there were subsequent developments.”
Such an incident recalls how Kevin Rudd shouted at backbenchers. There are also parallels between the complaints about the Rudd office and the current attacks on the Abbott one, not to mention a similar damaging failure of self-awareness by both prime ministers.
If “good government” was derailed this week, the punch drunk Abbott camp might be putting its hopes in next week. So long as they don’t fear the atmospherics could be affected by Malcolm Turnbull’s appearance on Monday’s ABC’s Q&A.
Michelle Grattan is a press gallery veteran and Professorial Fellow at the University of Canberra.
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