Paul Bongiorno
Post G20, Abbott gets the thin edge of the sandwich

When you’ve hosted 20 of the world’s most powerful leaders and pulled off a free trade agreement with an economic giant, the old Ethel Merman song would have to sum up your week: “Life is Just a Bowl of Cherries.” The tune topped the charts at the depths of the Depression in the 1930s. For those prospering despite the misery around them, the lyrics could be taken at face value. For millions, it was an irony that struck a chord.

There was plenty of irony for Prime Minister Tony Abbott on Monday. His government had a stunning success finally pulling off a free trade agreement with China. At face value it is beyond most observers’ wildest expectations. But before Abbott and his trade minister could bask in their win, Newspoll found the government was back to where it was in May after its desperately unpopular budget. Labor led on the primary vote, sitting a massive 10 points ahead at 55 per cent, two-party preferred. Morgan was just as brutal in its findings.Essential tighter at 52 per cent to 48 per cent, but this was little consolation for one of the government’s loudest cheerleaders, Andrew Bolt. The right-wing columnist lamented on his blog, “Something is not working and must be fixed.”

Abbott had a bruising encounter with Sydney shock jock Alan Jones. Jones slammed the Chinese deal for selling off the farm and ranted that it would not be long before Beijing owned every big dairy in Tasmania. The veteran broadcaster told the PM the agreement “wouldn’t pass the pub test”. Whatever the merit of that view, and there’s scarcely any, the government’s foreign policy successes aren’t much impressing voters – something Bolt noted with a little justification.

The prime minister, it seems, is yet to learn one of his predecessor’s private maxims: “Government is all about eating shit sandwiches; it’s how you do it that counts.” Forget the cherries.

Abbott was served a pretty unpalatable little lunch when United States president Barack Obama hijacked his G20 summit agenda. The carefully planned ambush started with the US and China agreeing to slash their carbon emissions at the end of the APEC summit. Obama came to Brisbane with a new battle cry: If the world’s two biggest polluters “can agree on this, then the world can agree on this”.

Using his considerable rhetorical skills, and charming a huge auditorium of university and high school students, the president warned “nobody has more at stake when it comes to thinking about, and then acting on, climate change” than Australia. “It means longer droughts, more wildfires. The incredible natural glory of the Great Barrier Reef is threatened.”

Western Australia’s Liberal premier, Colin Barnett, came back from the G20 convinced the nation needs to be bolder in its emission reduction targets. He told The West Australian he got the message from the reaction of the audience that the younger generation is looking for more to be done on climate change than is currently on offer. This jarred with Abbott’s opening boast to the summit that he had repealed the carbon tax. The PM sounded to be in denial on the carbon pricing mechanism’s purpose of emissions abatement.

A political wind change was on. The self-confessed weathervane was slow to pick it up but by midweek Abbott went from reactive to proactive. After talks with French president François Hollande, he needed no prompting: “I raised climate change. It’s very important that we get strong and effective outcomes from the conference in Paris next year.” And after trying to ignore the issue for years as he mounted his carbon tax campaign, he boldly claimed: “Australia has a strong story to tell on climate change.” Whether anyone will believe him while he is still trying to cut the renewable energy target is another matter.

And just as the government thought it had worked out how to deal with the senate, the Palmer United Party’s voting bloc imploded. The Palmer modus operandi was to use strident and colourful language to attack a policy, then to strike a compromise. Direct Action is a good example. Palmer slammed it as a useless waste of money, only to wave it through after winning concessions. It is crude but deft politics. Senator Jacqui Lambie no longer wants to play the game according to Palmer rules. “No one will tell me how to vote,” she told the senate.

The other domino to fall was the Australian Motoring Enthusiast Party’s Ricky Muir. Face-to-face meetings with victims of the Timbercorp collapse and the role of the ANZ bank persuaded him Palmer’s compromise on the Future of Financial Advice (FOFA) laws was a sellout of the little people.

Lambie says she was always uncomfortable about the FOFA changes but was confused in the first weeks of the new senate. “Today I’m poised to join the coalition of common sense to fix an injustice I helped create a few months ago.” The coalition of Labor, the Greens, senators Nick Xenophon, John Madigan, Muir and Lambie had the numbers to torpedo the surprise win Clive Palmer handed the government in July. True to form Palmer had been a trenchant critic of the government’s proposed weakening of laws crafted by Bill Shorten as financial services minister in the Gillard government. They were in response to a series of scandals, including the collapse of Trio Capital and Storm Financial.

The breakaway of Lambie and Muir spells big trouble for Abbott, and his senators know it. Manager of government business Mitch Fifield warned the senate, “This place cannot work unless the government of the day can transact government business in government business time.” Finance Minister Mathias Cormann was apoplectic. He got wind of the switch the night before and badgered Muir at dinner with what one witness says seemed to be about 20 phone calls.

But no one was angrier than Clive Palmer. His power and influence has been considerably weakened. He hit out at Muir for breaching trust. “What we want from politicians is honesty and people can rely on them,” he complained to Radio 4BC. With considerable chutzpah he went on, “That’s very disappointing because the government won’t be able to rely on him whatever he says.” It certainly won’t be able to rely on Palmer to marshal the numbers of his bloc in future.

The accusations from the various members of the ad hoc coalition of common sense are extremely damaging to the government. Lambie says the Liberals are in the pocket of the big banks and big business at the expense of thousands of smaller investors.

Cormann accuses Shorten of looking after the vested interests of the big union super funds, which are in competition with the banks, but the opposition leader has the support of National Seniors and the Council on the Ageing. Normally their membership, or a majority of it, is associated with the Liberals’ core constituency. The consumer advocacy group Choice is also onside.

When governments are in trouble, or the sandwich is particularly unsavoury, things tend to get worse. It is simply not a good look when two cabinet ministers campaign against the consequences of unpopular budget savings. Christopher Pyne stunned many on social media when he launched an online petition to save his state from cuts to the ABC. One tweet reminded him he was in cabinet: “Come on Chris you don’t need a petition.” His colleague Barnaby Joyce says he would seek assurances from Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull not to cut ABC services to the bush. Labor’s Jason Clare retorted, “You can’t be a lion in the bush or in Adelaide and then be a mouse in Canberra … You should stand up to Malcolm Turnbull and Tony Abbott.”

But Labor’s bigger target was the total of $500 million in cuts to the ABC and SBS meted out by the government. The opposition leader says the night before the election Abbott promised “no cuts to the ABC, no cuts to SBS”. “It’s another broken promise and another lie,” Shorten says. The simplicity of the Abbott statement is as stark as Julia Gillard’s, “There will be no carbon tax under the government I lead.” She tried to explain that in the context of her policy to “price” carbon. The Liberals, and the electorate, would have none of it. Now Turnbull is trying the same tack.

He says that before the election many were urging the coalition to axe some functions of the ABC. “But Joe Hockey and I made it quite clear we had no plans of that nature.” Turnbull went on, “Unless you believe that Mr Abbott was, in that one line, intending to contradict and overrule the very careful statements of intention made by Mr Hockey and myself, his remarks can only be understood in the same context.” Whew, that takes some getting around. Scoffs the Greens’ Scott Ludlam: “Nobody will believe that. The prime minister simply lied.”

Life certainly got no simpler for the government in a week when the sandwiches got bigger and the chewing harder.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 22, 2014 as "The thin edge of the sandwich".

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Paul Bongiorno is a columnist for The Saturday Paper and a 30-year veteran of the Canberra Press Gallery.

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