Opinion

Paul Bongiorno
PM Tony Abbott calls out the cabinet Judases

Tony Abbott has always seen politics as a conflict business and now his own cabinet knows what he means. The prime minister has served notice he’s prepared to blow up the place if they persist in leaking to the media against him. He told his party room that ministers had been reminded of their responsibilities and there would be personal and political consequences for any more destabilising of cabinet processes. He’s so sure they got the message, he called it a “come to Jesus moment”. But Jesus hasn’t worked any miracles just yet. 

Some have dismissed the Abbott threat as mere bravado. Indeed, word of the riot act being read to ministers itself leaked out. The very next day there was another leak in The West Australian from a key cabinet subcommittee. This involved a pet aviation project of Trade Minister Andrew Robb being rolled in his absence. Someone is prepared to call the PM’s bluff. It is argued that sacking a minister – especially if it’s his own deputy, Julie Bishop, or the high-profile Malcolm Turnbull – would precipitate a crisis that would engulf the government.

However, the prime minister is growing in confidence. His stocks have been slowly building in the Newspoll. Make no mistake, politicians follow all the polls assiduously but The Australian’s fortnightly pulse-take is the most influential. The latest had Abbott record a stronger overall approval than Bill Shorten for the first time in almost 14 months. Both were in negative territory, but the opposition leader was three points further down the slope. For the second poll running Abbott heads Shorten as preferred prime minister, increasing his lead by four points.

But the most significant number is the two-party-preferred result, which has Labor leading 52 per cent to 48. Abbott believes that puts him on course to an election victory. He told journalists at his Easter drinks he would beat Shorten if he got the Coalition back to within four points. The prime minister is convinced his focus on national security, with a relentless ratcheting up of threat-level talk over the need to do even more draconian things to counter the danger, is the key to his success. This may go a long way to explaining why he was so bold as to try to railroad his cabinet on a contentious security policy two weeks ago. Designed to wedge Labor, it blew up spectacularly.

That miscalculation has exposed deep mistrust at the heart of the government. At the beginning of the week Abbott dismissed the detailed reporting of the cabinet revolt as “false”. By midweek, cabinet minister Ian Macfarlane described it as “very accurate”. Indeed, it’s clear there has been a ferocious campaign of tit-for-tat leaks designed to damage putative rivals. Foreign Minister Julie Bishop was certainly not amused by The Sunday Telegraph suggesting she was out of touch with the backbench and left “high and dry”. A minister was quoted saying Bishop had a “complete glass jaw” and that she sits taking notes in cabinet. The question was deliberately left hanging: “What does she do with those notes?” A furious Bishop told the ABC, “I raised no concerns about the issue in cabinet; I’ve been misreported in that sense.” At the same time, she was disappointed leaks come straight from the prime minister’s office to News Corporation papers. Her icy relations with Abbott’s chief of staff, Peta Credlin, have been oft reported. She falls short of suggesting Credlin or Abbott are responsible for verballing her, but somebody influential is. It may even be more than one person, she says. 

At the beginning of the week The Daily Telegraph bracketed Bishop and Turnbull together as “rebel ministers”. The paper conveniently ignored Christopher Pyne, Kevin Andrews, Barnaby Joyce and George Brandis, all of whom were quoted in the Fairfax papers as having serious reservations about stripping Australians of their citizenship on the whim of a minister. For good measure, the prime minister’s office orchestrated a petition of backbenchers to demand the government go to the extreme of leaving native-born Australians stateless. The only caveat was they be eligible for another nationality, never mind if there were no takers for our rejects. 

Turnbull resents being painted as a “friend of terrorists”, as one of the signatories, Tasmanian Liberal Andrew Nikolic, branded Labor for not giving a blank cheque to the citizenship stripping. Turnbull hit out: “Some people like to suggest that some people are tougher on terrorism or tougher on national security than others. Let me say this to you. Honest people, knowledgeable people, really well-informed people, can have very different views about what the right measures are ... and have very different views about the right balance between, say, citizenship and national security.” That was at a doorstop on the national broadband network. His articulate common sense doesn’t fit with Abbott’s advice to his party room, of course. In dealing with journalists, Abbott wants MPs to stick to simple messages praising the government, slam Bill Shorten and then end the conversation.

There is no doubt Turnbull’s lament is a searing judgment on the appalling standard of political debate in this most toxic of parliaments. His comments saying it’s not good enough for laws simply to be passed, that it’s not a bravado issue, that they’ve got to be the right laws that get the measures right, apply more broadly.

The argument over a dangerous housing bubble in Sydney and to a lesser extent Melbourne is a prime exhibit. The Abbott-appointed secretary of treasury, John Fraser, set the ball rolling when he told a senate committee there was unequivocal evidence of overheating in Sydney. He said he was worried that record low interest rates were “encouraging people to perhaps over-invest in housing”. When a bubble bursts it can only end in tears, not only for borrowers badly burnt but for the economy beyond Sydney. Some commentators point to unsustainable borrowing, based on inflated asset prices, as one of the major causes of the global financial crisis. Analysis in The Australian Financial Review suggested current prices are overvalued by 20 to 25 per cent.

The Reserve Bank is changing its tune. The governor, Glenn Stevens, wasn’t panicking in a statement this week, but he said: “The bank is working with other regulators to assess and contain risks that may arise from the housing market.”

Abbott will have none of it. In response to an opposition question on what he is doing about housing affordability, he turned it into a simplistic attack on Shorten. He put himself squarely on the side of borrowing home owners such as himself. He ignored those locked out of the market. 

He also ignored the many self-funded retirees whose nest eggs have been eroded by low returns on their cash savings. “This is someone who wants to be the prime minister of Australia and he wants your house to be worthless.”

Abbott railed against Shorten. The hyperbole points to one thing. As soon as Abbott thinks he can win it, Australia is off to the polls. Also ignored by the campaigning prime minister was a word of caution from another unlikely source. Former Commonwealth Bank chief, and chairman of the Abbott-established Financial System Inquiry, David Murray, has warned that the Coalition government is making the superannuation system more vulnerable by refusing to reform it. The Abbott government response: Liberals are about cutting tax not raising it.

The prime minister and the treasurer appear to be at odds, again, over what that means for tax reform in general. But Joe Hockey is gradually coming into line. He now says the review of taxes is to enable the government to “look over the horizon”. Abbott seems to have put that horizon beyond the next term of government.

Bill Shorten probably hit the nail on the head when he told parliament the 2015 budget was not designed to last 12 months. It was designed to impress what the prime minister calls “voterland”. Abbott’s history of success with the inhabitants of this place suggests that the more he insults their intelligence, the better he goes. Take the three-word slogans at the last election. Or his advice at the 1999 referendum against “voting for a politicians’ republic, because you can’t trust politicians”.

One voterland issue finding its way into Canberra is same-sex marriage. Do not be fooled by reports the issue has become an inevitability. It might happen, but there are still plenty of people who don’t want to hear it. The tactics employed to defeat the republican referendum may in fact be revisited to stymie the push for marriage equality. You remember how arch monarchist John Howard gave every impression of paving the way for a republic, only to work against it behind the scenes and at the last minute warn it would destroy all that’s good in Australia?

A veteran Liberal MP says despite Abbott’s soothing assurances that he accepts that same-sex marriage is a significant issue and important to many people, he personally remains implacably opposed to it. His conservative allies in the party have begun serious pushback against moves to allow a free vote. They are demanding ministers who support gay marriage be sacked. It would be foolish to think the prime minister’s personal views would have no weight with wannabe backbenchers anxious for promotion.

It is just one more issue where the government is at war with itself. The Christian lobby thinks Jesus is on its side and will campaign tirelessly to persuade Liberal MPs their future depends on it. Whether they come to Him is yet to be seen.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 6, 2015 as "Calling out the Judases". Subscribe here.

Paul Bongiorno
is a columnist for The Saturday Paper and a regular commentator on ABC Radio National Breakfast.