Paul Bongiorno
More cracks in Abbott’s cabinet

The stakes are very high when of all people Tony Abbott strongly defends the Labor Party. That’s what it came to after yet another leak from cabinet told us that Western Australia’s most senior minister, Julie Bishop, told colleagues the ALP was running dead in the Canning byelection. She has been highly visible on the hustings but claims Labor is thin on the ground, their campaign less intense than expected.

And in case anyone missed who was the real target of the leak, another cabinet minister nominated the prime minister. He was reported saying the last thing Labor wanted was to see the Liberals suffer a huge swing or even lose the seat because that would panic them into dumping Abbott.

At a doorstop on his second and maybe last visit to the electorate before the September 19 vote, Abbott scoffed at the Bishop assessment. He said the Liberals’ absolute expectation was that there would be a Labor blitz in the final two weeks before the election. He insisted Labor wanted this seat. He did concede that if the government lost the seat all sorts of people would draw all sorts of conclusions.

Abbott’s problem is those conclusions have already been drawn. The story was given to Sky News, the government’s preferred television news channel, watched religiously by its MPs. The message it gave them, as an accepted fact, is that the PM is terrible and everyone knows it. Worse, it killed the growing perception, fed by three published opinion polls, that the race was tight. If Labor is running dead, the Libs should walk it in.

In an extraordinary attempt to distance himself from his own government, Abbott said the byelection was not about him: “It’s about the people of Canning, it really is.” Most would normally think it’s about their judgement of Abbott and his government.

In a piece of choreography better suited to the theatre of the absurd, the brash, young candidate Andrew Hastie jumped in on the prime minister as Abbott was about to answer a question. The question was about the latest round of leadership speculation. With all the bravado of someone convinced of their own self-importance, he scolded reporters: “I don’t have time to take counsel from the east coast Twitterati.” He continued: “There’s a significant disconnect between what people are saying over in the east and what is happening here in Canning.”

Things must have changed dramatically in the past seven months if that is the case. Back then, when he was organising the spill against Tony Abbott, the now deceased Don Randall said, “I can’t go to a shop without them saying to me, ‘You guys have got to do something about your leader.’ ” One letter writer to The West Australian newspaper thinks Randall may achieve in death what he didn’t in life: the removal of Abbott.

Maybe this explains why Abbott beamed when his “truly excellent candidate” elbowed him out of the way. The ploy was to show Hastie would speak out of turn for his constituents’ best interests. But could it not also suggest he has as much respect for Abbott as those constituents are signalling to the opinion pollsters?

Labor denies it is running dead. Others in the government, such as the assistant treasurer, Josh Frydenberg, accept them at their word. Then again, he is an Abbott ally. The ALP’s candidate, Matt Keogh, who the party says is more than a match for his Liberal opponent, claims he doesn’t have the financial resources for the sort of advertising blitz the government is running. He is relying on grassroots campaigning, knocking on doors and pressing the flesh. He says: “We definitely have a chance to win this seat. The vibe on the street definitely makes that clear.”

The byelection is turbocharging the government’s fault lines. The campaign message that it is for jobs, growth and community security is increasingly undermined by its own disunity, economic reality and incompetence. Nothing highlights that more than one of the bigger leaks of the week, in the Fairfax papers. Citing two cabinet ministers, it said the prime minister was being urged to dump Joe Hockey as treasurer if there was a big swing or a loss in Canning. Murmurings about Hockey’s performance as an economic salesman are not new. There is widespread dismay on the backbench at some of his gaffes, such as his claim poor people wouldn’t be hit by a petrol tax increase because they couldn’t afford to drive much.

Rather than play down the Fairfax story, Hockey dismissed his cabinet critics as “fringe whingers”. And he said the prime minister had assured him there was no truth to it. At a doorstop, Abbott said not a single person had raised this with him. “The treasurer is doing an excellent job,” he insisted. “He has my full confidence and has the full confidence of the cabinet.” In politics, there are few phrases as fatal. You know someone is in deep trouble when the leader has to express full confidence in them. That only happens when confidence is lost or something else is in play. Just in case Abbott might be tempted to save his own hide by dropping Hockey, the treasurer put loyalty on the table. He said, “The prime minister is a very loyal person.” The not to be missed message was if Abbott wanted loyalty returned, he shouldn’t mess with Joe.

One veteran Liberal MP was astounded by the contribution of John Howard’s former chief of staff, Senator Arthur Sinodinos, to the imbroglio. “Reverse treachery” was his verdict. Sinodinos is credited in the party as an astute political brain, but he gave the ministerial disunity story a huge blast of oxygen. He would not have done so without full knowledge of the ramifications. He emailed journalists a statement and put links to it on Twitter and Facebook. He chided ministers who “should be working to win the Canning byelection rather than backgrounding against a colleague to scapegoat a potential loss”. He insisted that the prime minister should sack any minister engaged in deliberate leaking and destabilisation. If followed, that advice would surely blow up the government. But Sinodinos wasn’t done: he raised the bar for Abbott in Canning by saying the party should be working to achieve a swing. Even governments travelling well historically suffer a swing against them of about 2.5 per cent in byelections after a member has died. It suggests Sinodinos is preparing the ground for regime change. No one is quite sure who he is backing. Anyone but Abbott is probably the answer.

The immigration minister, Peter Dutton, didn’t help much either this week. He accused the Fairfax papers and the ABC of waging a jihad against the government. He complained that nothing the government does is any good as far as they are concerned. Fresh from using incompetence as his explanation for why he or his office had not read two emails sent ahead of the Australian Border Force fiasco in Melbourne, he blamed the media for reporting the government’s malaise. And in case you thought he was accusing the media of making up stories about the disarray, he told Channel Seven, “I think people have a fair idea who is leaking.” He didn’t name them but agreed they should be sacked.

Smarter ministers, such as Mathias Cormann and Frydenberg, didn’t believe shooting the messenger was much of an idea. Although Frydenberg did defend Dutton’s right to say the media had been making mischief. “They’re trying to play up these leadership tensions and instability and targeting particular ministers.” Hold the phones, more confirmation about what’s going on inside the national government from one of its own.

Labor was quick to capitalise. Bill Shorten cheekily quoted then opposition leader Tony Abbott in 2013, who had no sympathy for then prime minster Julia Gillard complaining about the Murdoch papers treatment of her. At that time, Abbott said: “Fundamentally, if you want good coverage, you have got to perform well. If you want better coverage, be a better government.”

As Abbott is finding out, that’s easier said than done. And after promising to be a government of no excuses and no surprises, his treasurer has had to give the excuse of crashing commodity prices to explain the lowest growth numbers since the global financial crisis. Hockey is hoping the fact we aren’t in recession, like other big commodity producers Canada or Brazil, will make people feel better. But that’s a hard ask, especially as the national accounts show Australia has seen a fall in living standards for five consecutive quarters.

It’s a dangerous mix in an electorate such as Canning. Its thousands of fly-in fly-out workers have been hit by the end of the mining boom. National unemployment is at a 20-year high of 800,000, and the West accounts for 40,000. Abbott is trying to hold up the China–Australia Free Trade Agreement as the answer, but the unions’ campaign against it as a threat to Australian jobs has sown confusion at the very least. Labor’s campaign is playing on those fears.

It reinforces the growing view that a Liberal win in Canning is no dead cert. Worse for Abbott, nor is what happens afterwards.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 5, 2015 as "More cracks in the cabinet".

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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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