December 10, 2014

Breaking ranks

By Nick Feik
What senior government “sources” really think of each other

At the end of November, News Corp’s Samantha Maiden reported via a source that Joe Hockey had gone “off his tits” after the PM’s office briefed journalists that the GP co-payment was about to be ditched. According to Hockey, it wasn’t dead at all.

“Senior Liberals” responded that Hockey was only saying that so he could keep the $3.6 billion raised by the GP tax on the books, ahead of December’s Mid-year Economic Fiscal Outlook, the “budget update”.

One unnamed minister told Maiden that Hockey was a “sook”. Another “senior Liberal” said that Hockey was “erratic’’ because he’s either “full bottle or on holidays and there’s nothing in between’’.

“We should have nailed Labor to the cross,” a “cabinet source” told Simon Benson, as published on his blog at the Daily Telegraph on 28 November. The source primarily blamed Hockey for the government’s inability to sell its message that Labor was to blame for the “fiscal mess”. “This is the mob that came in . . . trashed the house, shot the dog and ran off with the wife. And they have got away with it.’’ Soon after, Scott Morrison accidentally let slip that this source was none other than Barnaby Joyce.

A week later, the Daily Telegraph later ran a front-page story by Benson with the headline “Joe’s on the nose”, suggesting that Hockey might be dumped as treasurer. The following day, Laurie Oakes reported that fingers were pointed at Scott Morrison as a likely culprit for spreading the rumour.

A Morrison defender bit back: “For God’s sake, Scott’s been virtually living with crossbenchers all week. When would he have had the time to dump on Joe?”

This same source said it was more likely the PM’s office had planted the story, as a distraction from Tony Abbott’s own poor performance.

Many ministers have told journalists, off the record of course, that the PM’s office is too manipulative and controlling – “the PM’s office” being widely regarded as a euphemism for Peta Credlin, Abbott’s chief of staff.

For his part, Hockey has let it be known that it was the PM’s office that forced Martin Parkinson to resign as secretary of the treasury department. Hockey’s people have also been blaming the PM’s office for the total hash that was made of the May budget.

Former Coalition minister Amanda Vanstone has held the media responsible for the kicking Joe Hockey is getting. But according to Samantha Maiden, Hockey and Foreign Minister Julie Bishop have compared notes, and came to the conclusion that the PM’s office was trying to play them off against each another.

Bishop famously went “bananas” after her request to attend the Lima climate change talks was refused, and then she was sent with a chaperone, Trade Minister Andrew Robb.

“Why would I be angry?” was Bishop’s barbed response to the report, in a classic non-denial denial. Replied government members: see, she was not at all angry, and it was always part of the plan.

In an interview with broadcaster Andrew Bolt on 7 December, Education Minister Christopher Pyne pointed out that Bishop was actually the senior portfolio minister, so if anything, she was chaperoning Robb. Robb had not been despatched by anyone, he added.

“You are denying what I know is a fact,” retorted Bolt.

“I certainly am,” Pyne replied.

But this week Bishop gave an account of how, when the PM refused her initial request to attend the climate negotiations, she took the matter to a meeting of the full cabinet and had the decision reversed. The cabinet, in other words, agreed with her position, not Abbott’s. Now, apparently, there is a “growing view in the upper echelons of Coalition government” that Bishop and Credlin are “like two Siamese fighting fish stuck in the same tank.” The relationship is said to have broken down irretrievably.

Fairfax’s Peter Hartcher also revealed that ministers in the Abbott government  (for which presumably we are supposed to read “Julie Bishop”) had repeatedly counselled the prime minister’s office against trying to shut down G20 discussion on climate change – but the PM's office ignored the advice. And now, the article explained, new climate change polling demonstrates the unpopularity of the government’s approach to the issue.

What’s more, Hartcher went on to write, Andrew Robb is a climate change sceptic, who “was forced to rearrange his schedule to attend”.

Hockey then sought to cast doubt on the whole report, saying “that certainly wasn’t my recollection of the cabinet discussion”. Was this an implicit criticism of Julie Bishop?

Backbenchers are telling anyone who’ll listen that they’re sick of not being listened to. Pyne has rebuked colleagues for backgrounding the media about the Coalition’s current political woes. Pyne himself has not been immune to criticism for his performance, which, like that of Defence Minister David Johnston, has been regarded as abysmal. Johnston was blamed for the Liberals’ South Australian by-election loss. Abbott was blamed for the Victorian state election loss. And Alan Jones has blamed Greg Hunt for putting Tony Abbott’s seat at risk (his logic was hard to follow, but it involved plans for a nursing home in the PM’s electorate), and blamed Joe Hockey for just about everything.

Hockey this week described the mood in cabinet as “good”. There are no plans for a cabinet reshuffle.

Indeed, why would it be necessary? For Abbott, it’s been “a year of achievement”.

This view may not be shared by “government ministers”, though, who are telling journalists that Abbott is expected to announce a modest reshuffle after the summer break.

The break didn’t come soon enough.

But the public can rest assured, because after another long press conference or two, and another backdown or three, no doubt all these tensions will dissipate and be forgotten despite the government’s terrible polling and hard economic road ahead, and we’ll have the competent, grown-up government that we were promised.

Nick Feik

Nick Feik is the editor of The Monthly.

@nickfeik

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