The Politics    Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Questioning the PM

By Sean Kelly

The cabinet is keeping a close eye on its boss

A little bit of bad news for the prime minister.

Two related proposals were brought to cabinet last night: giving the immigration minister the power to strip dual nationals of citizenship on suspicion of terrorism, and giving the immigration minister the power to strip citizenship from people who are solely Australian, which some argue might leave them effectively stateless.

The first proposal went fine. Cabinet approved it, and the PM announced it today.

The second proposal, not so much. A report in the Sydney Morning Herald said that six ministers had spoken against the proposal. That’s a lot.

It’s not a disaster for Tony Abbott, but he’ll certainly emerge from the day a little more cautious than he went in. It would have been a disaster if he had proposed the law to cabinet and had said it should be supported, and cabinet had forced a retreat – but it was only presented as part of a discussion paper. So it’s just a minor scare.

Also worrying for the PM is that Malcolm Turnbull, in cabinet, asked whether the Daily Telegraph, which this morning carried a prediction that the PM would announce both measures, had been briefed on the idea, effectively pre-empting cabinet discussion. The PM said it had not been.

Well, barring extraordinary powers of telepathy, clearly the newspaper was briefed by somebody. The Telegraph report was very specific. It obviously came from somebody with advance knowledge of the proposals. Who exactly, of course, we don’t know.

But a senior minister questioning what may have been the prime minister’s media strategy in a forum of his senior ministers is a fairly big deal.

A naysayer would talk about a weakened PM at this point. But there is a glass-half-full reading, which is that the cabinet is slowly finding its strength, discovering a willingness to question policies and strategies in detail. A cabinet willing to do that is a huge asset to any prime minister. It can help the PM to avoid mistakes and ensure that policy is robust and politically sharpened.

More concerning for Abbott is that somebody saw some gain in leaking the cabinet discussion to the media. Not even the most joyful optimist could see that as an act of misguided altruism by a cabinet member supporting his or her beloved leader.

The Coalition is actually going to lower a tax – Joe Hockey, asked last night on ABC’s Q&A, said he would talk to the states about dropping the GST on tampons. He’s getting some flak for making policy on the run, but I reckon in this case common sense finally won out, 14 years late. Nice work Joe. (Alas, the PM this afternoon seemed to suggest the opposite.) Hockey also contradicted the PM, saying the government might pursue super reforms once super returns lifted.

But shame on Joe for his attack yesterday on a Labor staffer for doing his job and preparing a document to distribute to journalists, on budget modelling. Staffers are, traditionally, off-limits. Sadly, this is not as new as some people think: I can think of at least three staffers in the Gillard government used as political fodder by Coalition attack dogs. It’s a practice that should stop.

Some nice video work here suggesting that Hockey’s attack may have been coordinated. And Bill Shorten calling Joe Hockey a “low-rent goose” (at 2:14 pm).

Some green shoots for senate cooperation with the government. Labor has not ruled out passing some form of the proposed pension changes. And the Greens may pass some form of petrol excise indexation.

Australian of the Year Rosie Batty is supporting the ACTU’s call for domestic violence victims to get ten extra days of annual leave.

Human Rights Commissioner Gillian Triggs has decided not to pursue allegations that the attorney-general, George Brandis, offered her a position as inducement to resign.

The Greens will move to bring forward senate debate on same-sex marriage, and a senate vote will occur in November.

Christopher Pyne wants all year 11 and 12 students to study maths or science.

And a new play gets the audience to try its hand at running a clothing company in China.

Sean Kelly

Sean Kelly is a columnist for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, and was an adviser to Labor prime ministers Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd.


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