Abbott Says Boo to Geese in Government
By Mike SeccombeNovember 12, 2013
The Prime Minister who wants politics off the front page was forced to front the media on the first day of the new Parliament, with his ministers running worryingly off-message.
On the day he announced his Ministry, new Prime Minister Tony Abbott told Australia that henceforth he would adopt a much lower media profile and would only talk publicly if “I’ve got something to say”.
Methinks he phrased it wrongly. What he meant was that he would only talk “if I’ve got to say something”.
And on the first day of the new Parliament, he clearly figured he had to say something. Had to, because the incompetents and ideologues and graspers by whom he is surrounded had forced the issue.
We refer, first of all, to the Minister for Immigration, Scott Morrison, a man whose personal convictions always bring to mind a bumper sticker I once saw on a car in America. “The Christian Right is neither,” it said.
Morrison, it must be acknowledged, did a fine line in vilifying asylum seekers in the lead-up to the election. But he clearly has not adjusted well to life in government, rather than in opposition. He has yet to absorb the lesson that government brings a burden of some moderation.
It’s one thing to bag out hapless asylum seekers; quite another to bag out the government of the fourth-largest country in the world, which sits sensitively just to Australia’s north.
But that’s just what Morrison did, coming over all petulant at Indonesia’s refusal to accept the return of a couple of boatloads of what he would call “illegals”.
He expressed his acute frustration that our northern neighbour would not meekly accede to his punitive vision of a policy, bellicosely named Operation Sovereign Borders.
There was, he whined, “no rhyme or reason” to Indonesia’s response.
With the egregious Morrison in the vanguard, the Coalition ran an election campaign substantially on the issue of asylum seekers. It played international relations for crass domestic purposes, tacitly (and sometimes not so tacitly) suggesting Indonesia was not doing enough to help Australia stem the refugee tide. It unilaterally promised to push the boats back to Indonesia and even, in one of the most knuckleheaded policy suggestions of all time, floated the idea of solving the problem by sending agents to Indonesia to buy up all the people smugglers’ boats.
And Morrison wondered why the Indonesians were now being somewhat less than cooperative.
So, at his presser, called for 1.45 pm, Abbott was trying very, very hard to be nice to the Indonesians.
He was very pleased, he said, to have “such a close constructive and cooperative relationship with the Indonesian government”.
He was determined to “work as closely and as collegially and as consultatively” as possible with them.
Asked directly about Morrison’s expression of frustration Abbott sighed deeply and loudly.
“I’m not going to run a commentary on a commentary...” he said.
And he was certainly not going to “engage in negotiations through the media”.
Yeah, well, maybe that will help.
But Abbott had another problem to deal with as well: Maurice Newman, the climate-change sceptic, economically dry-as-dust ideologue Abbott has just installed as chairman of the Prime Minister’s business advisory council.
Alas Newman’s first bit of — publicly offered — advice was not at all helpful. In his view, the wages of Australian workers are too high, and our economy cannot afford to meet the costs of education-funding reform and the National Disability Insurance Scheme.
Both were championed by the former Labor Government, and supported by the new Abbott Government.
So Abbott had to walk that one back, too.
Given Newman’s position, the PM said, “you would expect robust advice”.
And, although Newman’s was one of a number of voices the government took “very seriously”, it was not about to break its “fundamental promise to the Australian people” to implement the NDIS and to match the former government’s promised spending on schools, at least for the next four years.
Did you get that, Maurice? Decoded, that means “shut the heck up”.
There were other fires to damp down, too. Abbott was again forced to answer for his behavior in claiming travel allowance while accepting free food and accommodation while on his annual ‘pollie pedal’.
He was aggressively questioned on his government’s approach to climate change, and came up with the memorable observation that carbon-trading schemes were not, as every reputable economist will tell you, market-based mechanisms based on the inherent self-interest of capitalism, but were instead “socialism masquerading as environmentalism”.
And he was taken to task for having promised to lift the standard of political discourse, yet continuing his cheap shots at Opposition leader Bill Shorten as “electricity Bill”.
Yes, Abbott conceded, it was probably un-parliamentary language.
The PM was required to swat down billionaire MP Clive Palmer over his companies’ refusal to pay their mining tax liabilities.
“They’ve got to pay their bills, obviously,” he said.
Oh dear. One imagines that will not go down well with the tax-averse Clive, which is unfortunate given that and Abbott will need to have good relations with the wacky miner and has rag-tag collection of Senators.
All in all, it was not a comfortable or convincing press conference for the new PM. And on the very first day of Parliament, too, when all is supposed to be happy pomp and circumstance.
But it was one he had to have, because the issues were getting away from him.
Perhaps there is a lesson to be learned here: it’s much easier to run a “small target” strategy in opposition than in government.