The Abbott government is getting pretty close to the point of no return. It has two years to repair its disastrous standing with voters but, with the slide in leadership, and followership that was evident this week, it is clear that it doesn't have a moment to lose.
Almost every disaster of the week was predictable, not least from the vantage point of the Prime Minister's office. But neither the Prime Minister, nor that office, seemed to have any strategy for managing it, other than battling on and looking for public distractions. The very search for them brought fresh crises because Abbott and his kitchen cabinet had not thought through what they were doing, and, in public, as for example with the internet and telecommunications metadata legislation, scarcely knew or understood what they had approved. But they had thought that it would make them ''look strong'' on national security. Instead, largely thanks to George Brandis, perhaps the government's biggest liability at present, Abbott and Brandis were made to look extremely foolish. The day was saved by Malcolm Turnbull, as perhaps an unpleasant reminder that the party has more competent alternatives.
Brandis had also delivered another humiliation – the government's retreat on amending Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act which would have, in Brandis' immortal and fatal phrase, entrenched the right to be a bigot. This produced the spectacle – a sure sign of a government in deep distress – of having the Institute of Public Affairs campaigning against Abbott and his government as though they, not Labor, were the enemy. The loud screams of disappointment from the IPA, News Corp and some of Abbott's strongest boosters may reflect a realisation that what they, the party and the nation are currently getting from the Abbott government are about as good as it is going to get, which is hardly worth having, and that it may be all downhill from now on.
Meanwhile Treasurer Joe Hockey was complaining loudly that one of the reasons why he and Abbott, and the government generally, were struggling to sell the budget to the people or the Senate was that business lobbies had not done their bit to create the climate of opinion that the cuts were both necessary and fairly distributed. (This is on top of his earlier complaints that ministers whose portfolios include particularly unpopular cuts, such as Peter Dutton with the Medicare co-payment, Christopher Pyne with pain for university students, and Kevin Andrews and others with cuts and changes to the treatment of the unemployed and the sick, were not out vigorously ''sellling'' their good news. Actually, this was just as well, given that whenever any of these three opens their mouths, support for the government tends to plummet.)
Business leaders responded tartly enough that they were not in the business of playing uncritical cheerleader to governments, and reminded everyone that the selling problem was the greater not only because it was seen as mildly harsh, but because it was widely seen as unfair in its distribution of the burdens.
It was also becoming clear that Hockey's standing among his colleagues has fallen sharply, that some are not hesitating to bag him, openly or behind closed doors, for a want of political skills and sense, for being a whinger, and for smoking cigars and taking holidays.
There may still be manifest destiny in Hockey, but only if he ''learns'' from the disasters he has inflicted on the party over the past year, and can rescue Abbott from disasters and self-indulgences of their joint making. He may not have the time or the opportunity, because, as things stand, Abbott's better strategy may be in cutting him loose and letting him wear the blame for failing to produce and to sell (two separate crimes) a plausible budget narrative. After all, it now seems clear that a supposed charm offensive by Hockey on Clive Palmer's senators, or the other members of small groupings, is not going to succeed without concessions so great, particularly to the bottom line, that the strategy will be regarded as a complete failure.
In the early days of the government Hockey, not Abbott, was the man of conservative economic principle and spine, likely, with a few other economic ministers of substance, to rein in any Abbott tendency to try to spend his way out of trouble. It was Hockey who wanted to stand up to car manufacturers and other rent seekers asking for vast public subsidies, with threats that they would otherwise close down, causing significant regional unemployment and political problems for politicians.
Hockey's internal arguments created, for a short period, a line in the sand that thrilled Abbott and, for a while, gave his government some sense of purpose and drive. All that is now gone; some politicians may still be mouthing words about taking government out of the marketplace, but the intractable problem is a different one of articulating a story about the Abbott government at large, its general economic strategy and an explanation for how a ragbag of unpopular cuts, often with an ideological tinge, fit into that strategy. And even if there was such a coherent explanation, it has probably been drowned out by Hockey's explanation that half of the Australian electorate, including most of the working class, are bludgers sucking too hard on the government teat.
Abbott's had his own holiday as mourner-in-chief, dropping much of the drudgery of actual government while looking solemn and sombre, and the grim face of Australian leadership. He tried to pull some such strings together, with reminders of the clear and present danger from terrorism that Australian faces, though the announcement of plans to increase surveillance and scrutiny of Australian jihadist volunteers in Syria and Iraq, as well as requiring internet and telephone providers to store metadata on their messaging for longer periods.
The chief effect of the latter will not be in making it more likely that terrorists, already under a good deal of electronic surveillance, will be caught but to make life far more difficult for the sharply declining number of journalists able or allowed to hold government to account. The primary method of doing this will be by the imposition of an electronic umbrella over the entire public service so strong that government and the AFP can be reasonably secure in the knowledge that every electronic communication with any of the known numbers, or email addresses of reptiles of the press, will be instantly brought to notice.
In such a happy environment, someone pointed out to me this week that the Nationals, particularly or especially Barnaby Joyce, were holding their discipline very well, and that none, of their ministers anyway, was creating any political problems for Abbott.
Probably only Julie Bishop has improved her standing in the electorate in recent times. Turnbull may have a stronger ambition for higher things, but has the discipline to wait; the only sense in which he is undermining Abbott is by looking the better and more confident manager. Scott Morrison and Greg Hunt have achieved some things for the government, but there is considerable polling evidence that voters distrust the zealous glint in their eyes. Of another minister, Kevin Andrews, people are wondering why and for what purpose he issues a media statement almost every Sunday frightening the hell out of pensioners, the disabled, the unemployed, and other voters.
On the horizon is the cancer of allegations before the NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption and its capacity to envelop Canberra figures. It has been some time since there were questions being raised about the (pre-Senate) conduct and greed of former Howard staffer turned businessman Arthur Sinodinos, but there is every chance that his name will be mentioned again over the next few weeks, as ICAC probes ways that Liberal figures connived to breach the clear spirit and intention of a NSW law banning donations from developers. At some of the relevant times Sinodinos was finance director (2009-2011) then president of the NSW branch of the party, before being deeded a safe Senate seat and a place in Abbott's ministry.
In earlier hearings into Australian Water Holdings, Sinodinos was vague but unconvincing about not knowing that figures alongside him were big donors to the party, allegedly using the fact of such donations, and intimacy with leading figures, to seek extraordinary favours from the NSW government. Even Sinodinos' own position, as frontman for an enterprise we now know to have been intrinsically dubious, was accompanied with the promise of a ''success fee'' if the NSW government was conned into enriching the company.
One would expect of the present inquiry that a president, or a party treasurer, would be just the sort of person an ICAC would be keen to hear from, particularly about knowledge, if any, of how party figures were moving brown-paper envelopes from forbidden donors to campaigns designed to benefit the local party. Assuming protestations of complete ignorance, others will ask questions about how much he, or anyone, was in charge. Or whether there is to be organisational accountability for a system wide open to abuse.
It can be expected that ICAC, or someone else, will soon discover evidence of Labor organisation figures playing the same game of finding elaborate means of protecting the identity of donors, laundering funds through other states, and disguising the purpose of donations. Indeed, the ALP has a long history of such rorts, evidenced by the Iraqi donation scandal of 1978, the Brian Burke and WA Inc fund-raising scandals of the 1980s, and rorts involving a succession of NSW ALP general secretaries. Public virtue, including ''campaign finacing reform'', has long accompanied private sleaze in such matters, with the ever present risk that the very clandestine nature of the traffic invites suspicion about whether it represents transactions for favours.
But the Liberal Party will not and should not get off the hook simply by arguing that Labor is as bad. It might in a Parliament, with both parties having a common interest in silence. But not with an ICAC. That's why we need one at the federal level.
This week, it was said in NSW's ICAC, that the federal director of the Liberal Party, Brian Loughnane, had been prepared to receive, on behalf of a party affiliate, the Free Enterprise Foundation, developer donations which would be ''washed'' back to the NSW Liberals. This is by no means necessarily in breach of NSW or Commonwealth law. But it has a very bad and embarrassing smell about it. The more so given a party thrust against the Gillard government on probity issues, and considering the closeness of the party organisation to the Abbott establishment.
Like the Sinodinos problem, the problem may not be strict impropriety or breach of the law, but of perceptions and appearances. And of the questions it invites about insiders, special access and privileges. In such a context, some of the arrangements that some north shore Liberal representatives, including Abbott and Hockey, have for fund-raising and having clubs of friends and supporters may also become an image problem again.
Most of Abbott problems are not primarily ones of poor judgment as such, though there have been many rushes of blood to the head. His real handicap is of letting enthusiasms, particularly ones with ideological flourishes, getting ahead of electoral opinion.
One must keep in touch with voters. They must know what one is thinking. They do not like surprises. They want most government to be predictable. Abbott knows that, but his manner of acting and thinking aloud shows that he does not really get it as he, and his team, devise policy and approaches and make announcements. They do not prepare the ground. Big policies and programs need constituencies, and clever governments often appear to be responding cautiously to pressure instead of boldly anticipating public opinion. If constituencies are to benefit from policies, one should expect them to have done some heavy lifting in making policies popular before policy change, and to be a devoted cheer squad when government responds, as well as after it does.
This is a process much much more sophisticated than listening to the views or bees in the bonnet of small groups of self-selected ideologues, all agreeing with each other about the sound commonsense of policy A or program B.
Our politicians are too likely to be persuaded by such groups to do their bidding before that rather inconvenient, slow and sometimes awkward process of creating a debate, establishing a need, involving the question in the auction of competing priorities and, particularly but critically, keeping the issue constantly alive in the public square.
Too many of our lobbies, moreover, take exactly the same short cuts, and scream blue murder if politicians fail them – even when they have invested very little in the task of preparing and persuading public opinion.
In politics, short cuts do not save time. Ever. Nor do quick and dirty deals, however much behind the scenes. Abbott and his team have got to go back and learn this all over again – and with an audience by now much more predisposed to be deaf.