Federal Politics


Abbott needs to pull his team back together

Tony Abbott needs to get his act together and his team back on track if he hopes to contain Labor's resurgence. In the past few weeks, the wheels have threatened to fall off his well-oiled campaign machine. Mostly, the reason for this is his judgment, or lack of it.

Going to the Bali memorial gardens must have looked like a good idea at the time, but it would have turned out much better if his press conference had been conducted outside that peaceful area.

And, if he professes to hate ill-discipline as much as he says he does, why doesn't he do something about it earlier, to nip the problem in the bud, rather than waiting for a crisis to erupt? Realistically, he has to give Barnaby Joyce and Malcolm Turnbull latitude to speak their minds. It's not such a good look for party discipline but to sack them from the frontbench would create a row he can do without, this close to the election.

But Cory Bernardi is in a different category altogether. If Abbott found the senator's bizarre link between gay marriage and bestiality so appalling, why didn't he just come out and say so at the first opportunity?

For several weeks, tensions have been building in the Coalition over a perceived lack of discipline. The most notable ''freelancer'' is Joyce, the Nationals Senate leader.

On the backbench, the Queensland senator spoke his mind freely. When he agreed to join the opposition frontbench, Abbott hoped Joyce would play by the rules and stick to his assigned bundle of issues.


Nah. That assessment takes no account of the Nationals' pressing need to carve a separate profile within the strictures of the Coalition.

That desire was on show in Canberra last weekend when the Nationals held their federal conference. There, according to Queensland Country Life, the party's senior leaders made ''stirring pledges to deliver positive changes in rural Australia'' if the Coalition won the election. ''The federal National Party has boldly declared itself ready, willing and able to play a critical role representing rural and regional Australia effectively in a Coalition government, while striking a better deal for the farming sector,'' the paper said.

One of the Nationals' key pitches to rural people is creating fear that the Labor government is ''selling off the farm''. The sale of Cubbie Station to a Chinese-led consortium is the latest target. It is Australia's largest cotton producer and therefore people have a right to know what's happening. Why is the Foreign Investment Review Board allowing the sale of iconic properties and brands, the Nationals ask?

This campaign conveniently ignores the record of former Coalition treasurer Peter Costello who rarely rejected the board's recommendations. Joyce has protested loudly about Cubbie, despite the sale being in accord with Coalition policy. There was talk he would leave the frontbench.

Abbott wanted him to fall into line but he continued. The political fallout is that this ''freelancing'' outside his assigned area of interest is causing ructions in the Coalition.

At the same time, Labor is making small gains in the polls and Abbott's personal approval rating is sliding.

This alarming trend prompted Julie Bishop to give the team a stern warning on Tuesday when she addressed the Coalition meeting, filling in for Abbott who was attending the funeral of a digger killed in Afghanistan.

She said if the Liberals were willing to give ground to contain an internal revolt on deregulation of the wheat market, the Nationals must show similar team spirit.

Wasn't Bernardi listening? Just hours later, he made his bestiality comments. Before that, the senator had irritated some colleagues with opinion pieces aimed at Islam.

His blog goes under the title, ''Common sense lives here'', where readers can ''get inside the mind of a conservative who is willing to actually speak his mind''.

Like so many senators, he didn't face an election, entering Parliament in 2006 to fill the vacancy created by the departure of Robert Hill.

Bernardi has been sacked before from the frontbench. He angered then Liberal leader Malcolm Turnbull with ''intemperate'' comments on homosexuality in 2008. Later Turnbull, a moderate, dumped him for making unsubstantiated claims about a fellow MP in his blog. Bernardi was restored to the frontbench by Abbott when Turnbull was toppled from the party leadership.

This week Abbott sat on his hands after Bernardi's outburst in the Senate. Bernardi then repeated his bestiality comments on radio.

Abbott has a sister who is gay but still he did not act.

There was a problem contacting the senator, who was flying to Sydney to catch a flight to London.

Later, Abbott called a media conference for 12.10 pm, when a vote was imminent on the gay marriage bill. Just a few minutes into his conference, the Parliament House bells began their clarion call for MPs to make their way to the chamber to cast their vote, and Abbott closed the media conference.

After being dumped from his position as parliamentary secretary, Bernardi did not apologise, and Abbott's sacking of the senator appeared half-hearted. ''Many people would find [the comment] repugnant'' was hardly strong criticism.

However, Abbott turned the situation to his advantage. He removed an unpopular and divisive figure from the frontbench, and replaced him with the highly experienced Arthur Sinodinos, formerly John Howard's chief of staff.

Sinodinos is well placed to engage in straight talking with Abbott and help put the Coalition team back on even ground.

In his brief press conference, Abbott laid down the law against disunity. ''It's pretty clear that if you want to freelance, you can do so on the backbench but you can't freelance from the frontbench.''

Abbott hadn't been talking to the media horde so much recently. Presumably he's been trying hard not to make stuff-ups. But when he did appear in the Bali memorial gardens, a day after the sacking, he had reflected on the situation and had more time to express his views.

Did he find the comment repugnant? ''Yes, I do, and the fact that Cory is no longer a member of the shadow frontbench demonstrates that he did the wrong thing in every sense.''

Abbott now hopes that his team has got the message on unity. He is right to be sensitive about this issue because the polls right now are not going in his direction.

''I expect discipline from my colleagues and I expect judgment from my colleagues and I'm confident that's what I'll get,'' he said.

Bernardi was recently given the first position on the Senate ticket for South Australia for the next election, meaning he is guaranteed another six years in Parliament. What's to stop him from freelancing from the backbench and ruining Abbott's day?

And Abbott should expect Turnbull to continue giving speeches outside his portfolio, such as the recent withering criticism about the Coalition's tactics in question time.

Ross Peake is Political Editor.

Twitter: @rosspeakeCT