Lib leaks hint at eroded trust

Written By komlim puldel on Jumat, 05 Desember 2014 | 20.01

Joe Hockey's performance is central to the Abbott Government's difficulties. Source: News Corp Australia

IMMIGRATION Minister Scott Morrison had a big win late on Thursday night, gaining enough crossbench support to ensure the Senate passed changes to asylum seeker laws, including measures to bolster the Government's power to turn back boats.

He had been working flat-out for more than a week to get the numbers, at one stage even pursuing Clive Palmer to a function at the US embassy to continue the arm-twisting that eventually got Palmer United Party senators on side.

That Senate success was a rare high point for the Abbott Government in what was a shambolic end to a shambolic parliamentary year.

Yet just hours later, when yesterday's edition of Sydney's Daily Telegraph hit the streets with a front-page report on suggestions Joe Hockey could be dumped as Treasurer, some of his Liberal colleagues were pointing the finger at Morrison as a likely source.

"For God's sake, Scott's been virtually living with crossbenchers all week," said a Morrison defender. "He had a merciless focus on getting this legislation through. When would he have had the time to dump on Joe?"

Other Liberals had different suspicions about the exclusive by journalist Simon Benson.

Benson is well connected and one of his most important connections is in the Prime Minister's office. Because of that, according to a senior Liberal MP, "people will not assume it has been written lightly". Another source says: "Directing attention at Joe could be an attempt to give some cover to the PM. He's the one who's been stuffing up lately."

No matter who spoke to Benson or what was their motivation, the importance of the incident lies in the disunity and paranoia it exposes and the lack of trust at the highest levels of the Government.

There had been more evidence a day earlier when The Financial Review ran a story about a confrontation between Tony Abbott and Foreign Affairs Minister Julie Bishop. The paper claimed the minister had "gone bananas" at a meeting with Abbott over reports she was to be "chaperoned" at a climate change conference in Peru by Trade Minister Andrew Robb.

Bishop was offended, according to the paper, because it was said the Prime Minister's Office wanted the more sceptical Robb keeping an eye on her to ensure she did not overcommit Australia on climate change policy.

Something is clearly amiss when details of a row between the PM and his deputy leader are leaked like this. Given that Bishop is popular among Coalition backbenchers and regarded as the Government's best performer, it could only be damaging to Abbott.

Keep in mind that these days "the Prime Minister's Office" is almost always code for Abbott's protective and controlling chief of staff, Peta Credlin.

Credlin, like Hockey, is regarded by a growing number of Liberals as a problem that will have to be dealt with. Speculation about a possible Senate berth to get her out of her current role, though almost certainly groundless, indicates the concern.

But Hockey is the subject of most of the talk. There is much to be said for getting rid of ministerial dead wood but, replacing the likes of Kevin Andrews and David Johnston may not be enough.

Hockey's performance is undoubtedly central to the Government's difficulties. A very prominent Liberal told me after the Coalition's Victorian election loss: "A reshuffle won't really change anything if it doesn't change Joe."

And changing Joe is probably too hard — not only because the most obvious replacement, Malcolm Turnbull, would immediately be portrayed as a leadership threat to Abbott.

To begin with, friends say, Hockey would not go quietly. It would be ugly. Also, giving a Treasurer the shove would be a big deal, effectively an admission that the Government's economic policy has been on the wrong track from the start. On top of that, if Hockey has failed to produce the right Budget or to sell it properly, then the PM shares the blame.

Abbott chaired the Expenditure Review Committee. Abbott's office, under Credlin's command and control structure, is at the heart of every decision. The Prime Minister and the Treasurer are joined at the hip. Or perhaps, the hip-pocket nerve. If Joe's on the nose, the PM by definition is just as pongy.

And there is the added element that Hockey's Budget proved toxic primarily because Abbott lacked the ticker to tell voters the truth before last year's election. Abbott made promises he obviously knew could not be kept. Hapless Hockey can hardly be held responsible for his leader's political cowardice.

Whether Hockey will stay as Treasurer is undoubtedly a matter of interest. The question asked much more often, though, is whether Abbott can survive as PM. He answered that himself on Thursday when he remarked that "governments that change their leaders haven't done very well lately". Julia Gillard's unhappy prime ministership, plus the Coalition's defeat in Victoria after replacing a premier midterm, provide Abbott with insurance.

 

LAURIE OAKES IS THE NINE NETWORK'S POLITICAL EDITOR

Originally published as Lib leaks hint at eroded trust

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