Parliament begins sitting tomorrow for another gruelling fortnight, which will most likely resemble the Battle of Stalingrad more than the calm deliberations of the Westminster system. Street by street, house by house, amendment by amendment and deal by deal, the Abbott government is still trying to put together the core initiatives it announced as its bold plan to end the “age of entitlement”. Barring some secret comprehensive deal stitched together with a bloc consisting of PUP + Muir and the Leyonhjelm (Lib Dem)-Bob Day (Liberal Fi-, sorry. Family First) axis, there is going to be no big triumphal announcement. Word around on the weekend was that nothing like that was in the offing — and this crew of senators seem far too motley to keep any sort of false front.

There isn’t much focus on the government side, either. Yesterday, Christopher Pyne announced on The Bolt Report (the word covers, it must be remembered, the sound of something backfiring) that a refusal to pass the Norton-Kemp free-market higher education proposals would trigger regulation-based cuts to research. Since some of the government’s few supporters are the Group of Eight VCs — holding the line against their own staff and students — this is another own goal, forcing them into opposition against the government. Does Pissy Cryin’ really think swing voters care more about cutting-edge research or whether their kids can afford to do a business studies degree and get a house before they’re 35?

But what else would we now expect? This budget, and its history, outlined by my colleague Keane, will be studied by political historians with the same gape-mouth that military historians study decisions like Hitler letting the British Expeditionary Force escape at Dunkirk, or Stalin disregarding his spies’ reports of Barbarossa. There’s a budget emergency, a baseline co-pay to fund a medical research fund — entirely separate to the world-leading research grant evaluation and distribution process we already have — and a paid parental leave scheme insisted on because there now is no budget emergency. It’s like an Escher picture — by the time you go round, you’re facing the opposite direction to the one you came in.

The government surely realises that it is in a make-or-break period. The jury is almost back in on the Coalition’s ability to run a country, and there is a widespread sense that government MPs are not merely bad at messaging, but incompetent at the basic processes. Having been elected to be competent implementers of an inherited Labor program — hence the promises on Gonski, NDIS, Fair Work, universities, the ABC — they have become the incompetent wreckers of it. People vote a party in either as an expression of their values, or, conversely, hire them to do a job — the difference is between choosing a spouse and choosing a lawyer, often to manage the divorce. Abbott was hired as the latter, but has behaved like the former. Hence the far more rapid turnaround in their fortunes, than for Rudd, who was a political bride — a crazy one, who shredded photos of your exes and had you followed by detectives, but a bride nevertheless. You don’t sack a bride. Have her rubbed out, maybe,  for the insurance, but not sack her. Jesus, where was I?

“There is, at the moment, no clear picture of who’s actually running the show as we go into this fortnight, despite a series of rolling crisis meetings.”

The failure to rule a lot of this stuff out and make a bold and positive offer will cost the Coalition dearly. They could have done this in terms of their own narrative by:

  1. ruling out the co-pay — which is, after all, not actually directed towards reducing the deficit — and calling a loss on PPL, which actually increases the deficit;
  2. suggesting a reduced dole for under 25s who do not undertake training, but junking the six-month gap;
  3. preserving one element of the spending measures attached to the mining tax — either the schoolkids bonus or the low-income super supplements — and junked the rest;
  4. halving the proposed increase in uni fees and left interest on HECS debt at existing rates; and
  5. quietly letting the asset recycling program sit in limbo.

That would be a package likely to gain the support of all five non-PUP crossbenchers, putting the heat firmly on Palmer — and also on Labor. Palmer’s interest is in making the Liberal-National coalition look incompetent on a nationwide scale, right up to the Queensland election. Yet many of his supporters believe in deficit reduction and the incompetence of Labor. Why would the government not take the opportunity to bang a wedge between party and supporters? The most interesting thing in asking this question is that when you ask around from those who should know, no one does.  This is a government without a three-month plan, much less a three-year one, so far as anyone can detect — and the failure seems to be one of leadership. The strong sense is that ministers like Pyne and Cormann — absent of any co-ordination of a central message — are just playing it as individual operators. This is always the great danger for a Liberal Party, based on the creed of individualism — its ability to generate the sort of teeth-grinding commitment to solidarity in the last instance that Labor can produce is diminished by its very conception of the world.  There is, at the moment, no clear picture of who’s actually running the show as we go into this fortnight, despite a series of rolling crisis meetings.

Maybe they have a deal ready to go, and this was all — given Mr Tony’s fireman metaphor — a smokescreen. But the strong suspicion is, while we’re having a metaphor clear-out, that they’re not the firemen come to put out the fire, they’re the strippers dressed as firemen, come to goose up Madison’s hens’ night. You can leave your hats on, fellas — you may not be staying long.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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