And welcome back, Joe Hockey. The Treasurer’s interview with Neil Mitchell this morning was his first sighting in the media since exactly a month ago — somewhat longer than the usual Christmas holiday, but here’s hoping Hockey, who was childishly attacked by his own colleagues for having a post-budget break last winter, recharged his batteries while out of sight. Perhaps he’ll do some campaigning in the Queensland election. One imagines the LNP would be chuffed to have him.

With the Prime Minister being in “witness protection” (OK, seriously Bill Shorten, enough with the zingers) and Hockey deep undercover, the government might have hoped for a better start to 2015 than the end of 2014 suggested, if only by dint of having its two least popular figures out of public gaze. The fact that it is the Prime Minister and the Treasurer who are the least popular members of the government, however, says a great deal about how profound this government’s woes are. Things are probably even worse now than last week, when Essential’s poll showed the Coalition starting the year trailing Labor 54-46 and Abbott plumbing positively speleological depths of voter approval.

Alas, the Medicare payment debacle put paid to such hopes. In the face of a looming campaign by GPs to explain to patients why they were going to have to pay considerably more for visits, the government abandoned its proposed adjustments to the schedule of consultation payments announced on December 9. At least, the government has now perfected the art of backflipping, with senior ministers insisting, hand on hearts and swearing blood oaths, that they’re not for turning, right up until the moment the policy is abandoned (then not abandoned totally, then abandoned again, before possibly being revived again at some later date) after the government has “listened”.

This one had a particularly nasty aftermath, though — double backflip with sting — with both backbenchers and senior ministers rushing to the media to reveal what had happened behind the scenes. In particular, Sam Maiden at News Corp revealed Abbott had been at loggerheads with Hockey and, for what it may be worth, Dutton, since moved along to a portfolio where his stolid pointlessness can be deployed to better effect. That report was enough to prompt Hockey to emerge from his undisclosed location today to deny any split.

As it turns out, Hockey was right. The December 9 announcement was the kind of half-smart announcement we used to regularly get from Labor, one designed solely to produce the right headline — in this case “Abbott dumps co-payment” — without costing the budget too much. The government now doesn’t even get points for persisting with a justifiable, but unpopular, policy, which it would have done if Hockey’s advice had been followed.

The one positive in all this is that new Health Minister Sussan Ley will be a more effective salesperson than the dud she replaced. Unlike most of her ministerial colleagues and lazy former colleagues like Sophie Mirabella, Ley works immensely hard to stay in touch with her electorate, having snaffled it off the Nationals in 2001 and increased her margin significantly every election since except the Ruddslide of 2007. At a quarter of a million square kilometres, that takes hard work and long hours at the steering wheel and aircraft controls. If the PMO is smart enough to listen to her, Labor will find Ley a much more difficult target than Dutton, whose idea of selling the GP co-payment — which he insisted after December 9 was always a kind of policy ambit claim — consisted of yelling “Medicare is unsustainable” and discussing the finer points of internal Labor policy debate in 1991.

In any event, the wash-up is another example of Abbott’s poor political judgement, a public split between Abbott and Hockey and a bad start to the year, especially given the possible impact in Queensland, when Campbell Newman has panicked and tried to use the holidays to sneak an LNP election win that, absurdly, is at risk.

This time in 2014, the idea that Abbott might not make it to the 2016 election was dismissed as absurd. Now News Corp figures are busy lining up behind either Julie Bishop or Scott Morrison as replacements. The thinking was that Abbott had the rest of the year to get his act together before facing real leadership pressure. Could it be that the endgame of the Liberal leadership gets played out well before then? More bad polls, more inept decisions and the speculation will start. Abbott and Hockey may yet disappear from public gaze on a somewhat more permanent basis than they currently plan.

Peter Fray

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