“Unforced errors”, they call them in sports. “He’s dropped it cold,” the footy commentator will observe about some fumble made without pressure from an opponent. This week’s iron ore inquiry debacle was exactly that, an error created entirely by the Prime Minister, for no reason beyond Tony Abbott’s tendency to agree with whomever he is talking to and allow himself to start nodding in agreement with whatever someone like Alan Jones tells him.

An inquiry into the iron ore sector began as an idea of Nick Xenophon’s, encouraged by Andrew Forrest, a heavily leveraged billionaire whose mining operations are significantly less efficient than his competitors’, as a way of somehow — it’s still not really clear how — pressuring BHP and Rio Tinto to compete less with him. And last Friday, according to Abbott, we “needed” such an inquiry, a position Abbott was still maintaining on Monday, before by degrees he pulled back from it. Last night Joe Hockey issued a terse statement that there’d be no inquiry. Today, Abbott declared — contrary to himself — “we made a decision that there was no need for it at this time”. “Obviously there was some very public calls for an inquiry about a week ago,” he added, not mentioning that he himself had been the one making the very public call for an inquiry.

It was Hockey who tried to politicise the whole issue, and thus was made to look silliest by Abbott’s backflip. On Tuesday, in Adelaide, Hockey said the government was consulting with Labor, which had expressed mild but no particular interest in an inquiry. Then Hockey later shifted position and criticised Labor, saying Xenophon’s inquiry “was going to turn into some sort of star chamber run by Sam Dastyari again”. The following day, in Darwin, the whole thing was transformed by Hockey into a Labor plot. “Bill Shorten was the one that was originally entertaining a potential parliamentary inquiry with Nick Xenophon,” Hockey declared adamantly. “So Bill Shorten’s got to be put on the sticky paper on this.”

Erm, sticky paper?

This was Hockey again showing his remarkable capacity for sticking his foot in his mouth, not merely trying to blame the whole thing on Labor but signalling just how effectively Sam Dastyari, who has been in the Senate less than two years, has rattled the government with his chairmanship of the Senate Economics References committee. To continue the footy parlance, Hockey’s reference to Dastyari was “having a look” — allowing himself to be distracted by a looming tackler rather than concentrating on controlling the ball.

Hockey’s tendency to open his mouth first and engage his brain some minutes later is simply part of his political make-up, something that can be curbed (possibly) but never eradicated. Abbott’s tendency to agree with whoever he is talking to at a particular moment is symptomatic of a deeper problem. A prime minister certain of his or her core beliefs, who instinctively understood the implications of conducting an inquiry into Australia’s most important export industry at the behest of a uncompetitive participant, would never have declared the necessity of such an inquiry. It’s one thing to pander to the pastoral idyll fantasies of the Nationals and genuflect at the altar of small business by targeting the supermarket chains, which in any event do seem predisposed to as much anti-competitive conduct as they can get away with. It’s quite another to play silly buggers with our biggest export, on which government revenue so heavily depends. In the longer context of the side of politics that purports to be pro-resource industry and which has lamented the sovereign risk posed to the sector by its political opponents, it was ridiculous.

This is the continuing consequence of Abbott’s unwillingness to ever let consistency or evidence restrain him in his public statements. Not merely has he lost the ability to convincingly argue anything beyond a negative case — notice his current strategy isn’t to posit a positive vision for Australia but to explain how Labor is for more taxes and he’s against new taxes — but he appears (extraordinarily for a politician so frequently identified as an ideological warrior) to lack a core policy vision that informs his handling of the vicissitudes of public life. People call for inquiries, royal commissions, reviews and summits all the time. Some might be worthwhile, some are partisan stunts, some are just because people think a review is a good idea for any problem. A prime minister with an instinctive grasp of what their core values are wouldn’t second-guess himself or herself  as Abbott so visibly did, under pressure from BHP and Rio Tinto.

What do Abbott and his government stand for beyond being in power? Not fiscal discipline and small government, because taxes and spending are going up and the budget deficit keeps blowing out. Stopping the boats? Sure. Looking after fossil fuel companies? Certainly. Looking after the iron ore industry? Well, until this week, you’d have automatically said yes. Not any more.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey