(Image: AAP)

The Turnbull government’s political management is enough to make you put your head in your hands and cry. In the space of a week, it has driven its omnibus welfare measures bill off the road and, it seems, over the nearest cliff.

Nick Xenophon overnight ruled out supporting the bill — even in amended form after comparing the government’s negotiating tactics to a sledgehammer, although he’s prepared to back some individual measures presented separately.

The omnibus bill started as a tactic to put some momentum into the government’s now years-old Family Tax Benefit savings proposal and give effect to its commitment to increase funding for child care subsidies when savings had been identified for it. The FTB savings were eminently sensible and deserved support, but linking them to child care subsidies — where the government is implementing the outcomes of a Productivity Commission report — gave a concrete example of the benefits of reprioritising welfare.

Then the government got ambitious, and lumped in an attack on young Newstart recipients, and a half-hearted fix to its self-created problem of “double-dipping” on paid parental leave by insisting on cutting access to government PPL for women with access to employer-funded PPL, but increasing the government PPL scheme by two weeks. You could argue they were included as an ambit claim to be knocked off in the Senate by crossbenchers who could claim a win protecting young people and new mums. If so, it was half-smart, because guess what the opposition and the media focused on, rather than child care subsidy increases?

But even so, that looked magisterial politics yesterday when Scott Morrison, Education Minister Simon Birmingham and Social Services Minister Christian Porter walked into the Blue Room at Parliament House to announce that “the balance of the savings achieved through that Bill will be provided and debited into the NDIS special account.”

After first spruiking the $50 billion company tax cuts, that is.

The immediate problem was that Morrison and Porter got snared in their own figures, because Porter had to explain that the difference between forecast NDIS costs and the “special account” revenue notionally allocated for it had shrunk, not increased for coming years. But the worse problem was the look of a government demanding that the world’s biggest companies be given a massive tax cut, while demanding its welfare savings bill be passed or the disabled cop it.

As it turned out, Morrison later acknowledged that the disabled wouldn’t cop it, merely that savings would have to be found elsewhere. Which prompted the question of why the government was bothering to link them in the first place, but if you always asked “why” about things this government does, you’d go mad.

Bear in mind that in this particular game, Nick Xenophon is the key player. Pauline Hanson has already indicated her noisome clutch will back the government. And when you go up against Xenophon in a PR game, you’re up against the best, a politician who exemplifies the art of positioning himself exactly where voters are likely to end up. Now Xenophon looks like he’s protecting the NDIS from the government and Hanson, even if he and his colleagues end up backing some of the measures separately. 

Xenophon can do this sort of thing in his sleep — especially when the government is so shambolic in its tactics.

Peter Fray

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