While we’re all focused, correctly, on the deep divisions within the Liberal Party, the government’s inability to perform the most basic political management tasks is arguably its most serious problem.

Less than a week after the Fair Work Commission’s decision to slash Sunday and public holiday penalty rates for hospitality and retail workers, we’re now up to five separate positions from the government:

  1. It’s the decision of the independent umpire (ignore that the Coalition has not merely overturned decisions by industrial relations umpires but got rid of umpires entirely);
  2. It’s Bill Shorten’s fault because he set up the Fair Work Commission and the award review process, and, when he was a union leader, pursued deals that traded off penalty rates;
  3. Penalty rate cuts are a good thing and will create employment — and are even a “gift” to young people, in the words of one government MP;
  4. That the government has no position or opinion, as Treasurer Scott Morrison and his departmental secretary John Fraser said yesterday;
  5. That penalty rate cuts are a good thing but current workers should not be disadvantaged, so existing workers’ salaries should be grandfathered (Eric Abetz’s proposal today).

This morning, Malcolm Turnbull seemed to suggest a sixth position — a variant of Abetz’s, in which cuts to penalty rates would not be grandfathered (the commission, understandably, doesn’t like grandfathering, which creates multiple classes of workers under the same award) but would, in effect, be offset by normal increases in base award levels.

It’s remarkable to say this, but Abetz has shown greater political judgement than the government. The man who warned we were all about to experience a wages explosion in 2014 (we wish, Eric, we wish) has identified the relatively straightforward policy and political response a government, whose members have long demanded penalty rate cuts, might have been expected to have had prepared in advance of the commission decision.

Instead, the government has had multiple positions and non-positions, including trying to blame Bill Shorten for something its members have spent years saying is a good thing. So here are some basic questions Coalition MPs should be asking the government’s leadership group:

  • Did the PMO, in consultation with Employment Minister Michaelia Cash’s office, have a communication plan for the announcement of the Commission’s decision?
  • Was it circulated to ministers, including the Treasurer?
  • Was a plan for the handling of the issue at Senate estimates drawn up and circulated?
  • Is there a better way for MPs to learn what the government’s position is than listening to what the Prime Minister tells Sabra Lane?

The reason this sort of basic stuff is so important is that, without it, it’s virtually impossible to do anything in government that is even mildly controversial. For a government that has both become a byword for failing to deliver and is facing a potentially devastating Labor campaign to link it to wage cuts, it’s particularly problematic.

And it’s a problem that manifests itself time and time again. The PMO doesn’t seem to be aware of what key political moments are coming up, or if it is, it doesn’t do anything about them, or if it does, it’s wholly ineffectual. Whether it’s having the Prime Minister’s agenda-setting opening address of the political year on the day political donations data came out, or Scott Morrison’s brain snap to link the omnibus bill to paying for the NDIS, or tying your political fortunes to “clean coal” without checking with energy companies whether they’d ever be interested in it — Tony Abbott didn’t cause any of these, they were all self-inflicted wounds. And they just keep happening.

 

Peter Fray

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