View from The Hill

A politician trying to punch through a point needs to be standing on firm ground

Joe Hockey has been on the receiving end of an embarrassing slap down from Toyota. Alan Porritt/AAP

Overreach seems to be endemic in this government. One would think that, after Tony Abbott laid it on far too thick about workers’ conditions at SPC Ardmona and received a tongue lashing from one of his own, Treasurer Joe Hockey would have been extra careful.

But no. Hockey fell into a similar trap – and his slap down came from a rather bigger player.

When it announced that it planned to shut down its Australian manufacturing, Toyota cited a range of reasons. But Hockey wanted to put as much blame as possible on the costs imposed by the workers’ conditions.

So a story was given to the Australian Financial Review, which on Wednesday splashed with a report of a December meeting between Hockey and Toyota Australia president Max Yasuda in December.

“Sources familiar with the meeting said that Mr Hockey asked Mr Yasuda whether Toyota would also leave if Holden departed,” the story said. “Mr Yasuda said he could convince Toyota headquarters in Tokyo to stay in Australia as long as it could pare back the [workplace] conditions which the company contended were hampering productivity.” These included a long Christmas shutdowns and 10 days paid leave for union delegates.

On radio Hockey described the report as “accurate”. But unfortunately for him, Toyota didn’t take the same view.

“Toyota Australia denies the allegations in today’s front page Australian Financial Review story, ‘Toyota blamed union’,” the company said in a bluntly-worded statement.

“Toyota Australia has never blamed the union for its decision to close its manufacturing operations by the end of 2017, neither publicly or in private discussions with any stakeholders.

"As stated at the time of the announcement, there is no single reason that led to this decision. The market and economic factors contributing to the decision include the unfavourable Australian dollar that makes exports unviable, high costs of manufacturing and low economies of scale for our vehicle production and local supplier base.

"Together with one of the most open and fragmented automotive markets in the world and increased competitiveness due to current and future Free Trade Agreements, it is not viable to continue building cars in Australia.”

Tackled later in question time, Hockey sought to maintain there was no inconsistency.

But if you are a politician trying to punch through a point, best make sure you are not standing on a rug someone is able to pull away. It’s one thing to send out a message that over-generous working conditions are harming an industry’s competitiveness. If, however, exaggeration opens the way for a credible challenge, the result is the message is lost and the messenger discredited.

Toyota was able to land a clean blow after the story. The ABC, which has sustained for weeks a torrid campaign of overreach by the government and News Corp - alleging bias, lack of patriotism and much else - has not been able to counter so effectively.

In its case, the pushback potentially comes from the public. This week’s Newspoll found that about half of all voters believed the ABC’s treatment of different political parties was “fair and balanced”, and around a quarter were uncommitted on the matter. Some 18% said it was biased in favour of the ALP; 19% said it was biased against the Coalition. The Australian, where the ABC often gets page one treatment, ran the story on page two.

Coalition politicians who say they are getting so much negative feedback about the ABC seem to be mixing in selective circles.

Another, quite different, case of overreach came from Labor on Wednesday.

After bipartisan speeches earlier on “closing the gap” of indigenous disadvantage, opposition leader Bill Shorten chose to open his question time attack by referring to Abbott’s “election promise to visit East Arnhem Land in his first week as prime minister”. Shorten asked why the PM hadn’t been to Gove, given that Rio Tinto would close its aluminium refinery by the middle of the year. Shorten wanted to know what was Abbott’s plan to help the 1200 people losing their jobs there.

The reference to the election promise, repeated in Labor’s second question, went to badly-worded language by the PM when he was in Arnhem Land before the election. Abbott on that occasion was trying to say that his first stay-over at an Aboriginal community as PM would be in Arnhem Land.

While it was appropriate to ask about the job plan, the implication that Abbott, who will spend a week in Arnhem Land this year, had broken an election pledge was off key on the day.

Knowing when not to play politics is a political skill in itself.

Listen to the latest Politics with Michelle Grattan podcast with Small Business Minister Bruce Billson here.