View from The Hill

View from The Hill

A well-functioning cabinet – who are they kidding?

Prime Minister Tony Abbott is struggling to contain instability in an openly divided team. Lukas Coch/AAP

When Kevin Rudd came under attack from some of his ministers for the way he ran his cabinet, it turned out to be the beginning of the end. Now we are seeing Tony Abbott struggling to contain instability in an openly divided team.

Ministers are undermining each other and the prime minister, with leaks about the substance of issues and complaints about the process of dealing with them. Abbott lectures his colleagues with little result. The government’s Senate leader Eric Abetz attacks leakers as “gutless”.

On Wednesday a serious situation turned farcical when the government’s talking points (distributed to backbenchers as well as ministers) were leaked.

The recommended reply to questions about the cabinet agenda was to say that “in contrast to the experiences of [the] Rudd and Gillard governments, our cabinet is functioning exceptionally well. Everyone knows that under Labor, cabinet submissions were almost never lodged on time and would instead more often arrive on the day or weekend before a cabinet meeting.”

This can only be described as chutzpah. After the massive leak in May of a blow-by-blow account of the discussion about the controversial citizenship changes, and this week’s leaks about the thinness of the circulated agenda, it is obvious cabinet is not functioning “exceptionally well”.

As for proper notice: ministers’ angst over the citizenship changes was partly because they felt ambushed – the proposals had gone to the national security committee, but the cabinet itself had them dumped on it. The same thing happened last year with the plan to require the retention of metadata.

Monday’s cabinet decision to amend the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act to limit who can appeal against projects came without the matter being listed on the agenda.

The cabinet, which contains three rivals to Abbott – Malcolm Turnbull, Julie Bishop and Scott Morrison – is fragmenting.

Abetz has taken on a vigilante role. He said on Wednesday of those who gave unattributed comments to the media: “One, I think it’s gutless. Two, it’s a breach of the rules. And so if somebody is gutless and in breach of the rules, one really wonders why a journalist even bothers to repeat comments from such an individual.”

The use of leaks is a delicate area for Abetz. In 2009 he was deeply involved in the opposition obtaining leaks from public servant Godwin Grech who, it was then found, had faked a key email.

At the marathon Coalition partyroom meeting about same-sex marriage last week, Abetz suggested ministers who didn’t support the official policy should resign. Previously he had made the same point publicly, describing such a course as the “honourable thing”.

Key ministers are not taking much notice of Abetz.

Turnbull, adopting the licence of being a former leader, has always written some of his own rules, although he has lately become more outspoken in speeches and comments.

What has been really startling has been the bluntness of his fellow moderates, Christopher Pyne and George Brandis, during the same-sex marriage kerfuffle – Pyne criticising Abbott over including the Nationals in the partyroom meeting and Brandis attacking fellow cabinet minister Scott Morrison, who went public with his idea that the popular vote should take the form of a referendum.

Pyne used to be joined at the hip with Abbott, but no longer. He was genuinely angry at what he saw as Bronwyn Bishop being hung out to dry – he had defended her passionately – and he made his view clear in parliament.

Pyne is also deeply worried about his South Australian seat of Sturt. It has a margin of about 10% and Pyne is a formidable campaigner and fundraiser. But he is getting local blowback and is in the sights of Senate independent Nick Xenophon – himself a vote machine – who is planning to run candidates in Sturt and in other lower house seats.

One Liberal quips that Pyne is “lost in the desert”.

It’s harder to get to the bottom of Brandis’ state of mind, although in both the recent issues about which he has been agitated – citizenship, same-sex marriage – there have been questions of legal process that have concerned him.

Brandis is under some preselection pressure in the Queensland Liberal National Party, with which he has an uneasy relationship. Now that former Queensland senator Brett Mason has been dispatched to a diplomatic post, there is no real doubt that Brandis will retain his number one spot on the Senate ticket, but he will remain anxious until that is confirmed early next year.

Once a cabinet starts to fragment, it is very hard to glue it together again.

In the next few months Abbott is expected to have a reshuffle, which gives an opportunity to freshen the team but also produces losers, who can be difficult to handle.

Even if Abbott didn’t want to make changes they may be forced on him.

Abbott is desperate to keep Warren Truss, the leader of the Nationals, in the deputy prime ministership beyond the election (assuming the government is re-elected). And some Nationals want him to stay in particular to groom a wider succession field than Barnaby Joyce. Truss has renominated for preselection.

Despite that, there is continued speculation that Truss, who has previously been in poor health, is more likely than not to step back from the leadership in the new year and depart parliament at the election. Truss’ wife, Lyn, who would prefer him to retire, has more influence with him than does Abbott and will have a big say in what happens.

Listen to the latest Politics with Michelle Grattan podcast with guest, Clare O'Neil, talking about her new book Two Futures.