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Reluctant Morrison brings Tamils to Australia, hoping they’ll end up in India

Scott Morrison has claimed the High Court challenge has no influence on the government’s present actions. AAP/Nikki Short

Immigration Minister Scott Morrison has been forced to capitulate and agree to bring to Australia the 157 Sri Lankan Tamil asylum seekers who have been held in a Customs vessel on the high seas for weeks.

The government has made the reluctant concession in order to get India to take back as many as possible of these people, who are currently the subject of a High Court case that the Coalition can’t afford to lose.

India, from where the Tamils embarked, has now gone beyond its usual practice of just accepting its own nationals by promising to consider the return of residents who may be Sri Lankan nationals. Morrison told a news conference on Friday the government “greatly appreciated” this “generous extension of Indian government policy”.

It is not known whether there was any trade off to encourage co-operation, or whether the Indians might later try to send the Sri Lankans home. Nor is it known what would happen to any people India would not take, beyond Morrison being adamant that “they won’t remain in Australia. They will not be resettled in Australia”.

The High Court’s full bench is due to hear the Tamils' case on August 5, with the central question being whether the government has the power to detain people on the high seas and send them to a country where they may not be safe. The case followed the government returning a boatload of Sri Lankans home after perfunctory processing at sea.

Morrison claimed the legal challenge had no influence on the government’s present actions. But with the case’s outcome hard to predict the government has been desperate to find a destination for these people. That could well reduce its exposure to an adverse decision. If the government lost the case, that could have significant implications for its border control policy.

The Guardian reported on Friday that the Tamils were on their way to Cocos Islands, to be flown from there to the mainland and the Curtin detention centre.

Morrison insisted that where they were going was an operational matter and would not provide any details.

And he declined to acknowledge the arrival of these people in Australia would spoil the government’s record. In the last seven months there had not been a single successful people smuggling venture to Australia and this remained the case, he said.

Morrison was in India this week to press for a deal. The Times of India described him as the “embattled” immigration minister. The Indians wanted to process the Tamils in Australia; the government had no choice but to go along with that.

While the agreement with India is one step forward for Morrison, there could be more grief ahead for him in relation to these people.

Despite his protestations to the contrary, the conditions in which the asylum seekers, who include children, have been kept on the ship sound very bad – they were let into the open for only a small part of the day. Once they are on Australian soil, more information will come out.

The government has been able to brush off too easily questions about how it is treating detainees. This week Australian Human Rights Commission president Gillian Triggs strongly criticised conditions for the children on Christmas Island. In the Howard era Liberal moderates took up the cause of children; these days the voices of the (few) moderates are not heard.

Unlike his colleague Joe Hockey, under fire from some colleagues post budget, Morrison is a hero to many of his fellow Liberals for stopping the boats.

But he’s also had some significant defeats. He has beaten (more or less) the people smugglers, but the refugee advocates have kept him on the run.

The Senate wouldn’t allow the reintroduction of temporary protection visas. Morrison tried to circumvent this by imposing a “cap” on permanent protection visas, as a device to ensure no more would be issued. This was successfully challenged in the High Court, in a case run on behalf of an Ethiopian teenager who had arrived by boat.

Unwilling to be thwarted, Morrison raised the prospect of denying visas on “national interest” grounds. But in a turnaround after receiving a further submission from the boy’s lawyers, he granted a permanent visa, rather than face the prospect of more action in the High Court.

After the secret operation in which Australia handed over the boatload of asylum seekers to the Sri Lankans, the advocates stepped in to stop any repeat effort with the second boatload by obtaining a High Court injunction, the start of the case now underway.

The advocates and the High Court have done a good deal more to keep Morrison and the government accountable than has the opposition, which for political reasons more often than not pulls its punches.

Joe Hockey grooms himself for leadership – but only in government

Treasurer Joe Hockey says he would not spend another stint in opposition, if the Abbott government were voted out. AAP/Nikki Short

As Tony Abbott’s paid parental leave scheme continues to be a millstone around the government’s neck, a new book reveals that he briefed Rupert Murdoch in detail on the plan before taking it to his party.

A biography of Joe Hockey also reports the then shadow treasurer was alerted to the scheme by Abbott but didn’t take much notice, thinking it was just an uncosted proposal.

Abbott, opposition leader from late 2009, announced the scheme on International Women’s Day in March 2010. When he had dined with Murdoch, who was in Australia the month before, “he gave the media mogul a full rundown on the scheme – supplying enough detail for Murdoch to later have his Australian-based editors briefed” on it. “This fact was unknown to members in the party room, who condemned Abbott’s solo policy-making on such a fundamental issue.”

Abbott and Hockey have different versions of the heads-up Hockey was given.

Abbott says: “Joe was one of the very few colleagues whom I discussed the paid parental leave proposal with … I don’t want to verbal Joe but he certainly saw the merit in it – that’s not quite the same as saying he enthusiastically supported it.”

Hockey recalls the subject as a “brief add-on” in a phone conversation, with no date or detail attached. “Joe says he didn’t think too much more about it, believing it was an uncosted proposal, not an opposition policy,” author Madonna King writes.

Soon after Abbott made what he described as a “captain’s call” and announced the policy, Hockey protested to him about not being consulted on the detail. It wouldn’t be the first or last irritant in their relationship.

King’s Hockey: Not Your Average Joe, written with the subject’s co-operation, highlights that once again (as with Keating-Hawke, Costello-Howard) we have a pairing where the Treasurer’s ambition for the top job is crystal clear.

Abbott and Hockey are firmly bonded in common cause, but it is a marriage of convenience. which could end on the rocks if circumstances pushed it in that direction.

As in the early days of the Howard government (when Peter Reith also had ambitions), two contestants have outed themselves in the battle for eventual succession. The eyes of Immigration Minister Scott Morrison are as firmly fixed on the ultimate prize as are those of Hockey.

In the best tradition of aspiring leaders, Hockey has apparently been staking out the territory since school days. When in Year 5 at St Aloysius' College he declared (in response to a jibe): “I’m going to be prime minister one day.” Today’s message is as clear, though more carefully (and realistically) couched. The matter of his future will be “in the hands of others”, he tells King.

Abbott’s chief of staff, the formidable Peta Credlin, assesses the horse race: “Joe’s absolutely a contender and he’s probably got his head above every other contender, but I think we’re a long way away from saying he’s an heir apparent – and he’d say that, too.”

The biography describes the makeover, political and personal, that Hockey – who’d already served as a minister through most of the Howard government – has undergone in recent years in preparation for high office in a new Coalition administration and (hopefully, in his mind) one day the top job.

In 2012 (under a fake name) he had drastic gastric surgery to deal with his weight. This was driven by health concerns, but also by politics.

“Everybody knows that fat people are perceived differently,” wife Melissa Babbage says, in one of a number of frank comments (another relates to the distrust between Hockey and Malcolm Turnbull). “People no longer see him as the party boy.”

Hockey, who originally came from the Liberal Party’s left, took steps to define and sharpen what he stood for, “colouring in the picture of who he was”, as King puts it. This had started just before Abbott became leader (in a contest that turned into a fiasco for Hockey) and reached a high point in his “age of entitlement speech” of April 2012.

The tougher, harder-edged persona is the one we see in government, notably in the budget, though he was not able to meet what would have been his preferred benchmarks. King reports that “the budget was much softer than Joe would have liked. He wanted changes to pensions made earlier and the deficit levy to net more taxpayers. But Abbott … was taking a much more cautious approach.” (Backbenchers, looking at the polls and hearing their constituents, might mutter “thank god for that”.)

Mid-career biographies are often double-edged for their subjects, exposing warts as well as rounding out the profile.

Hockey warts include sharp reactions when frustrated (he considered quitting politics because he felt dudded in the 2001 reshuffle), and a certain “whatever it takes” attitude when pursuing goals (in the Howard years “he believed there were few lines a minister couldn’t cross when it came to the department they led”).

On the look-out for main chances, there was one strange occasion when an opportunity for advancement either eluded him or was a trick of his imagination. Hockey recounts how Peter Costello told him (over dinner) that he was going to move against then leader Malcolm Turnbull. Costello said: “I’m ready to lead – will you be my deputy?” Hockey was more than ready - but Costello made no move.

Costello flatly denies the conversation. “I was never coming back. I was never doing deals with Joe or anyone else.” It is an amazing discrepancy, given we are talking about just a few years ago.

Like Costello in 2007, Hockey (at least on his account now) would not serve again in opposition. “Joe says that if the Abbott government is voted out in the next election he will not spend another stint in opposition. ‘I couldn’t do that,’ he says.”

Has he forgotten that in Costello’s case failing to hang around almost certainly cost him the prime ministership, while Howard’s willingness to bear dreadful dog days finally secured it?

In the account he has given King, Hockey has put a limit on what he would do for the party, which might not go down so well with some colleagues.

Productivity Commission believes in ending the age of childcare entitlement

Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s signature paid parental leave scheme has faced more criticism this week. AAP/Alan Porritt

A government giving the Productivity Commission an issue to probe should always expect that it is likely to get back more than it bargained for.

The commission, well known for both rigour and commitment to “dry” economic policies, is tough-minded and independent. It doesn’t play to political convenience.

Asking the commission to look at childcare, the Abbott government wanted a model that highlighted the advantages of a more deregulated, flexible system, one that for example incorporated nannies.

This has happened. In the commission’s draft report released this week, nannies are recommended provided they meet the required standard, and other changes are proposed that would liberalise the system.

But the commission has thrown up two difficulties for the government.

Its recommendation for a basic means tested subsidy to replace the present child care benefit (means tested) and child care rebate (non-means tested) would give greater help than now to lower income earners and less to the better off.

At present higher income parents are eligible under the rebate to have half their out-of-pocket childcare costs paid by the government, up to a cap. Under the commission’s preferred plan, those with family incomes over $300,000 would receive assistance for only 30% of “reasonable costs” (if reasonable costs were less than actual fees, parents would get less than 30% of their out of pocket expenses).

This should fit with the Coalition’s rhetoric of ending “the age of entitlement”, and its approach (in government) to means testing other benefits.

But such a restructuring would present political problems for the government. It would hit voters the Coalition needs, when it has already alienated large numbers of people with its controversial budget measures.

The commission considered taking an even tougher position, saying that the level of assistance provided to higher income earners is “contentious. On balance, the commission considers it is possible that additional benefit from providing a minimum subsidy per child to higher income families may be small”. Such a payment may not change the workforce participation or child care decisions of many of these families, it says.

But it comes down in favour of providing these families with some assistance, not least because “a minimum payment” might help stem any reductions in workforce participation associated with taking away the non-means tested rebate, especially for middle incomes families.

The political embarrassment – as distinct from political difficulty - in the commission’s draft report is its dismissive criticism of the Prime Minister’s paid parental leave scheme. Its message is blunt – the benefits of the scheme (over and above the existing Labor one in place) are unclear. It suggests instead diverting some of the funding to childcare, which could provide an extra $1.5 billion a year to be spent there.

Abbott has sought to sell his expensive PPL plan as a workplace entitlement that will encourage more women to stay in the labour force. But the report casts doubt on this too.

Even the commission’s proposed revamp of childcare – an ongoing issue for many working women - would, it admits, have only a limited effect on participation. The changes would add just an extra 47,000 workers to the labour supply. This is because the various elements of the welfare and tax system make for a complex mix of factors affecting participation. In light of this, it is hard to see that the Abbott PPL scheme would do a great deal for participation.

The commission’s comments on the PPL scene will add to the criticisms of the plan among Coalition backbenchers. And if the Greens – who support the scheme in principle – eventually want to build a case to vote against it, the report will provide some help to them.

Treasurer Joe Hockey and Assistant Education Minister Sussan Ley stood firmly in defence of their boss’s PPL policy in the wake of the report. “I guess I get frustrated when people don’t see the difference between childcare policy and paid parental leave policy,” Ley said.

Just as many people get frustrated when politicians refuse to acknowledge the difference between indulgent policy and spending scarce dollars to best advantage.