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The Queensland poll will test Clive Palmer’s chutzpah

PUP leader Clive Palmer is looking at a potentially difficult year. AAP/Alan Porritt

When Tony Abbott was asked on Friday whether he’d consider stepping aside for Julie Bishop or Malcolm Turnbull – both of whom are more popular than he is – the Prime Minister defaulted to chutzpah.

Abbott was thrilled to have such strong colleagues, he said, adding that “one of the reasons why so many members of the team are able to perform so well is because they have got a very good captain”.

Not a very diplomatic remark in the circumstances perhaps, when his backbenchers are looking for a touch of humility.

It sounded more like the sort of thing Clive Palmer might say.

Like Abbott, at the start of 2015 Palmer is looking at a potentially difficult year. If Saturday night in Queensland is set to bring bad news for the Liberals, it’s unlikely to be a bunch of laughs for the Palmer United Party either.

Queensland is Palmer’s base; the state election was hoped to be a high point for his Palmer United Party (PUP). In July, ReachTEL had PUP on more than 15%, but on January 20 it was down to 5.2%.

ABC election analyst Antony Green describes PUP as “largely a fizzer in this election. Late last year you would have given them a reasonable chance of reaching double figures with their vote. But they will be lucky to get half of that now, and will get no seats.”

PUP’s statewide vote will of course be reduced by the fact it is contesting only some 50 of the 89 seats.

It’s been seen as an unimpressive PUP campaign. Palmer himself missed its launch due to illness. The party’s state leader, John Bjelke-Petersen (son of Joh), is new to the job and was on holidays when the snap election was called. Many of the candidates have some personal connection to Palmer (the wife of PUP senator Glenn Lazarus is running), inviting criticism that he’s rounded up friends and associates. The wide advertising blitz of the federal election hasn’t been replicated. The Senate inquiry into the Queensland state government that PUP had set up in the hope of getting some electoral advantage turned into a farce.

Palmer himself insists everything is hunky dory. “We think we will take some seats and have the balance of power to guarantee there will be no asset sales,” he tells The Conversation on Friday. He predicts a Liberal National Party loss, but doesn’t trust Labor not to try to divest assets, notwithstanding that preserving public ownership is at the core of the ALP campaign.

Palmer says PUP has done more advertising in regional areas than in the federal election but hasn’t undertaken much in Brisbane where it is running only seven candidates. In the federal election it contested all seats.

Where would a demonstration that the PUP bubble has burst leave Palmer? Still powerful, but with a greater prospect that power will be eroded, adding to the Senate’s volatility.

PUP now has two senators, Glenn Lazarus and Dio Wang, rather than its original three. Last year senator Jacqui Lambie defected to become an independent. She remains in contact with Palmer, however, and voted with PUP against the universities deregulation package before Christmas.

The alliance with Motoring Enthusiast Party’s Ricky Muir remains in place but is not guaranteed on every vote.

On a good day, when Muir sticks, PUP continues to command a deciding three votes. The government needs six of eight crossbenchers to pass legislation opposed by Labor and the Greens.

While Muir is still allied, one would expect he’ll increasingly act more independently as he gains in confidence and experience. He switched from voting with PUP to voting against it on the crucial financial advice issue last year.

Lazarus, PUP’s Senate leader, will remain solid. There is periodic speculation about Dio Wang’s position on the universities package but he is also very loyal to Palmer. Of the two PUPs, he seems the more likely to eventually show greater independence.

Palmer on Friday reaffirmed PUP’s opposition to the university changes, regardless of the desperate efforts Education Minister Christopher Pyne will make to get the legislation through with further compromises. Palmer says he is “absolutely confident” that Wang will stay firm, and adds that he thinks Muir, who voted with the government for the second reading, will change next time the Senate considers the issue.

Asked whether his authority will take a knock if the pundits are right and Queensland brings him no seats, Palmer says, “No. Politics is about mathematics”. PUP will gain more senators next time, he says, “and have the balance of power for the next 12 years”.

When it comes to chutzpah, Clive will never be beaten.

What’s wrong with Team Abbott is a lot bigger than the Credlin problem

Prime Minister Tony Abbott still strongly supports his chief of staff Peta Credlin. AAP/Karlis Salna

Tony Abbott’s right-hand woman Peta Credlin is in an invidious position. Not only are many Coalition figures wanting her removed, but now Rupert Murdoch says it’s her “patriotic duty” to fall on her sword.

Abbott stands firmly by her. But the pressure has reached such a level that it must make her job, difficult in any circumstances, unbelievably hard in 2015. In that position, any responsible staffer must give thought to what is in the best interests of their boss and themselves – whether to stare down or step back or away.

The Murdoch intervention is damaging because it escalates the issue and, given its timing, it may feed the paranoia about leadership threats that already exists in the Prime Minister’s Office.

A lot of people, including in the Coalition, will see this as a gratuitous gesture by a powerful man who loves to make political players jump.

But what Murdoch says may encourage the plethora of Credlin critics – they’ll read it as Murdoch, like themselves, being worried that Abbott could take his government to a defeat.

They could also note News Corp columnist Miranda Devine’s advice on Wednesday that Credlin should be replaced by former Coalition staffer and current Australian editorial writer Chris Kenny, whom Credlin “didn’t want to hire as head of communications strategy, despite various entreaties from high-level media and political figures”.

Kenny would be “fearless and confident enough to challenge the cosy consensus thinking in the PM’s office that let the Philip gong see the light of day”, Devine wrote.

The fact the Murdoch call-out on Credlin appeared soon after he met Foreign Minister Julie Bishop when she was in the United States will not escape the PMO.

Bishop and Credlin had a test of strength late last year, notwithstanding their claims they were on the best of terms. They are rivals for influence with Abbott, despite occupying such different positions. Also, in the recent public chatter about the future of Abbott’s leadership, Bishop is now up there with Malcolm Turnbull as an alternative. The PMO has always been touchy about Turnbull; surely it must be getting a little concerned about Bishop, who seems to get nothing but good publicity and is popular everywhere she goes.

The Bishop-Murdoch meeting was strictly private, so we don’t know whether Bishop’s opinion about Credlin’s influence was mentioned. The timing of the encounter and the specific Twitter references to Credlin might have been entirely coincidental. But those in Abbott’s office will no doubt wonder.

The Murdoch assault on Credlin comes on the back of Abbott’s disastrous decision to award Prince Philip a knighthood, which Murdoch strongly condemned and many Credlin critics believe she should have prevented.

Abbott said on Wednesday he did not consult her about the appointment, though surely it is unlikely she had no knowledge of what was happening.

Attacks on her over the knighthood are however a case of blaming the dog you’ve already given a bad name. The appalling judgement was Abbott’s and he must (and is willing to) take full responsibility for what he’s done.

More generally though, it’s been clear for a long time that Credlin has exercised enormous influence over Abbott, who feels excessively in her debt for the role she played in him winning government.

A prime minister’s skill set should include the ability to get together a strong and broad advisory team, including not just staff and ministers, but backbenchers and people from the community, and then to know what and how much advice to take. Abbott has got neither balance right.

And super-adviser Credlin has displayed a blind spot about her own role. For one perennially accused of exercising too much control, Credlin has failed dismally to manage her situation. Through both her actions and her high profile, she has become a focal point for critics wanting to find fault with Abbott without confronting him directly.

Credlin throws her weight around in Abbott’s name, which invites others to apply their counter-weight. Politicians have a well-developed sense of status; some will be cowed by a prime minister’s staffer but others will fight. Staff in other offices who have felt the whip will relish the chance to get back at their tormentor.

Things have become so bad that Credlin is now being made a scapegoat for almost everything that Abbott gets wrong. That of course is ridiculous, although she deserves some of the blame, especially for making him much less inclusive than he should be.

The Credlin problem is clear; the solution is as elusive as when she was a topic of intense discussion late last year.

Murdoch’s resort to what Abbott likes to call the graffiti of social media has just complicated the situation in that, if Credlin departed any time soon, it would be seen as Abbott doing Murdoch’s bidding.

Of course if Credlin did go, there is the distinct possibility that things mightn’t get better, because what’s wrong in Team Abbott is much bigger than Credlin. It’s the captain himself, with or without advice, making too many bad calls.

The central question this political year will be whether Abbott is up to the prime minister’s job

Prime Minister Tony Abbott has started 2015 in a worse state than he ended 2014. AAP/Wayne King

Tony Abbott’s “captain’s pick” of Prince Philip for a knighthood – on Australia Day, and when he says the government should consult more – suggests the Prime Minister’s head is in some very strange place.

There is no credible, rational explanation. If Abbott was travelling strongly, one might write it off as some monarchist/anglophile indulgence. But with his standing so low that he’s being asked in the media about the future of his leadership, and remembering the bollocking he received over his “knights and dames” initiative, why would he deliberately attract a beating and, worse, widespread ridicule?

Announcing the new honour last year, Abbott highlighted it being for “Australians of ‘extraordinary and pre-eminent achievement and merit’ in their service to Australia or to humanity at large”. How Philip fits is a mystery. One government man described the appointment as a “barbecue stopper on a day when everyone is having a barbecue”.

Abbott has started 2015 in a worse state than he ended 2014, when he was trying to remove the barnacles.

Abbott should, as much as possible, have kept out of the limelight over January. Instead, despite taking some holidays, he seemed to be much in the public eye and ear.

Yes, Abbott had to inspect the bushfire areas. But did he need to go to Iraq, a trip involving a stoush with media that had been left behind? And was it essential to do radio interviews that simply invited leadership questioning?

Among the government’s woes has been January’s backflip on December’s Medicare compromise. The December changes included slashing the rebate for very short consultations from mid-January. When it seemed clear this cut would be disallowed as soon as parliament resumed, and, under fire from doctors and backbenchers, Abbott abandoned the measure. He was further embarrassed by a leak that Treasurer Joe Hockey and then-Health Minister Peter Dutton had advised against the December changes.

In education, another compromise has been flagged this month to the universities deregulation package. It would further reduce the savings, but the detail and the package’s fate remain up in the air.

Over the summer backbenchers have become more agitated after copping their voters' views.

No-one thinks Abbott’s leadership is in short-term danger. But memory of the Labor Rudd-Gillard-Rudd fiasco doesn’t provide him with automatic protection in the longer term. If his office thought that, it wouldn’t be so paranoid about Malcolm Turnbull.

There is some safety, perhaps, in the fact there is not a single alternative, if it came to that, but several who balance each other off. Apart from Turnbull, forced by his past to step carefully, there’s the indefatigable Julie Bishop; Joe Hockey, seriously down but he hopes not out forever; and the ambitious Scott Morrison, who this year in his new Social Services job – which covers families policy – will try to graft a more human face onto his hard-man persona.

Governments in trouble blame messaging and the Abbott office’s communications team has been revamped. Previous press office director Jane McMillan was chopped unceremoniously from that position just before Christmas. Andrew Hirst, Abbott’s main spokesman in opposition who has been deputy chief of staff in government, will again head the communications effort.

But Abbott’s problems run far deeper than poor and muddled spin. They are fundamentally about product, including policy and personnel. They embrace the past and the present, but have now become a serious constraint on what can be done in the future.

The budget proved an indigestible disaster, now privately regretted at senior levels as the bitter dregs linger. Looking ahead, the government does not have the political capital to take robust outcomes from its current reviews of taxation, industrial relations and federalism to the 2016 election. And Abbott, never popular personally, has become deeply distrusted in the electorate, with his broken promises adding mightily to the voter cynicism he fanned with his attacks on Julia Gillard.

On Saturday the Liberals will get a rebuff at the Queensland election, from which Abbott has been conspicuously absent. While state issues are dominating, Labor is seeking to capitalise on Abbott’s unpopularity. An expected big swing against the Newman government will be read as having some federal implications, whatever its cause. More to the point, some of Newman’s perceived faults – arrogance, seeming to be out of touch – are Abbott’s problems.

On Monday, Abbott faces the rigours of an address to the National Press Club. His MPs don’t return for the start of the parliamentary year until the following week, but his performance will be important for their mood. He needs something to say, and no missteps in what can be a testing forum.

The coming few weeks will be dominated by the struggle to get the university changes through the Senate; the continuing row about what’s left of the Medicare reforms; and Hockey’s release of the tax discussion paper and the latest intergenerational report. Hockey hopes the latter will help convince people of the case for budget and tax reforms. National security will also be in the early weeks' mix, with reporting on the Sydney siege and security co-ordination arrangements, and the proposed metadata retention regime still a challenge.

Abbott said on Monday that “we probably need to be a more consultative and collegial government in the 12 months ahead” and “I think we need to be more conscious of the realities in the parliament”.

True but obvious. And this is not the first time Abbott has expressed such sentiments. There are a few other things needed. For starters: a saleable May budget; realism in the reform agenda; and a better performance by Abbott himself (and his office, which always gets down to a discussion about chief of staff Peta Credlin). Each is hard, maybe impossible, to achieve.

Given the numbers and last year’s legacy, how does the government produce an acceptable budget?

With inquiries underway, what can it say to reassure people on tax and industrial relations, especially when it is caught between a resistant electorate and a baying business sector?

And how can Abbott repair an image now as bad as that of Gillard when she was prime minister?

Despite the fashionability of the idea of “rebooting”, there is no one reset button. Abbott has had his ministerial reshuffle, which strengthened the team, but that can only bring limited benefit.

In the first half of the year Abbott’ll launch his families package, which will cut his planned paid parental leave scheme (his “signature policy” and lengthy farce) and recalibrate child care. In theory it’s a chance to do something positive, but can he get it right?

In politics lots can change very quickly, and everything is comparative. Bill Shorten has been doing well largely because Abbott has been looking bad.

Shorten will be under more scrutiny this year. Eventually voters will face the question of whether Labor is up to the task of governing again.

But it’s Abbott who is under the most intense and immediate pressure. As the 2015 political year gears up, the central question will be whether Abbott is up to the job of being prime minister. So far, he has not shown that he is.