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Getting the government shipshape will take a lot more than throwing the co-payment overboard

Prime Minister Tony Abbott faces a difficult decision in a potential ministerial reshuffle. AAP/Lukas Coch

Tony Abbott’s reference to removing “barnacles” from his government has become the Canberra chatter.

In technical terms, according to senior government sources who’ve had nautical advice since the Prime Minister’s comment, the process involves “careening” – turning a ship on its side for cleaning or repair.

In politics, that’s easier said than done, and it’s questionable whether the government has the stomach for a rigorous job or indeed what state the paintwork would be in afterwards.

Take the problem of the unfortunate Defence Minister David Johnston. The term “barnacle” was particularly apt for his performance on submarines although Abbott, speaking before the minister’s gaffe, wasn’t referring to him.

Johnston on Tuesday played into the hands of his many critics when he said he wouldn’t trust the Australian Submarine Corporation (ASC) “to build a canoe”.

A double humiliation followed. The Prime Minister’s Office issued a statement supportive of the ASC, and saying the government was working with it to improve shipyard performance and productivity. On Wednesday, Johnston had to make a grovelling but unconvincing statement to the Senate. “Regrettably, in a rhetorical flourish, I did express my frustrations in the past performance of ASC,” he said.

South Australian Liberals, already trying to cope with the political fallout of ABC cuts in their state, suddenly had another problem on their hands. Labor called for Johnston’s removal. Question Time in both houses was dominated by the issue. The Senate censured Johnston.

If there is a reshuffle early next year, after the Independent Commission Against Corruption reports on Arthur Sinodinos (who originally coined the “barnacles” reference when adviser to John Howard), Abbott will have an invidious choice in relation to Johnston.

Abbott either stands by him and cops criticism about being unwilling to get the best team, or he gives blood to the sharks by moving him.

In recent months the word has been that Johnston, who enjoys deputy Liberal leader Julie Bishop’s support, has Abbott’s backing, and that Abbott wants minimal changes in any reshuffle.

More immediately, the “barnacles” comment has been taken to mean some policy change. This too is complicated.

It’s expected the $7 GP co-payment will be ditched. In one sense that barnacle has already been partially scraped off – because the co-payment has no hope of getting through the Senate.

What are the implications of trying to make a virtue of necessity by abandoning it altogether?

The cynics would say the government was just accepting reality. Many of its ideological supporters might ask: isn’t the notion of “patient pays” part of the ship’s hull?

Ministers who have defended the policy for months would suddenly have to do a U-turn. Incidentally, another meaning of the word “careen” is “teetering from side to side”. Labor would allege that no one could believe the government wouldn’t go back on its word, given the Prime Minister’s record of broken promises.

Then there is the disappointment of (presumably) having to abandon the medical research fund, which was to get the co-payment revenue.

It’s easy to compare the present situation to 2001 when an embattled John Howard made policy adjustments, including scrapping fuel indexation. But that was after he had his major GST reform through – he was cleaning up damage. Measures such as the co-payment are basic to this government’s argument that everybody must share some of the burden.

Another “barnacle” being talked about is the paid parental leave scheme. This plan is widely disliked, but is central to Abbott’s political identity – he’s defended it relentlessly.

He could water it down (he’s already had to do this once) or shelve it for some time. The latter would probably be seen as just accepting he would not be able to get the plan as presently framed through the Senate.

Attacking these particular policy barnacles is unlikely to transform the government’s fortunes.

A major barnacle on the government is Abbott’s breach of trust, and his compounding that sin by being unwilling to be upfront about his broken promises.

He is now carrying the same burden that Gillard did. His Labor opponents throw around the description “liar” with impunity.

This is damage that cannot be easily removed and perhaps can never be repaired. It’s eaten into the ship’s frame.

Abbott says he just has to get off a couple of barnacles

Tony Abbott told Tuesday’s partyroom meeting he wanted to show the Rudd-Gillard years are not the new normal. AAP/Lukas Coch

With the polling bad, some of his strongest media backers excoriating him and his pants on fire over the “no cuts to the ABC” pledge, Tony Abbott has assured his Coalition partyroom that, bar a couple of “barnacles”, everything is going all right.

Abbott admitted it had at times been a difficult year but said the tumult had all been external to the government, which had been stable, competent and delivered on its promises – stopping the boats, building the roads and the like.

The government was getting the budget back under control; MPs should be satisfied with the past year and optimistic about the next 12-18 months.

There were “one or two barnacles still on the ship”, Abbott said, but they would be dealt with by Christmas. He did not say what they were. Some hopefuls in the backbench wonder whether he might backtrack on his paid parental leave scheme, due to start mid-next year but not even yet in the parliament and facing defeat in the Senate anyway.

Abbott told Tuesday’s meeting he wanted a “100% break” from the past, adding that “our historical mission is to show the Rudd-Gillard years are not the new normal”.

But some of what happened in those years is already the “new normal”, including a blowout in the deficit and the argument about trust.

Hoist on his own broken promise, Abbott in Tuesday’s Question Time tried to punch his way through the row over the ABC cuts by alleging – with plenty of citings from Paul Kelly’s recent book on the Labor years – that one can’t trust Bill Shorten.

That may be true. But the current issue is that people have found that they can’t trust Abbott, who is twisting in the wind over his series of foolish promises made on election eve, including guarantees about the ABC and SBS.

The government has made a total hash of the cuts to the broadcasters. If the promise was to be trashed, it should have got its act together in time to put the full cut in the May budget. Best also to admit that it had decided the promise was “disposable” or “non-core” and invoke fiscal circumstances.

None of this would excuse Abbott saying pre-election what he clearly didn’t mean, but might have contained some of the damage. Instead he resisted conceding he’d gone back on his undertaking, only to be dragged on Tuesday to own the words.

To make things worse for the government, while it has relished giving the ABC a whack, managing director Mark Scott has whacked back.

As Richard Ackland has written: “To lose 10% of his staff and more than $50m a year for five years, plus the one off whack of $120m from the May budget, presents opportunities for Scott, aside from the despair.

“The managing director has seized them. It’s digital all the way, largely at the expense of traditional regional services across the wide, brown land.” The Scott decisions hit both regional ABC audiences and the ABC’s commercial competitors, News Corp and Fairfax.

The Coalition is screaming foul. Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull has said all along the savings could be made without hitting programs.

Quite possibly. But they are not being done that way. It’s the ABC’s call and Scott is playing as tough as the government. Turnbull says Scott is using the cuts as “cover” for what he wanted to do – and throws in for good measure that the ABC has been a “workers' collective for quite some time”.

For the government, the question is who will be blamed for the slim down of regional services.

It is desperately trying to make sure it is the broadcaster, but given the popularity of the ABC the Coalition risks getting the backlash.

Tuesday’s Essential poll points to the potential danger. More than half (52%) disapproved of the cut; only a quarter approved.

The results also suggest the government’s sustained attack on the ABC’s alleged bias is also likely to be counter-productive. By a big margin, the media people most trusted were ABC TV news and current affairs (69%), SBS TV news and current affairs (66%), and ABC radio news and current affairs (62%).

The poll, incidentally, also found more people think Australia is taking the wrong approach to handling the issue of climate change (42%) than believe it is taking the right approach (28%). So maybe it would be savvy not to beat up on Barack Obama so much.

People were also not all that impressed with Abbott’s performance at the G20 – 31% rating it good and 37% poor. On the other hand, signing the free trade agreement with China has gone down well – 51% approve, only 20% disapprove.

The Weekend Australian in its blistering editorial said that Abbott “is losing the battle to define core issues and to explain to voters what he is doing and why”.

Abbott repeatedly defaults, including at Tuesday’s joint parties' meeting, to his election mantra about the carbon and mining taxes, boats, roads and the budget. One reason why he hasn’t got the “narrative” his critics call for is that he’s still stuck back at chapter one, which was all about the election, when the story has moved on.

Listen to the latest politics podcast with guest John Madigan.

Palmer bitten as PUP senator breaks the chain

Senator Jacqui Lambie has further complicated an already difficult Senate. AAP/Alan Porritt

The full ramifications of Jacqui Lambie’s decision to leave the PUP kennel to sit as an independent won’t be clear for some time. Obviously, however, it is a major blow to Clive Palmer’s power.

It further fragments and complicates a Senate that’s already a hellhole for the government. But by making the Senate more fluid, it also opens potential opportunities.

The rupture, always seen as eventually on the cards, was hastened by specific issues.

Lambie and the other PUP senators voted earlier this year to prevent the disallowance of the government’s controversial financial advice regulations that watered down Labor’s FoFA legislation. But after a lot of reaction she became increasingly doubtful about what PUP had done.

Lambie also disagreed with PUP’s backing for the present Renewable Energy Target. Palmer said PUP wouldn’t vote to change the target this term, but Lambie argued it disadvantaged high-energy-using Tasmanian businesses and could cost jobs.

Her threat – which weakened PUP bargaining power – to vote against all government legislation unless the Coalition revisits its pay deal for the Defence forces also became a point of friction with Palmer.

Since his three PUP senators arrived on July 1 Palmer has been a source of frustration for the Coalition. The government needs the support of six of eight crossbench senators to pass legislation opposed by Labor and the Greens. Three can block. PUP’s opposition to the Medicare co-payment and the deregulation of higher education meant these measures had no chance of getting through while it stayed firm.

But the government also struck key deals with Palmer – on the financial advice regulations and to pass its direct action plan to curb emissions. It felt it had a handle on him. He was the go-to man.

Now Palmer’s power is much reduced and more tenuous. His ability to block becomes dependent on his alliance with the Motoring Enthusiast Party’s Ricky Muir. That alliance was always seen as Palmer’s insurance policy against a defection, because even initially Lambie seemed problematic over the long term.

But Muir broke away last week, when he and Lambie voted to sink the financial advice regulations. With Palmer’s clout heavily dented and Muir’s confidence increasing, the Motoring Enthusiast senator is likely to become more of a free agent.

On one interpretation the non-Green Senate crossbenchers now divide into four blocks: remaining PUPs Glenn Lazarus and Dio Wang; independents Nick Xenophon and (ex-DLP) John Madigan, who often work together; Family First Bob Day and Liberal Democrat David Leyonhjelm, both right of centre, who collaborate on some issues, although they differ on social questions; and Lambie and Muir, who are unknown quantities for the future.

There is potential for Lambie, Xenophon, Madigan and Muir to do some common muscle flexing. Lambie said on Monday that she had worked with Xenophon, always got along with Muir, and her staff had good relations with Madigan’s office.

The shake-up increases the potential influence of Xenophon, who last week spoke of the “coalition of common sense” when Labor’s Sam Dastyari and he bedded down the disallowance alliance. Generally respected across politics, Xenophon is a good organiser.

For the government, trying to extract advantage from the Lambie shift, at least in the short term, will be a challenge, especially given her defence pay threat. She’s also reaffirmed she won’t move on the co-payment, higher education or the government’s tough welfare measures.

Against this, she’s very aware her vote will be sought and if she is totally locked by her defence pledge she loses her bargaining power to win deals for Tasmania (and follow a trail blazed by another Tasmanian independent, the late Brian Harradine).

She has indicated she’s open to negotiations on the Renewable Energy Target and the Clean Energy Finance Corporation.

The suitors will come calling. Dastyari had a lot of success when he flew to Tasmania to seek her support on the disallowance.

The government starts with the disadvantage that Lambie intensely dislikes its Senate leader Eric Abetz. “We don’t get on, full stop,” she said.

She warms more to Environment Minister Greg Hunt, with whom she had a (prearranged) meeting on Monday.

They discussed the RET – and bumblebees. Lambie wants a federal provision changed that stops Tasmanian horticulturists releasing bumblebees into their glass houses to facilitate pollination.

She also asked Hunt to speak to Tony Abbott about defence pay. Hunt suggested she seek a meeting with Abbott. Lambie later said the Defence force issue could be resolved with A$121 million, which she described as “a walk in the park”.