View from The Hill

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.

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