Grattan on Friday: A new year reshuffle would put enormous pressure on Abbott

Prime Minister Tony Abbott claims there is a distinction between his broken promises and Labor’s. AAP/Alan Porritt

Deputy National Party leader Barnaby Joyce might mangle the language but he is willing, inside the government and often publicly as well, to call things as they are. So amid Tony Abbott making all sorts of extravagant claims about how great the year has been, Joyce noted pithily on Thursday: “The first year of a government is like a dog fight in a fog where it’s loud, it’s noisy, it’s furious and the targets are shadowy”.

Indeed.

In the final week of parliament for 2014, the mixed fortunes and internal strains of a struggling government were out there in technicolour.

In its dying hours the Senate passed legislation for temporary protection visas for refugees, after Immigration Minister Scott Morrison clinched a deal with the crossbench. The bill gives some relief to asylum seekers but further reduces rights and accountability.

Earlier in the week Education Minister Christopher Pyne had less success with the skittish upper house. His plans for university deregulation were put to a vote and defeated; the Senate will be asked again next year, and the outcome is unpredictable.

The parliamentary year ends with many budget measures including the Medicare co-payment frustrated by the Senate – in its case without even being put to parliament. On Thursday, the government was forced to abandon its plan for a $5 hike in prescription fees to start on January 1 – it will fight on for the rise next year.

The May budget continues to hang heavily over the government as it prepares the week after next to release its update, which will show worse deficits for as long as one can see.

This week’s national accounts confirmed poor growth – 2.7% annually. In an economic statement to parliament on Thursday, Treasurer Joe Hockey spoke of the “headwinds of weaker global demand” and the problems for revenue of the larger-than-expected fall in the terms of trade. As it battles with its first budget, the problems that will confront the second already loom large.

Internal tensions are also being exposed. Foreign Minister Julie Bishop had to hose down a story that she had gone “bananas” over Abbott sending Trade Minister Andrew Robb with her to the Lima climate conference next week.

Bishop is flying high. She’s not in a mood to be messed with. Abbott didn’t consult her before informing her late last week that Robb would be there. A weekend report, assumed to be from the Prime Minister’s Office, used the provocative term “chaperone”.

Bishop made it clear to Abbott she didn’t appreciate not being consulted. And she’s left no-one in any doubt about who’ll be top dog at the conference. “It’s my responsibility,” she said. “Andrew Robb is the trade and investment minister who was going to be in South America in any event.”

Meanwhile, Abbott’s problem with his Defence Minister David Johnston worsened with a leak about his expensive entertaining. Labor has repeatedly been asking whether he’ll still be Defence Minister when parliament resumes in February. When Abbott was pressed in the final Question Time of the year he heaped praise on Johnston – but did not say “yes”.

Abbott is also being cautious about the ministerial future of Arthur Sinodinos, whose fate hangs on reports from the Independent Commission Against Corruption.

If Sinodinos’ situation prompts a reshuffle early next year, this will be an opportunity for Abbott but also a test that is getting tougher all the time. He might want to keep changes very limited – that has been the word from prime ministerial circles – but he’d come under enormous criticism if he did not take the chance to implement substantial renewal, including promoting women and backbench talent.

A reshuffle that was received badly publicly and internally in Coalition ranks would be a disastrous way to start the year. Excuses of caution and loyalty would not cut it.

After the Victorian Liberals’ weekend election loss, Abbott tried a degree of deck-clearing with Monday’s news conference that some interpreted as a “reset” but actually went to style not substance. Thursday’s appearance on the ABC’s 7.30 just highlighted how Abbott is caught between attempting to partially recast the rhetoric while not wanting to concede too much.

Abbott has gone from trying to deny any broken promises to arguing “core” commitments have been kept, while new circumstances overtook others. But there’s a strict limit to what he’ll concede. “I think there have been a lot of unjustified cries of broken promises.” And we’re asked to swallow a distinction between his broken promises and Labor’s. “I think there is a fundamental difference between ‘there will be no carbon tax under a government I lead’ and the situation that this government is in.”

With Abbott’s approval ratings at a five-month low in Newspoll, Leigh Sales posed what in normal circumstances would be an extraordinary question for a prime minister well short of 18 months into his first term. If before the election the Coalition’s rating and his approval were at current levels, would he contemplate stepping aside to give his party its best chance?

Fast forward 12 months. If the government’s circumstances have not improved, how many Liberals might be asking such a question?

Listen to Michelle Grattan’s latest podcast, with Labor’s environment spokesman Mark Butler, here.