Grattan on Friday: Abbott government gets some wins – and gives the odd hostage to the future

Clive Palmer was totally opposed to the government’s “direct action” climate policy only a few months ago. Now he’s voting for it. AAP/Alan Porritt

In a move that channels John Howard, Tony Abbott has put changing the GST on the political agenda, just over a year after assuring the public it would not be altered, “full stop, end of story”.

In the run-up to the 1996 election, Howard said there would “never ever” be a GST, only to propose one in his first term.

You have to wonder why so much media effort is devoted to trying to extract absolute commitments on anything from politicians. More fool us.

Clive Palmer was totally opposed to the government’s “direct action” climate policy only a few months ago. Now he’s voting for it – in exchange for an inquiry into emissions trading.

Environment Minister Greg Hunt is adamant: regardless of the results of that inquiry, the Coalition will never contemplate an ETS.

We have to believe him – despite the fact Howard briefly embraced emissions trading and Hunt himself was a strong advocate when Malcolm Turnbull was opposition leader.

Would Hunt’s pledge hold if there were a Turnbull resurrection? Just joking, Greg and Tony.

The inquiry, to be undertaken by the Climate Change Authority, has the potential to complicate the climate issue for the Coalition but it is publicly disregarding any such problem. That’s for later.

The government, now in full horse-trading mode, acceded to the ETS inquiry because it really needed to land its direct action legislation. That will give the Coalition a climate policy now the carbon tax is gone, albeit one many experts believe won’t be up to much.

As parliament adjourned for three weeks, the government had reasons beyond the direct action deal to be satisfied, although it is still struggling on several major budget fronts.

It came up this week with a way to bypass the Senate and set in place its fuel tax indexation, starting from November 10. The move must be validated by legislation within a year or what’s been collected would have to be refunded to the fuel companies – but that’s also a matter for later, and the odds favour the government.

This week also delivered another win on national security legislation, with the second tranche passed, covering foreign fighters.

The bill for the compulsory two-year retention of metadata (the third tranche) was introduced, but won’t get to a vote until next year. It remains to be seen how controversial the plan will be. It goes to the parliamentary committee on intelligence and security, which was able to reach unanimity on agreed changes to the earlier bills.

Some in Labor are starting to arc up about too much bipartisanship on national security. This is putting pressure on Opposition Leader Bill Shorten.

Shorten on Thursday wrote to Tony Abbott with retrospective concerns about the provision, already passed with Labor support, carrying draconian penalties for disclosing information about “special intelligence operations”.

Shorten wrote that since the legislation had passed “a number of concerns about the potential impact of these laws on the media reporting of legitimate matters of public interest and importance have been raised with me”. He proposed monitoring; the government says that’s already provided for.

This seemed catch-up politics by Shorten – or not wanting to be left behind the media backlash against the measure. Labor did have its chance to protest when the legislation was before the parliament.

In the event, Attorney-General George Brandis announced on Thursday he’d instructed the Director of Public Prosecutions that if there were ever a proposed prosecution of a journalist – which he insisted would never happen – the AG would have to tick off on it. This was not about accommodating Shorten, but to ease the angst coming from News Corp.

As a relieved government chalked up some successes it also moved to further put its own stamp on the senior reaches of the public service, with Michael Thawley appointed as secretary of the Prime Minister’s department, replacing Ian Watt.

The choice of Thawley is another instance of Abbott channelling Howard. Thawley was the former PM’s international relations adviser.

Ideologically in tune with Abbott, he may fit into the prime ministerial inner circle in a way Watt did not. One observer says Watt “never seemed to hit it off” with Abbott and the Office.

Watt, who leaves at the end of November, said in a message to staff that “the Prime Minister and I agreed my departure date some months ago”.

Soon the government will have its own choice heading Treasury too, when it makes the expected appointment of John Fraser.

Both Thawley and Fraser have extensive bureaucratic backgrounds. Thawley worked in Foreign Affairs, the Prime Minister’s Department and the Office of National Assessments, and served as ambassador to the United States between 2000 and 2005. Fraser was in Treasury.

But they’ve each been out of the government service milieu for long periods, during which the political and media pace has increased. They’ve been overseas in the private sector, high flyers in the financial world. Neither is currently working in what officialdom calls a “feed the beast” environment. Each will have to adjust quickly.

The new Treasury secretary will have the additional problem of inheriting a minister seriously down on his political luck.

Joe Hockey – who got into a heap of trouble by suggesting the poor don’t drive much – this week provided another example of being oblivious to danger when, speaking about excessive regulation, he recounted a personal experience to make the point.

Some years ago during a visit to a pizza shop, the owner had stopped him putting two outside tables together, citing council regulations; nor would those regulations allow an extra chair. Hockey said he “exploded”. “I actually tracked down the mayor, it was 6 o'clock on a Friday night, and I think the whole suburb heard the conversation.”

It sounded like a Belinda Neal moment – when the then Labor MP had a meltdown in a restaurant – or Shorten’s much-publicised tantrum in a pie shop.

That Hockey told the story was as revealing as the incident itself. Temperament is one of the most important qualities in a politician, something Hockey doesn’t seem to get.