Grattan on Friday: Abbott’s reality show has trouble with the script

Prime Minister Tony Abbott wasn’t happy with Treasurer Joe Hockey offering up GST revenue. AAP/Mick Tsikas

The Abbott government desperately tries, but nearly always fails, to run to a tight script.

The current script has two big headings: “economic security” and “national security”. Its lines are about the budget’s giveaways for small business, and the Coalition’s constant vigilance in finding ways to keep the community safe.

But once again, like a bizarre reality show, the story this week went off in unforeseen and, for the script, some unfortunate directions.

A Monday night frolic from Treasurer Joe Hockey was the first diversion.

The budget revived Hockey’s rock bottom reputation but, it turns out, not for long. He got into a heap of trouble on Q&A, with the startling concession to a campaigning university student that, yes, the GST should come off tampons.

Whether that actually happens will depend on a July meeting of treasurers, whose states get the GST money. But how could Hockey think of sacrificing about A$100 million (over the forward estimates) in GST revenue?

Hockey knew the question might be asked – it had been raised when he did a Politics in the Pub function recently.

The incident was further evidence that the government simply can’t rely on Hockey. It’s not surprising relations between the Prime Minister’s Office and Hockey’s office are reported to be bad. Needless to say, Abbott was not impressed with the exemption idea.

With the budget producing a small lift in the polls (taken collectively) for the Coalition (though the Senate presents difficulties for specific measures) and Abbott anxious to consolidate his position, this week’s fresh push on national security was predictable.

The latest action mightn’t just be about politics, but it is politics-heavy. National security is seen as fertile territory for the Coalition to plough and re-plough.

So there’s a new Counter-Terrorism Coordinator (a former ambassador, Greg Moriarty), and Justice Minister Michael Keenan will assist Abbott on counter-terrorism.

In a separate announcement, Abbott unveiled his move to strip dual citizens involved in terrorist activity of their Australian citizenship. This will be at the discretion of the immigration minister, subject to judicial review, and won’t require the person to have been convicted of anything.

There are unanswered questions – we haven’t seen legislation yet – about the review process. Would it simply examine whether the minister followed the requirements of the law, or would it deal with the facts of the person’s case?

Abbott would like to extend the measure further to those with single Australian citizenship if they were eligible to become citizens of another country. Under international treaty arrangements, people mustn’t be rendered stateless.

But some ministers were alarmed and angry when this latter proposal was discussed in cabinet. The ministerial concern was both about substance and process. Abbott was back to his old habits of not having cabinet matters dealt with properly.

A highly detailed leak indicated someone was prepared to take a big risk to seek to blow up the measure and damage Abbott. The porous nature of his cabinet must strike fear into him about what might lie ahead.

The more radical citizenship measure will be canvassed in community consultations (especially with ethnic communities) led by Liberal veteran Philip Ruddock, but the leak has probably made pursuing it more difficult.

On Thursday, the security issue took another turn after the disclosure that, between the terror threat level being raised in September and gunman Man Haron Monis’ siege at the Lindt cafe, Monis wrote to Attorney-General George Brandis asking for legal advice. “I would like to send a letter to Caliph Ibrahim, the leader of the Islamic State, in which making some comments and asking some questions. Please advise me whether the communication is legal or illegal,” the letter said.

The letter, not seen by Brandis, failed to ring any warning bells in the attorney-general’s office and was passed onto his department, but not to the police or ASIO.

Labor went hard over the letter in question time. Facing a sustained grilling, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, representing Brandis, accused Labor of appalling and contemptible behaviour for asking questions, but her aggressive approach didn’t deter the opposition.

Was Labor’s questioning legitimate? Yes. Was the action of the attorney-general’s office reasonable? Given Monis’ letter-writing record (including to Labor figures) yes to that too.

Hindsight always makes for better vision, but the letter didn’t contain a threat and it wasn’t only Brandis’ office that failed to be wary of Monis. Nevertheless, the row about the letter was unhelpful for a government wanting to highlight its security credentials.

The week’s other, very different, diversion was spurred by the Irish referendum vote on gay marriage.

Bill Shorten’s notice of a private member’s bill for marriage equality had multiple benefits for the opposition leader, regardless of the government’s criticism of him.

Shorten was seen to be promoting a popular issue. His move has pre-empted the ALP national conference and set back the cause of those in Labor urging a binding vote for their MPs when Shorten wants to keep the ALP’s conscience vote.

And it put Abbott on the spot, so much so that he has been forced to reposition to get some ownership of the issue for his party despite his personal opposition to gay marriage.

Amid the alarms and excursions of the parliamentary week came some sombre news that went to the government’s “economic security” message.

ABS figures on business investment plans for 2015-16, in a survey taken before the budget, showed a bleak picture, including a gloomy outlook in the non-mining sector, where a boost is desperately needed to help compensate for the end of the mining boom.

If the budget, with its small business measures, is to be judged a success in fostering economic security, these investment intentions will have to pick up substantially in coming months.

Listen to the latest Politics with Michelle Grattan podcast, with guest, Greens leader Richard Di Natale, here.