Grattan on Friday: Entitlements issue turns into cluster bomb

A freshly weakened Tony Abbott faces some difficult issues and dangerous flashpoints in the upcoming parliamentary sitting fortnight. Ben Macmahon/AAP

Memo from Finance Department to minister Mathias Cormann: “Urgently needed – staff reinforcements for the Great Expense Chase”. Just joking. But only a little.

The department’s bureaucrats are now examining Bronwyn Bishop’s expenses over the last decade, plus various claims by Tony Burke and Philip Ruddock (at their requests), while considering how to react to independent MP Andrew Wilkie’s ambitious call for an audit of all travel and accommodation claims made during this and the last parliament (including past MPs).

What started as a scandal around Bronwyn Bishop has exploded like a cluster bomb. It has harmed Tony Abbott among his colleagues – because of his poor handling of the issue – and with the public, and now all MPs are being tarnished in the fallout.

One Liberal backbencher reports constituents are throwing back the Joe Hockey “age of entitlement” phrase. Another says “it’s burnt into our Liberal support base” with struggling small business people saying “we work hard for our dollar – and then see this from the people we vote for”.

Abbott has been anxious for a “truce”, and there are diminishing returns for Labor after it has got its scalp and frontbencher Burke is in the spotlight over his family travel.

But fragments keep exploding. For journalists, it’s easy pickings. All the claims are on the public record. It’s “clickbait” for the media because it is incendiary with voters.

Abbott’s suggestion on Thursday that it is fair enough for entitlements (of a reasonable nature) to cover going to party fundraisers is another example of his tin ear. At present fundraiser trips as such are ruled out – that’s why MPs load them in with one or more official engagements.

A Newspoll next week will show whether the public anger has translated into numbers, just as the government goes into a new parliamentary session and readies to limp past its second anniversary next month.

A freshly weakened Abbott faces some difficult issues and dangerous flashpoints.

Cabinet on Monday is set to tick off on the post-2020 climate targets that Australia will announce for the Paris climate conference, with the Coalition partyroom briefed on Tuesday.

The government says the targets will be very credible, although it will be pulled in different directions in how it promotes them by two audiences – the hardliners in its base who believe the less we do the better, and those in the community who see climate change as a significant challenge that Australia should play its part in addressing.

How these targets are received internationally as well as locally will feed into the contest with Labor over climate policy, which is emerging as one of the major battlegrounds for the election.

Next week will also see the cross-party same-sex marriage bill go onto the notice paper, with Liberal backbencher Warren Entsch due to introduce it the following Monday. The pro-same-sex marriage forces are still talking through tactics; their opponents are ramping up their campaign. How Abbott will handle the situation remains unknown.

Parliament’s first item on Monday morning, before condolences for Don Randall, who died last month, will be to elect a new Speaker. Liberal members of the House will choose the Coalition’s nominee, with Victorian Tony Smith currently favourite.

A relatively early task of the new Speaker will be to announce the date of the byelection for Randall’s West Australian seat of Canning.

Byelections can be watershed moments. When John Howard held the Victorian seat of Aston in mid-2001 after the death of Peter Nugent, it was an important stepping stone in his government’s recovery from a massive low earlier that year, when it had lost a byelection in the Queensland seat of Ryan with a 9.7% swing.

Canning is taking on much significance. On a margin of 11.8% it should be safe for the government. But there are complicating factors. Randall got a big swing last time – some suggest the “real” margin would be perhaps 5%. WA’s economic problems from the wind-down of mining construction, and the unpopularity of both Barnett and Abbott governments will eat away at the vote.

So will the loss of Randall’s personal support. But voters also view differently a byelection caused by a death from one following an MP deciding to quit parliament, as happened in Ryan.

The implications for Abbott and Bill Shorten will depend on the size of the swing and the political climate and expectations at the time.

One thing is certain: if the seat were lost, it would be a massive blow for Abbott, and an immediate immense fillip for Shorten. But it could also be a double-edged sword for Labor – because it could quickly lead to Abbott being toppled.

There are mixed views among Liberals about whether Abbott’s leadership is secure for the next few months.

On the one hand, one detects a lack of energy in the party so that – absent a huge factor, such as a Canning wipeout – it is hard to see the momentum arising again for the sort of backbench push of February.

On the other hand, backbenchers in marginal seats will look increasingly at the polls – which have had the Coalition consistently behind for most of its term – as they get closer to the election.

Abbott is acutely aware of the Coalition’s vulnerability. This week he spent three days in South Australia, bringing forward some A$40 billion worth of surface warship construction and announcing that most of the work would go to Adelaide. His eye was on several seats, including that of Education Minister Christopher Pyne, which could be at risk.

But trying to plug holes in one place brings outbreaks in others – WA and Victoria were quickly complaining about the naval deal.

The polls, the byelection, the government’s patchy performance and Abbott’s flaky style make for an always potentially volatile mix.