Grattan on Friday: People on tenterhooks in a government that’s waiting … for something

This week Prime Minister Tony Abbott was beset with problems, including leaks and the sourness left by the entitlements scandal. Lukas Coch/AAP

It’s never helpful for a government to become the object of ridicule, so when the Coalition’s speaking notes were leaked for a second day running it was embarrassing.

Thursday’s notes, sent to ministers, backbenchers and staff, were much the same as Wednesday’s. Perhaps the second leak was a sort of “up yours” gesture. Just the thing to drive to distraction the control brigade in Prime Minister’s Office.

Beset with problems including leaks and the sourness left by the entitlements scandal, the government this week desperately tried to break through the fog with a simple message – that its priorities were jobs, growth and keeping the community safe. The backbenchers were thankful to see a more assertive approach in parliament. But they remain as fearful as ever about their futures, their worries reinforced by the Fairfax-Ipsos poll showing the Coalition trailing Labor 46-54%.

Politically, jobs and growth are what the Coalition needs to be talking about. But with 6.3% unemployment and the Reserve Bank recently downgrading its growth forecast, the arguments are not simple. The government uses comparisons between job creation under it and Labor (the figures sounding as though they need a fact check), and Australia’s growth compared with that of other countries.

The government went on the attack against Labor and union claims that the free trade agreement (FTA) with China threatens Australian workers. Tony Abbott took a morning to travel to a cattle yard at Yass to sell the FTA’s benefits; he accused Labor of xenophobia and reverting to a White Australia policy. Labor’s attack, backing up the big union campaign, is opportunistic, a classic scare tactic. But it can take the gloss off the achievement of the agreement.

The government is perennially driven by its desire to wedge Labor. This was very clear when it rushed in its proposal to limit those able to take court action against mining projects. “They threw it in as a bit of red meat on the barbie,” as one Liberal source put it.

The move follows what’s happened with the planned Adani Carmichael coal mine in Queensland, which has been challenged by conservationists. A judgement has been held up because the Environment Department did not provide all the needed information to minister Greg Hunt before he gave approval. The glitch is expected to be dealt with in a few weeks.

The government argues more generally that environmental groups are exploiting the system by using legal action. It is posing the issue as a choice for Labor between supporting jobs and being allied with the green lobby.

The controversial change has the support of former Labor resources minister Martin Ferguson. In remarks that will put him further offside with one-time colleagues, Ferguson told The Conversation: “The resources sector accepts it has got to meet the highest environmental standards. But it’s concerned about the gaming of the system from the legal perspective, which is not about environmental standards but killing jobs and investment in Australia.”

Ferguson says he supports the Townsville Labor mayor who wants the mine. “It is about time the Labor Party stood up for jobs and investment, especially in regional Australia.” He says it is very clear to him from his contacts with international companies that have historically invested here “that they believe some sections of the community in Australia are no longer interested in jobs and investment”.

But Labor has declared its opposition to the change and so far only two of a needed six Senate crossbenchers have indicated they would support it, putting its fate very much up in the air. In the community, some voters are likely to be uneasy about limiting the opportunity for those with genuine concerns about projects, albeit no direct interest, to take action.

Amid trying to counter Labor and throw up distractions, the government remains bogged down in its efforts to advance a reform program. Treasurer Joe Hockey continues to talk about tax reform but there is little faith that the Coalition will be in any position to put a comprehensive blueprint to the voters. At the treasurers’ meeting on Friday there is likely to be agreement on one tidy-up – to scrap the GST exemption for imported goods worth less than A$1000. This is long overdue – but hardly popular with online shoppers.

On Friday the spotlight turns onto the royal commission investigating union corruption, when Dyson Heydon hears applications for him to recuse himself. The commission indicated on Thursday that Heydon may give an immediate ruling or hold it over until next week, possibly Tuesday.

The government this week pushed back against Labor’s calls for Heydon to quit over his acceptance (later withdrawn) of an invitation to deliver an address sponsored by the Liberal Party. The government can’t win out of this situation. If Heydon goes, it would have to ditch the inquiry or appoint a new commissioner who would probably need to retread some of the ground already covered. If he remains, his findings will have discounted credibility, in particular anything adverse he might say about Bill Shorten.

Despite the late revving up of its parliamentary energy, at the end of this fortnight sitting there was a noticeably bad vibe around the government. A staffer remarked that the general situation made governing difficult; a visitor observed that people were scratchy; an official wondered whether something was going on. A Liberal MP said backbenchers had concerns about “where we’re going and who leads us but nobody has a definitive answer”.

In the short term, Abbott is going to the Torres Strait and Cape York for his Indigenous week, a worthy keeping of a promise. His troops are going back to constituents who are unlikely to give them any cheer. Beyond that, everyone is waiting for the Canning byelection.

Listen to the latest Politics with Michelle Grattan podcast with guest, Clare O'Neil, talking about her new book Two Futures.