Grattan on Friday: Pugilist Abbott spins for fights

Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s default political position is confrontation. AAP/Mick Tsikas

Liberal backbencher Craig Laundy, who won the marginal Sydney seat of Reid from Labor in 2013, this week started making videos that he’s promoting as “spin-free”.

Laundy, a former hotelier used to plain speaking, is one of a rare backbench species. He’s more inclined to call things as he sees them rather than according to the issued “lines” of his party.

“One of the biggest criticisms I get in the electorate of Reid is spin and politics verse substance,” Laundy said in Thursday’s video, which highlighted the bipartisanship around the small-business package.

“Spin” is nothing new – and one person’s “spin” is another person’s “tactics” – but it has reached such epidemic proportions that it is inflicting serious injury on the political system. It increasingly involves misrepresentation and dishonesty and adds to ordinary people’s disgust and anger with today’s politics.

After the budget, the government tried to “spin” that Labor mightn’t pass, or pass quickly enough, the stimulus for small business. This was a confection – the opposition had immediately backed the measure and the legislation will be through by the end of the month.

By trying to score a shot against Labor, the government just created unnecessary doubt among some small-business people whose accountants were advising caution. Then the government squealed at Labor’s Wednesday stunt to call out the Coalition by trying to bring on an early House vote.

On national security, the government is caught between a wish to spin the issue against Labor for political advantage and the desirability of bipartisanship in such a crucial area.

Abbott was anxious for bipartisanship on the commitment of Australian forces - not inherently popular. An Essential poll published on March 10 found 50% disapproved of the government’s decision to send more troops to Iraq while 36% approved. Political cover would be useful if things got more difficult in the future.

National security at home is something else. Abbott initially looked for bipartisanship. But, confident of public support – in the March 3 Essential poll, 75% said the threat of terrorism happening in Australia had increased over the last few years – he’s turned more partisan. As he defended himself against Labor’s probing of the recent cabinet leak, he went on the offensive by seeking to cast doubts on Bill Shorten’s commitment.

Malcolm Turnbull alluded to “bravado” this week, as in how not to approach security issues. He was implicitly pointing in Abbott’s direction, and the term very well captures Abbott’s style more widely.

Abbott’s default political position is confrontation. For him, consensus is mostly for wimps (with a few exceptions – the Indigenous referendum is one).

Given that his overwhelming current preoccupation is the polls and his modus operandi is the continuous campaign, Abbott wants to pick fights with the opposition – even where there is agreement, or a strong prospect of it – and to deeply plumb populism. This is helping in the polls, while degrading the politics.

Take the plans to strip citizenship from people engaged in terrorism.

After flagging legislation to apply this to dual citizens, Abbott’s mantra was to demand Labor state its attitude.

The opposition said it needed to see the detail. But immigration spokesman Richard Marles’s press release on the day of the announcement indicated the opposition was more likely than not to give support.

Marles said: “Labor is open to any sensible change to the Citizenship Act that improves our current system. Currently, the Act states that a person will have their citizenship revoked if they serve in the military of a nation at war with Australia. It is clear the disturbing number of Australians joining groups such as Daesh pose a new threat that warrants a sensible update of our laws to reflect this.”

Despite that, in response to questioning, Abbott kept the pressure on Shorten. His interest was in standing Labor up. Shorten this week finally gave formal “in principle” support.

Labor is taking something of a risk in doing this before seeing the bill, which is set to include not just foreign fighters but the more complex matter of dual citizens in Australia who are helping the Islamic State cause.

Abbott is also anxious to pursue the controversial proposal, that’s out for community consultation, to revoke the citizenship of Australian-only citizens engaged with terrorism, provided they are eligible for citizenship elsewhere and so wouldn’t be left stateless. This was the subject of last week’s cabinet split.

Abbott’s letter replying to 44 Coalition MPs who had urged early action on this measure has been seen as support for their call. “I encourage you and your many interested colleagues to actively participate in the public consultation process,” he wrote.

But more doubts are emerging about the proposal’s feasibility. Greg Craven, vice-chancellor of Australian Catholic University, who is a constitutional expert, a conservative and a personal friend of Abbott, has made a swingeing attack on the government’s plans.

Craven wrote in The Australian: “The idea we would make an individual who had only Australian citizenship stateless … smacks of Richard III and Joseph Stalin on a bad day. The notion this would be all right if he were technically eligible to apply for citizenship of another state – ‘Application Question 2: How many people have you killed in the last week?’ – is grimly risible.”

The move against dual citizens was more plausible, Craven said. “But even then the decision would have to lie with a judge, not a politician [as proposed].”

What happens if there are insurmountable problems with a move against Australian-only citizens?

Abbott would have been guilty of over-reach; he would have failed the backbenchers’ hopes.

But one observer who resides in the cynical world of watching focus groups believes voters would give him marks for trying, judging him on intent and sentiment, rather than results.

If that assessment is correct, the spin would have won out, regardless of an inability to deliver the substance.

Listen to the latest Politics with Michelle Grattan podcast, with guest, Small Business Minister Bruce Billson, here or on iTunes.