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Grattan on Friday: Row over facial covering exposes rifts and red faces

Tony Abbott’s office has been keeping an eagle eye on the upgrading of security in Parliament House. AAP/Lukas Coch

For a prime minister who says he wants to promote Team Australia, Tony Abbott made a right mess of it this week.

Somehow he managed to let the burqa, which as he correctly says no one actually wears to Parliament House, become a major and damaging debate.

First, when asked on Wednesday about calls for it to be banned in the building on security grounds, he unnecessarily reprised his old worries about finding the garment “fairly confronting” and his wish that it wasn’t worn (though declaring people had the right to dress how they wanted and not saying it should banned at Parliament House).

Then on Thursday afternoon Speaker Bronwyn Bishop and Senate President Stephen Parry announced that people with facial coverings would be confined to the glassed-in galleries when they watched parliamentary proceedings.

Within hours and after a backlash – including from the government’s hand-picked Human Rights Commissioner Tim Wilson – word was out that Abbott was intervening to quash the decision. He would ask the presiding officers (formally in charge of these things) to reconsider. He didn’t think it was necessary to ban these visitors from the open gallery.

Abbott’s office has been keeping an eagle eye on the upgrading of security in Parliament House. It’s hard to comprehend how it allowed the glass box snafu to happen. Bishop and Parry are left red faced and the government has again damaged relations with the Muslim community.

Joe Hockey was quick to deny that the government were giving up on key budget measures. AAP/Alan Porritt

It wasn’t the only problem of the week. On a completely different front, when the Australian Financial Review reported that the government was preparing to raise the white flag on key budget measures in the face of Senate obstruction and revise its strategy, Treasurer Joe Hockey and Finance Minister Mathias Cormann had to dash out with the speed of Olympic sprinters to deny it.

No, no, no, they insisted. No change. Policies stand (even if only aspirations). We’ll never give up.

The government can’t afford to admit the obvious: that it can’t promise to deliver key budget measures, including the $7 Medicare co-payment, higher education deregulation, denying young people unemployment benefits for six months, changing pension and family benefit indexation provisions, and putting in place a pension age of 70 (for two decades on).

It’s not just that to abandon these initiatives would be to concede it had been routed. It’s also that though the measures are in limbo they stay for future years in the budget forward estimates as savings, making the future numbers look better than if the government formally gave up on them.

The same thing happened with Labor’s means test on the health insurance rebate. Rejected by the Senate, it sat around in the budget books – and then finally was passed. That’s the other reason the government says its controversial measures aren’t dead, just resting. With the unpredictability of Clive Palmer, who knows what might happen later?

As things stand, however, the government continues to get the odium of its budget nasties, without being able to make them happen. Voters have been hit psychologically, but the degree to which they’ll lose out in practical terms is yet to be seen.

In a healthy dose of pragmatism, the government finally swallowed its pride and split the social services legislation, which means it has Labor’s agreement to pass $2.7 billion worth of measures, including a changed means test for Family Tax Benefit B. But this was only a small part of the total welfare package.

Meanwhile it has been on a spending spree since the budget, with $630 million promised for security, and the commitment to the Middle East conflict that will have a substantial and probably long term price tag.

How much effort it will make to try to find offsets for the mid-year budget update, released in December, hasn’t yet been determined.

One line of thinking is that it is best to concentrate on the medium and longer term rhetoric of fixing the budget – that trying to make big new savings now which perhaps could not be delivered is counter productive.

One area that is relatively easy to target, however, is foreign aid, and The Australian on Thursday reported that it is set to be cut.

Julie Bishop’s muscle flexing is getting much attention in the media. AAP/Mal Fairclough

Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, annoyed at the article, sounded icily determined when interviewed on the ABC. “We will abide by the commitments we made,” she said. That might go by the board in the end but it sounded like a “don’t mess with me” message to colleagues (which she reportedly delivered to them personally later).

Bishop’s current muscle flexing is getting much attention in the media - and being observed by other ministers.

After speculation in recent weeks about the possibility of a homeland security portfolio being created, headed by the ambitious Immigration Minister Scott Morrison, Bishop this week told The Australian “if there were such a proposal, it would have to demonstrate any current failures in co-operation between the intelligence agencies, federal and state police and Defence and I am not aware of any such failures.”

The Foreign Minister is on a roll, prominent at question time, relishing the golden glow of favourable publicity, with some of this week’s commentary casting her as possibly eventually becoming Australia’s first Liberal woman prime minister.

Right now, she’s the team’s celebrity player, and willing to differentiate her product from that of the captain. Asked on Thursday whether she was confronted by a woman wearing a burqa, she said “I’m not confronted by clothing”.

Listen to the latest episode of Politics with Michelle Grattan podcast, with shadow treasurer Chris Bowen.

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