Lesson for Abbott: you can’t keep a secret when others are talking

Tony Abbott has already had a challenging start to his government. AAP/Will Russell

With the 44th Parliament opening on Tuesday, the next phase of the Abbott government begins. Already we’re seeing its early modus operandi, including its sometimes losing battle to control and often hide information and to keep discipline, and the first indications of good and bad performers.

There are two narratives currently running about the government.

One is that not much is happening. This bobs up from time to time in the media, still weaning themselves off the hung parliament. The other is how everything is orderly. That’s the government’s story line, maintained even when there is blinding evidence to the contrary.

In fact, quite a lot is happening, and some things are going awry.

In style, Tony Abbott appears genuinely consultative with his ministerial colleagues. While there is a formal leadership group, there is no sign of a Rudd-like preference for a small “kitchen cabinet”. Abbott is said to work the phone a lot with senior colleagues, including those he knows might have a different view on issues.

Addressing the West Australian Liberal state council on Saturday, Abbott highlighted a rather arcane point about process: that he is imposing the “Westminster tradition” (often previously honoured in the breach) that cabinet submissions must be in 10 days before they are discussed. “If the various experts don’t have time to chew over all the consequences of these proposed decisions, invariably you end up getting important details wrong.”

Although senior colleagues’ influence rises once in government, particularly on policy, Abbott’s chief of staff Peta Credlin retains her great clout. Combined with her high profile, this makes Credlin a dartboard for ministers, MPs and staff with grouches, especially about process issues.

The government’s aim has been to start quite a lot moving, while projecting an image (as Abbott said in WA) that “we are calmly, purposefully, methodically getting on with doing exactly what we said we would do in the campaign”.

Abbott is preoccupied with being seen to be delivering on election commitments, most notably repealing the carbon tax, the first legislation to be introduced this week.

In a social media message on Sunday night he said: “This is my bill to reduce your bills”. In his constant references to the carbon tax he also wants to score to the maximum off Bill Shorten and Labor for holding up the repeal.

Much-remarked features of the new government are its tight control of the information it provides and its penchant for secrecy. But these are proving more troublesome and difficult than expected.

“It’s more important to be involved in governing our country than it is simply to be giving endless interviews which are all about glorifying politicians rather than about doing the right thing by the people of Australia,” Abbott told the WA Liberals.

In fact, the issue has become not the number of appearances but what the government is refusing to address in those appearances, and what information is denied in other contexts (such as FOI).

The Prime Ministerial Office’s attempt to keep control of who goes out when into the media has created some resentment in the ranks.

And some situations have been beyond control.

Nationals leader and deputy PM Warren Truss is presumably outside the PMO’s reach. Truss a week ago fired a rocket at those supporting the foreign takeover bid for GrainCorp. It was a bit late when the following day Abbott said at cabinet that people should keep quiet on the matter. Anyway, Treasurer Joe Hockey returned fire regardless.

On another front the PMO’s control, involving an elaborate vetting process, of ministerial and even electorate staff appointments has meant some ministers and even ordinary MPs have had to wait a long time to get their offices sorted out. (There’s always a happy medium here – scrutiny is needed to avoid problems later.)

Immigration Minister Scott Morrison has become the poster boy of official secrecy – and testament to how it can bite the government on the behind.

With the asylum seeker boat arrivals slowing, it would have been more savvy to continue Labor’s practice of just putting out a release about each boat, rather than have weekly briefings and an attempted silence in between.

Morrison and Angus Campbell, the military head of Operation Sovereign Borders, have become easy targets for refusing to talk about so-called “operational” matters at the briefings, and when particular issues have arisen between briefings, Morrison has been forced to say something anyway.

With last week’s stand off between Australia and Indonesia over a boatload of people that Canberra wanted Jakarta to take back, the secrecy policy left the Abbott government outsmarted.

The blackout imposed by Morrison and Abbott on Friday became almost as embarrassing as Jakarta’s rejecting the boat people, because the Indonesians were the ones talking.

The Jakarta Post quoted an Indonesian government spokesman saying that the policy was that Indonesia should no longer accept asylum seekers from Australia, and that Indonesia had declined to accept the last three requests for transfer of people that Australian ships had rescued.

On Sunday Morrison said in a statement: “For the sake of correcting the public record, our post had made four such requests, under Operation Sovereign Borders, two were accepted and two were not. These requests have been for at sea transfers in response to a Search and Rescue incident (SAR). They are not a ‘turn back’ operation, although they do achieve the same result.”

“We are in constant dialogue with Indonesia on these issues and we will continue to work with and discuss these issues with Indonesia directly, and not through the media.”

Unfortunately for the government, the Indonesian government seems to have decided that it can be in its best interests to get its stand out through the media.

The takeout from this saga is twofold: information came out regardless of the Abbott government’s efforts to stop it, and there was a political cost to the unsuccessful attempt at secrecy.

As people start compiling early scorecards of ministerial performance, Treasurer Hockey appears to be among those taking to government competently (although he has been getting some flak for adding to the deficit when the Coalition in opposition talked of a “budget emergency”). But for Hockey these are the easier days: the big tests will be his first budget, and before that, his decision on the GrainCorp takeover bid.

Truss is already signalling that he won’t be muzzled on issues that are core for his party. Again the real questions are ahead: most immediately, will he win or lose on GrainCorp?

Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, caught awkwardly in the problems with Indonesia over boats and spies, looks to be finding that heavy going.

Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull, while beavering away at the considerable challenge of restructuring the NBN, gives the impression that he will let be known what he thinks on various issues, within the broad confines of cabinet government.

The stand out bad performer is Morrison, whose public arrogance has shocked even some of his colleagues, especially as it has on occasion been accompanied by getting his basic facts wrong and having to correct them later.

He has not taken note of Abbott’s exhortation about “tone”.

Abbott puts a lot of emphasis on that word. He told the WA Liberals: “I think all of you have noticed there is a new tone and a new style in Canberra”.

With the new parliament commencing, the PMO says it will have a different “tone” from the last one.

One would expect the volume and aggression to be down. It’s not hung and Abbott is not opposition leader. Last time he set as much of the tone as did Labor.

Bill Shorten’s style and circumstances as opposition leader will be different. There is more in it for him (most immediately) to be forensic in questioning the government and (in the medium term) to build new constituencies (he already has an eye to women voters) than to be a brawler. (How the opposition will use Anthony Albanese, the natural brawler, will be interesting to see.)

Abbott said in his social media message: “The Parliament is coming back and I want to assure you that as far as the government is concerned the adults are back in charge.”

The parliament is likely to see, however, a good deal of that child’s game of hide and seek.

Listen to Brendan Nelson on the Politics with Michelle Grattan podcast, available below, by rss and on iTunes.