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View from The Hill

Politically, the government seems on a hiding to nothing in the penalty rates battle

Malcolm Turnbull inspects the production facility at Bottles of Australia in Canberra on Monday. Lukas Coch/AAP

On some days it’s best not to venture out. For Malcolm Turnbull, Monday was such a day. There was no way a visit to Bottles of Australia in the Canberra suburb of Hume was going to end well.

Turnbull was there to talk energy policy. But each of only four questions he took bounced off the day’s shocker Newspoll, with its 55-45% Labor lead. The first asked bluntly: “How much worse do the polls have to get before you’re replaced as leader?”

Turnbull put the blame squarely on Tony Abbott for the result. “We saw an outburst on Thursday and it had its desired impact on the Newspoll. It was exactly as predicted and as calculated.” This didn’t quite explain why three weeks ago the poll was 54-46% in Labor’s favour, or why there’s now an established pattern of the Coalition trailing.

The media copped a spray too (though “fake news” wasn’t invoked).

Whenever Turnbull begins by saying “with great respect”, there’s a lecture coming.

“If I may, with great respect to all of you in the media, you are very readily distracted by personalities in politics. You are much more entertained by conflict and personalities than you are by jobs.

"You don’t seem to have a great deal of interest in the cane growers or the cattle producers or the bottle makers or the Datacentre owners or the butchers who need the support of the government to ensure that they have the export markets to reach out to and the affordable energy that they need to keep their businesses going.

"Now, you can focus on the personalities if you wish, that’s up to you. I’m focused on jobs, I’m focused on economic growth, I’m focused on ensuring that hard-working Australian families can get ahead, and on that note we must return to parliament.”

Which he did, where he focused heavily on one personality, his opposite number Bill Shorten, who made Labor’s Question Time attack not about the poll – which needed no added fat to sizzle – but about last week’s Fair Work Commission decision to cut Sunday penalty rates in the hospitality, retail, fast-food and pharmacy industries.

Politically, the government seems on a hiding to nothing here. It is caught in that crossover where a general economic reform comes at a high price for some individuals and families.

It’s a story repeated over the years although with changes such as the GST and the carbon scheme (both government policies rather than decisions by independent bodies), there was compensation to protect the most vulnerable.

With this penalty rate cut, there will be no cushioning, except in whatever phase-in arrangements the commission decides. And those left worse off will be substantially lower income earners.

People standing to lose think of their own situation. The government looks at the fallout from the commission’s decision primarily in terms of the collateral political damage it will suffer and how to manage that.

Whenever it tries to neutralise some issue, it puts Shorten in its sights, seeing him (without much evidence these days) as a weak point. If ministers were banned from saying “Shorten” for a week, they’d be struck nearly dumb.

The government says Shorten started it all in 2013 by including penalty rates in the review of awards; last year he promised to abide by the umpire’s decision, which he’s now trying to overturn.

It seems impervious to the likelihood that the hundreds of thousands of people facing shrinking pay packets don’t want another round of the blame game, which they’re sick of even in circumstances when they’re not so personally affected.

Amid his attacks on Shorten, Turnbull on Monday did passingly try to advance a positive economic argument for this decision that the government dodges endorsing.

“All of us understand how hard this will hit people who work on weekends, particularly those whose work is solely on weekends. They will get less for their Sunday work,” he said during a morning skirmish in parliament.

“But the trade-off has been – and this is the judgement of the Fair Work Commission – that as a consequence, there will be more hours worked, there will be more jobs in hospitality, more jobs in retail and so that overall, workers will benefit.”

The “jobs” case – the only positive argument it has, leaving aside accepting the umpire’s ruling – fits squarely with Coalition philosophy. But the government has put it only feebly in the last several days.

Maybe it fears it won’t persuade. Even if the case is acknowledged, in political terms the losers and the pain are easier to identify than the winners and the gain.

George Christensen, the Liberal National Party backbencher who has an acute electoral nose and an opinion on everything, declines to take a definite stand on the penalty rates cut.

“I can understand both sides of the argument,” he tells The Conversation. “I have made my views clear to both the prime minister and the deputy prime minister [in texts].”

Christensen’s caution came in the wake of just-published polling, commissioned by the Australia Institute and done last week by ReachTEL, showing that the LNP and One Nation were level pegging in his Queensland regional seat of Dawson, each on 30% primary vote.

A union robocall campaign was launched on Monday night in his electorate; he appeared on the ABC’s Lateline attacking Shorten.

Even the equally outspoken Pauline Hanson is wanting to dodge the bullets from Thursday’s decision. “I had nothing to do with it,” she said in a video, responding to feedback. “I can understand small businesses are doing it hard. But believe me I had nothing to do with the Fair Work Commission. I had no input into cutting wages back.”

Among the politicians the penalty rate cut is, at least in the public arena, an orphan child.

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