View from The Hill

The Abbott Office learns the limits of control

Centralised control of the government has become an issue for Liberals. AAP/Karlis Salna

Queensland Liberal senator Ian Macdonald is not prominent and he has an axe to grind. Shadow parliamentary secretary for northern Australia, he didn’t even make the “third eleven” of the frontbench in government, and he was pretty upset.

Nevertheless, his attack on the Prime Minister’s Office today will resonate with more senior colleagues.

That Office, Macdonald told the Senate “seems to have an almost obsessive centralised control phobia”.

Macdonald was cross because he had been told in response to his many inquiries about the terms of reference for the parliamentary committee on northern Australia, “we will let you know when [they] are eventually decided”.

When he later discovered them “almost by accident” after they’d been passed by the House of Representatives, he was “incensed” that important matters had not been included, one a reference to zonal taxation.

Macdonald moved amendments to which the government agreed. The matter was smoothed.

But the PMO remains a point of discussion in Liberal circles. Even those with no particular beefs are making frequent pointed little references to Tony Abbott’s ever-present, all powerful chief of staff Peta Credlin.

There’s now some concern that PMO might try for an even tighter control after the schools funding fiasco.

Yet the attempted iron grip has not made for the smooth, measured start for which Abbott was hoping.

Neither Credlin nor anyone else can make the new opposition pliant, nor stop assorted spy stories breaking out (though someone could and should have prevented the schools frolic).

Abbott’s annoyance erupted on Tuesday when he threatened to keep parliament sitting beyond next week. It was the political equivalent of kicking the cat. There’s not the slightest expectation it will happen.

The Coalition is frustrated that it has power but when it comes to key promises it finds itself impotent.

Labor is revelling in an Indian summer of power – the opportunity for a few months to say no, to give Abbott back something of what he gave it. Plus, on the carbon and mining taxes, and in its opposition to temporary protection visas, it has strong positions.

The government is railing and ranting, but to no avail.

On the Senate’s disallowance of TPVs there has been payback. That won’t hit the ALP and Greens, but those asylum seekers waiting on bridging visas. Immigration Minister Scott Morrison said today no more onshore protection visas will be issued this financial year.

None of this Senate obstruction matters much for the moment. But the impasse over the debt ceiling did matter, with the limit about to be hit.

And here Treasurer Joe Hockey found an unlikely dancing partner in Christine Milne. A deal was finalised late today, a problem solved. Who needs a ceiling anyway? Not Joe. Not Christine.

Hockey sounded genuinely surprised that the Greens made such moderate demands. Milne put aside any offence at those labels the Liberals attach to the Greens. Mutual interest made them a happy couple.

Mostly, the new government is just going to have to wait for the new Senate, which tilts to the right and where Clive Palmer’s PUP will have a significant share of the balance of power.

But as Palmer makes his presence felt around Parliament House, they must be wondering in the Office how they’ll go about trying to “manage” him.

PUP already has two senators-elect and the Motoring Enthusiast Party’s Ricky Muir in an alliance. Palmer claims he could win two seats in the expected new West Australian Senate poll (surely impossible but that’s what the main parties said of his bid for Fairfax).

He is already campaigning on the pitch of using the balance of power to pursue a better deal for WA in the allocation of GST revenue. (PUP has decided to keep out of the byelection for Kevin Rudd’s former seat of Griffith to concentrate on WA and the Tasmanian state election.).

In Parliament today Palmer was on the spy trail. He wanted to know from Abbott whether crossbenchers’ phones and emails were being tapped and offices bugged. After uttering the usual no comment line Abbott assured Palmer he could “speak in peace”. Palmer then told a news conference his phone had been bugged for 10 or 15 years. (Good luck to the spooks if they are trying to summarise his politics.)

The spies are having almost as hard a time as the government. As the intelligence community still reels from the Indonesian affair, it is now alleged that East Timor’s 2004 commercial negotiations with Australia were bugged by the Australian Secret Intelligence Service. An ASIS whistle blower has materialised.

This week ASIO raided the home of the whistle blower and the premises of a Canberra lawyer who is acting for the Timorese in a case they are bringing against Australia at The Hague. Another leader, this time East Timor’s Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao, is now criticising Australia for spying.

Some things are way beyond command and control.

Listen to Greens deputy leader Adam Bandt on the Politics with Michelle Grattan podcast, available below, by rss and on iTunes.