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Abbott says he just has to get off a couple of barnacles

Tony Abbott told Tuesday’s partyroom meeting he wanted to show the Rudd-Gillard years are not the new normal. AAP/Lukas Coch

With the polling bad, some of his strongest media backers excoriating him and his pants on fire over the “no cuts to the ABC” pledge, Tony Abbott has assured his Coalition partyroom that, bar a couple of “barnacles”, everything is going all right.

Abbott admitted it had at times been a difficult year but said the tumult had all been external to the government, which had been stable, competent and delivered on its promises – stopping the boats, building the roads and the like.

The government was getting the budget back under control; MPs should be satisfied with the past year and optimistic about the next 12-18 months.

There were “one or two barnacles still on the ship”, Abbott said, but they would be dealt with by Christmas. He did not say what they were. Some hopefuls in the backbench wonder whether he might backtrack on his paid parental leave scheme, due to start mid-next year but not even yet in the parliament and facing defeat in the Senate anyway.

Abbott told Tuesday’s meeting he wanted a “100% break” from the past, adding that “our historical mission is to show the Rudd-Gillard years are not the new normal”.

But some of what happened in those years is already the “new normal”, including a blowout in the deficit and the argument about trust.

Hoist on his own broken promise, Abbott in Tuesday’s Question Time tried to punch his way through the row over the ABC cuts by alleging – with plenty of citings from Paul Kelly’s recent book on the Labor years – that one can’t trust Bill Shorten.

That may be true. But the current issue is that people have found that they can’t trust Abbott, who is twisting in the wind over his series of foolish promises made on election eve, including guarantees about the ABC and SBS.

The government has made a total hash of the cuts to the broadcasters. If the promise was to be trashed, it should have got its act together in time to put the full cut in the May budget. Best also to admit that it had decided the promise was “disposable” or “non-core” and invoke fiscal circumstances.

None of this would excuse Abbott saying pre-election what he clearly didn’t mean, but might have contained some of the damage. Instead he resisted conceding he’d gone back on his undertaking, only to be dragged on Tuesday to own the words.

To make things worse for the government, while it has relished giving the ABC a whack, managing director Mark Scott has whacked back.

As Richard Ackland has written: “To lose 10% of his staff and more than $50m a year for five years, plus the one off whack of $120m from the May budget, presents opportunities for Scott, aside from the despair.

"The managing director has seized them. It’s digital all the way, largely at the expense of traditional regional services across the wide, brown land.” The Scott decisions hit both regional ABC audiences and the ABC’s commercial competitors, News Corp and Fairfax.

The Coalition is screaming foul. Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull has said all along the savings could be made without hitting programs.

Quite possibly. But they are not being done that way. It’s the ABC’s call and Scott is playing as tough as the government. Turnbull says Scott is using the cuts as “cover” for what he wanted to do – and throws in for good measure that the ABC has been a “workers’ collective for quite some time”.

For the government, the question is who will be blamed for the slim down of regional services.

It is desperately trying to make sure it is the broadcaster, but given the popularity of the ABC the Coalition risks getting the backlash.

Tuesday’s Essential poll points to the potential danger. More than half (52%) disapproved of the cut; only a quarter approved.

The results also suggest the government’s sustained attack on the ABC’s alleged bias is also likely to be counter-productive. By a big margin, the media people most trusted were ABC TV news and current affairs (69%), SBS TV news and current affairs (66%), and ABC radio news and current affairs (62%).

The poll, incidentally, also found more people think Australia is taking the wrong approach to handling the issue of climate change (42%) than believe it is taking the right approach (28%). So maybe it would be savvy not to beat up on Barack Obama so much.

People were also not all that impressed with Abbott’s performance at the G20 – 31% rating it good and 37% poor. On the other hand, signing the free trade agreement with China has gone down well – 51% approve, only 20% disapprove.

The Weekend Australian in its blistering editorial said that Abbott “is losing the battle to define core issues and to explain to voters what he is doing and why”.

Abbott repeatedly defaults, including at Tuesday’s joint parties’ meeting, to his election mantra about the carbon and mining taxes, boats, roads and the budget. One reason why he hasn’t got the “narrative” his critics call for is that he’s still stuck back at chapter one, which was all about the election, when the story has moved on.

Listen to the latest politics podcast with guest John Madigan.

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