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View from The Hill

Abbott should remember he is PM, not a tabloid headline writer

Prime Minister Tony Abbott should avoid encouraging some commentators on the right who are very ready to stir anti-Muslim feelings. AAP/Lukas Coch

Tony Abbott should stop trying so hard with the slogans. The latest was his weekend effort pledging the government would crack down on “terrorism tourism on the taxpayers”.

This was announcing (rather, confirming – the government had already announced it in Saturday’s Daily Telegraph) that people who were serious security threats would have their social security benefits cut off.

“We do believe that particularly for people who are heading overseas there should be the ability, in the hands of the government, to remove social security benefits from them,” Abbott said. “The last thing we want is terrorism tourism on the taxpayer.” The measure would also apply to people in Australia assessed as a serious threat.

Jihadists shouldn’t get benefits and if the law needs to be tightened to ensure this (with proper safeguards not to catch others by mistake) that should be done.

But not many people are involved and the use of the phrase “terrorism tourism on the taxpayer” sounded less like a description of the problem and more like a desire to press a few voter buttons. As such it is dangerous.

In dealing with a difficult national security situation produced by the Syria and Iraq conflicts, Abbott has certain challenges in terms of community opinion. He needs to get the support of the Muslim community for some new measures (which require some modifications and extra safeguards to protect civil liberties anyway). He equally should avoid inflaming volatile sections of the wider Australian community and encouraging some commentators on the right who are very ready to stir anti-Muslim feelings.

On Monday in Sydney and Tuesday in Melbourne Abbott will be meeting Muslim and other ethnic community representatives to discuss the new security measures he is proposing and other issues.

The security measures have created some concern in the Muslim community perhaps partly because its members are sensitive to the spate of commentary that they need to do more to combat radicalism.

It is worth noting the observation by ASIO chief David Irvine last week, who praised the Muslim leadership for what they are doing. Irvine is in a position to know.

The other focus of government attention this week will be what is now a perennial one - the budget.

The government is trying to simultaneously signal compromise but not a fundamental overhaul.

The media talk of “rebooting” the budget - the change of footwear so far appears limited but it could have to go a lot further if the government wants to get its more controversial budget measures passed.

Finance Minister Mathias Cormann said on Sunday: “While there may be an adjustment here and an adjustment there, fundamentally we expect all of our Budget measures to get through the Parliament because we were elected to fix the Budget mess left behind by the Labor Party and that is what we will do.”

Joe Hockey was staying out of the limelight after last week’s own goal but his office rejected one media report suggesting the government would split off the repeal of the mining tax from associated spending items – schoolkids bonus and two measures for low income earners – that the Palmer United Party is insisting should be preserved.

Clive Palmer on Sunday continued to say the PUP wanted to know that the three measures would be “maintained for the period of this parliament”.

The government is willing to compromise on the interest for student loans but Palmer says all PUP senators unanimously decided to oppose the higher education measures in general.

And he said his discussion last week with Health Minister Peter Dutton was “introductory” – he did not have a final compromise to put to the PUP leader on the Medicare co-payment.

Meanwhile Immigration Minister Scott Morrison has extended an invitation to Palmer to have lunch this week. “I don’t know what it is about. His staff talked to my staff,” Palmer told The Conversation.

Palmer criticised the amount of money being “wasted on detention camps” and said the government was just putting off a final decision on what to do with the people.

Asked about its plan to send some refugees to Cambodia Palmer said: “I don’t think a piecemeal solution is saving the money they need to save”.

The government is setting aside 4400 places from its existing refugee program for Iraqis and Syrians.

“The government’s policies under Operation Sovereign Borders have not only saved lives at sea, but also allowed more places to be returned to our humanitarian programme for the world’s most desperate and vulnerable people,” Morrison said.

Among whom he does not include the Iraqis in offshore detention.

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