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Abbott’s paid parental leave looks like dead plan walking

Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s signature PPL policy is once again under fire. AAP/ Britta Campion

The travails of Tony Abbott’s paid parental leave scheme are symptomatic of the government’s wider problems.

The Prime Minister says he won’t abandon the plan, adding that he doesn’t break promises. That’s really what he said a few days ago. But the prospect of his being able to deliver it in its current (already revised) shape is not strong. The PPL scheme is not part of the budget, but a lot of the budget is now in the same limbo land.

The PPL plan has become a flashpoint of discontent for critics outside the government – especially key Senate crossbenchers – but also for those within Coalition ranks, who believe it is at odds with what are, or should be, the government’s priorities and principles.

A number of budget measures are seen as unfair because they hit those least able to cope; the PPL plan is also regarded as unfair – in its case because it is too generous to the better-off.

After Fairfax Media reported at the weekend that the scheme had been “quietly shelved” and was unlikely to be put to Parliament this year, ministers doing the rounds of the Sunday talk shows were all cued with their response.

No, they said, it was just that the government was focused on the budget. There was plenty of time for the PPL – it isn’t due to start until mid-next year.

These days there is no show without Clive Palmer who chimed in via Twitter that “PPL’s dead in the water”, saying that while PUP had the balance of power “we won’t vote for it”. The government had not discussed it with him, he added. That’s not surprising, given his attack on the plan in Parliament, during which he took a swipe at Abbott’s chief of staff, Peta Credlin.

Actually, whether the PPL legislation would be dead in the parliamentary water would mainly depend on the Greens and some Coalition backbenchers who threaten to cross the floor. And the Greens, who in principle support PPL as a work entitlement, have progressively cooled on the Abbott plan.

The government has rote lines about doing things in a logical and methodical way. In fact, coming up to its anniversary next month, the government’s operating style in its first year has more often appeared shambolic.

But think ahead. Things could get worse. How is the government later on going to deal with childcare (with the Productivity Commission urging universal means testing), to say nothing of the outcomes of a tax inquiry and an inquiry into industrial relations, with the results of both supposed to go to the 2016 election? Logically, or with the survival instinct paramount?

Back on the budget battlefront, Treasurer Joe Hockey this week will continue canvassing crossbenchers to try to persuade them to support various items after parliament resumes in late August. He will seek to meet Liberal Democrat David Leyonhjelm in Sydney early in the week and John Madigan (DLP) and Ricky Muir (Motoring Enthusiast Party) in Melbourne towards the end of it. Like other crossbenchers, they may have something to say about PPL, even though it is not on the immediate agenda.

The source for the Fairfax PPL story is unknown but some in the government wonder if mischief is being made by the plan’s internal enemies. Every time the scheme is raised its faults get wide canvassing.

If the Coalition were being cynically strategic, it might calculate the PPL was not going to pass, so it was best to bring in the legislation ASAP, see it almost certainly defeated and so get rid of the burr under the saddle.

The backbench would be happy; the Prime Minister could say “I tried”. And the issue would be off the agenda. But that’s too logical.

Listen to the latest Politics with Michelle Grattan podcast with Member for Indi Cathy McGowan, here.

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