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Grattan on Friday: Abbott government suffers self-inflicted pain in an untidy week

Prime Minister Tony Abbott has had yet another bad week. AAP/Nikki Short

The Abbott government has followed one step forward by a couple back. After an improved performance became the media story of last week, it’s been slipping and sliding all over the place.

Tony Abbott had another bad word day. Treasurer Joe Hockey sat awkwardly aboard a hobby horse. Industry Minister Ian Macfarlane tripped during a policy retreat. Leadership aspirant Malcolm Turnbull reminded colleagues they’d been hopeless.

There’s general agreement among Liberals that Abbott’s struggling leadership is to be given “more time”. But what about the “clear air” they said the prime minister needed?

As he used the non-sitting week to travel around “trying to ensure that the government and the people are all on the same page” (his words to Alan Jones), Abbott produced his own fog.

Abbott invited a storm of criticism when he said, talking about a West Australian government plan to close many remote Indigenous communities, that “it’s not the job of the taxpayer to subsidise lifestyle choices”.

Indigenous friends and advisers Warren Mundine and Noel Pearson were among those laying into Abbott. The accusation from some that he is racist was nonsense. But his language and the way he framed the issue were badly judged and had implications beyond being politically harmful to him.

It also gave an unfortunate slant to what is a genuine dilemma: how to reconcile the desire of Indigenous people to live in remote places on traditional land, with the need to ensure that young people from these areas have access to the sort of opportunities most non-Indigenous children enjoy. Even if endless money were available (and there will always be limits), these children will be at a disadvantage.

One wonders if Abbott’s response partly reflects his frustration at making so little progress in Indigenous affairs. The latest Closing the Gap report was disappointing; the referendum for Indigenous recognition in the constitution won’t be held this term.

Hockey – leaving aside what people thought about the treasurer being tied up with his defamation case – has also managed to stymie his own battle to get himself back on track. After launching his Intergenerational Report (IGR) with much hype, he derailed the discussion by floating the possibility of giving young people access to their super to buy their first home.

Not only did this go against the thrust of the IGR on the population’s ageing, but also it would not effectively deal with the question of affordability, a point made sharply by Turnbull, who slapped down Hockey by declaring it “a thoroughly bad idea”.

The shambles around the dollars involved in the government’s announcement that it won’t go ahead with legislation cancelling car industry assistance – which wouldn’t pass the Senate anyway – again showed its poor, or tricky, management of communications.

The backdown itself was a barnacle-removal exercise, coming after its ditching of the Medicare co-payment.

It is a welcome gesture to South Australian Liberals who are in a desperate situation, with several seats likely to be lost as things stand. But the backflips are confusing the government’s policy signals, which now mix warnings about the fiscal problems with populist retreats.

The consensus is that, despite an untidy week – which included a poor Newspoll – and barring some game-changer, Abbott’s leadership is safe until mid-year.

Turnbull’s frustration can only be imagined, after an early switch to him had recently seemed at least a possibility. Now not only is Abbott being granted more time, but he has been given a strategic advantage by Julie Bishop indicating she’d be a candidate in a contest.

In his Wednesday speech condemning the way last year’s budget was handled – notably the fiscal problem not properly explained – Turnbull wasn’t saying much new. That he chose to say it, and referred to what he had done in his own portfolio to illustrate how to undertake reform effectively, won’t endear him to some colleagues. That he included himself in the general failure would fool no-one.

The government has two weeks of parliament before the recess that leads into the budget.

NSW Premier Mike Baird will hope these weeks don’t bring more gales from Canberra. While the polls have the state government ahead and it has a massive majority, the electricity privatisation issue has been a gift for Labor.

Bill Shorten campaigned in the state on three days this week. Labor sources say that NSW is “eerily like Queensland” and approaching a hung parliament, although they still put Baird as favourite to remain premier. Alarm is high among federal Liberals from NSW.

The NSW result will be another big moment for Abbott. A bad outcome would send some of its tremors his way, while he could get some advantage from a good Liberal showing (there’d be debate over what’s “good”), which would help settle federal Liberals in marginal seats in that state.

What happens in NSW could feed into the federal budget, already a complicated exercise, with the need to balance the fiscal and the political. If the March 28 result strikes fear into the Canberra Liberals, that fear will flow into the budget brought down on May 12, as well as into the party’s thinking about its leadership.

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