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Grattan on Friday: Abbott has ragged start and tough times ahead

Tony Abbott has already faced problems in his first week as prime minister. AAP/Penny Bradfield

In the week he formally took power, Tony Abbott managed to perform according to his old stereotype - that is, badly on a matter concerning women.

On the other side, as the Labor party declared it was embarking on a new open democratic path, there were reports that behind the scenes some were trying to make it like the old factional way.

Living up to being their better selves, in the phase currently fashionable in politics, is not as easy as promising to do so.

Abbott is talking about a “measured” start but it has been a messy one. The dearth of women in the ministry, including only one in cabinet, is a bad look on a simple matter - it will register with many in the community who don’t tune into much about politics. The ministry itself wasn’t the worst of it. To have only one woman in the frontbench “kindergarten” – parliamentary secretary level – was ill judged and hard to understand.

Equally difficult to comprehend was why the highly qualified Arthur Sinodinos was dudded for the finance job. Abbott had earlier intended to give it to him. His suggestion that people have to do their apprenticeship begs the question of why he had not thought this when he had wanted Sinodinos.

Abbott’s influential chief of staff Peta Credlin is being blamed by some; the name of a senior minister is also being mentioned.

However it precisely happened, there are already complaints in Liberal ranks about the close cabal around Abbott, including Credlin and cabinet ministers George Brandis and Christopher Pyne.

The worry about Abbott as PM has always been that he would be too easily influenced by a narrow range of people. To be his “best self”, he needs the broadest advice, a flat office structure with only a limited filter, and plenty of contesting of arguments.

The public breakout over science, parental leave and other issues from Liberal backbencher Dennis Jensen doesn’t matter in itself (Jensen is an outrider) but could point to future difficulties in managing the backbench.

AAP/Joe Castro

There was a suggestion Liberal backbencher Kelly O'Dwyer was passed over for a parliamentary secretaryship partly because she is forthright. With many talented MPs knowing that barring accidents, Abbott won’t be rushing to reshuffle, some of them may be reluctant to be seen and never heard. If they can’t get to the frontbench a few may seek a profile on the backbench.

Abbott’s sacking of three departmental heads, and forcing Treasury secretary Martin Parkinson to depart next year left a bad taste. It looked like a dose of spite, “getting” people associated with “them”. A warning was also being dispatched to other senior public servants. Watch yourselves - we’re in charge now.

Abbott doesn’t seem to know quite what message he wants to convey to the public. That he’s proceeding cautiously and carefully. Or that he’s determined to do everything instantly.

Day one was not just to be enjoyed with the rellies at the swearing in – it was declared a day of action. The head of Operation Sovereign Borders has been appointed with some flurry. Yesterday the Climate Commission was sacked.

The PM is still repeating his mantras – he even gave a speech at Government House - almost afraid to venture into new scripting.

He’s come in with a program, a lot of it to dismantle things, and he’s ticking off the list as fast as possible.

But there are some issues ahead that will test the government in its early days. They won’t be easy tick offs.

Most urgent is attempting to win Indonesia’s acceptance of the border control policy. The noises out of Jakarta continue to be negative, and they cannot be fobbed off any longer. The Coalition now has to deal with Indonesia and Abbott will visit there at the end of the month. It will be his first overseas trip as PM, and he can’t afford to slip up.

Then there is the matter of the bid by the American giant Archer Daniels Midland to take over Australia’s largest listed agribusiness GrainCorp.

This decision lies with Treasurer Joe Hockey: it has big implications for both the signals from the new government on foreign investment and relations within the Coalition. The Nationals, including leader Warren Truss, have condemned the prospect of a takeover.

On a third, totally different but socially sensitive front, Abbott will be faced with whether to try to strike down the ACT’s legislation, to be passed next month, to permit gay marriage. His conservative base will want him to act; that would defy the opinion of a majority of Australians.

Apart from these thorns, there’s the budget to prepare and the beginning of the Everest climb to repeal the carbon tax.

And as if all this isn’t enough, last night on the ABC’s Lateline, Western Australian premier Colin Barnett declared Abbott needed to repudiate his roll gold promise not to tamper with the rate or scope of the GST. Abbott says he wants co-operative relations in the federation: on his second day in office he faced one challenge from a state and another from a territory.

If the problems are piling up for the new government, in the Labor ranks there has been an odd cushioning of the pain of reality.

Normally after a defeat of this magnitude, Labor would be riven by post mortems. Instead the party has become absorbed with its new project – a ballot for the leader in which the rank and file has half the vote.

AAP/Dan Himbrechts

Bill Shorten and Anthony Albanese are travelling the country garnering support. The process is capturing the membership’s imagination.

If seeing these two on a new election quest has a touch of the surreal about it, so does the participation of ex-ministers (Greg Combet for Albanese, Nicola Roxon for Shorten) who are now out of parliament. It’s as though they can’t tear themselves away.

So far the contenders’ campaigning has been civilised. But in the background lurk the factions. The left fears the right is both locking in its caucus votes (of which it has a majority) and, via the unions, trying to heavy the ordinary party members.

The right, desperate to get the leadership for Shorten, is not well set up for such a contest. The party’s grass roots are left leaning. The left regularly wins the ballots for national president. This is not like a preselection ballot where the candidates are often little known to those who are voting. These contenders are high profile players about whom ALP members will have their own opinions.

At least in the rank and file half of the ballot the chances for the right to get any sort of fix in are limited. Members can be pressured and the unions can speak. But the ballot papers are sent to people’s homes, completed in private at the kitchen table, and submerged with up to 40,000 others. Democracy may have a fighting chance against the factions.

Listen to the Politics with Michelle Grattan Podcast below, subscribe on iTunes orvia RSS. This episode Michelle speaks to ACT Deputy Chief Minister Andrew Barr.

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