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View from The Hill

Oh lordy what a sight – a cabinet room ‘come to Jesus moment’

Prime Minister Tony Abbott reminded cabinet members of their responsibilities and the consequences of leaking, after an unusually detailed leak from cabinet. AAP/Lukas Coch

Tony Abbott has told his party room that in cabinet on Monday there was a “come to Jesus moment” – by which he apparently meant a moment of collective clarity.

This was Abbott’s take on the aftermath of the extraordinarily comprehensive leak of cabinet’s discussion a week earlier, when he ambushed colleagues over the plan for stripping citizenship from those engaged in terrorist activities.

Abbott said cabinet members had been reminded of their responsibilities, and the personal and political consequences of destabilising cabinet processes.

When Nationals whip Mark Coulton talked about how damaging the leak was, Abbott opined that of course it was disappointing.

But while it might be an issue around Parliament House, out in “voter land” what mattered was national security and economic security, Abbott said.

That’s the opinion of some backbenchers too. The counter view to Coulton’s is that the leak had the spin-off of keeping the issue of national security in the headlines.

Maybe – but the blow-by-blow account of the cabinet debate also underlined what a big step Abbott wants to take in his latest initiative on terrorism. He hopes to remove citizenship not just from dual nationals – which will eventually be supported by Labor – but, if he can, from Australian-only citizens who could obtain citizenship elsewhere.

Abbott may be less concerned about the impact of the leak in “voter land” than what it signified for him personally.

Some sources say the Prime Minister’s Office believes it had to do with leadership, and that it identifies two ministers as the most likely source, with a third as a possibility.

Journalist Peter Hartcher, who got the story, has made clear that a prime motive behind the leak was Abbott’s flouting of cabinet process.

This was one of the main gripes of Abbott’s critics early this year.

Since then Abbott has dug in and has the once-disgruntled backbench, which resented his lack of consultation with it, relatively solidly behind him.

One caveat should be inserted. Backbenchers in marginal seats are fickle creatures and can always turn if fear grips them again. They also know their own power – with Abbott now responsive, they have scope to extract a good deal from him.

Abbott has this week formally asserted his authority over his ministers. But the evidence suggests the leak probably came from a single source and it is unlikely that the prime ministerial lecture will affect the attitude of that person.

Abbott finds himself in the classic position of a leader with enemies at court. His office has long taken this view and hence its strategies to keep them at bay, which in turn have generated reactions against him.

These strategies are varied but they have included tight control of the information flow with “official leaks” (if that’s not a contradiction in terms) provided or sanctioned by the office to the Daily Telegraph in particular.

Malcolm Turnbull is on record as being especially infuriated about this. At last week’s cabinet he asked whether the Telegraph had been briefed on the citizenship issue. He was told no, but a Telegraph story the following morning about the cabinet decision was taken, rightly or wrongly, by some ministers as an authorised leak (although the detail was wrong, written in anticipation of cabinet going further than it did).

Right now, Abbott is doing quite well in holding off the enemies at court, the leak notwithstanding.

Better polls, the elevation of national security and increasing criticism of Bill Shorten have all worked to his advantage.

In the latest twist, backbenchers are no longer turning on Abbott – as they were at the year’s start – but on ministers, and not just over the leak.

This week two Liberal backbenchers have got stuck into frontbenchers for speaking out on same-sex marriage – the issue itself and/or the desirability of a conscience vote for Liberals.

ACT senator Zed Seselja criticised Assistant Treasurer Josh Frydenberg for comments on Monday’s Q&A.

Senator Cory Bernardi told BuzzFeed News that the party had a position against gay marriage and “we now have frontbenchers who are actively undermining that policy position and publicly saying they would like something different. That breaks every rule of cabinet solidarity and ministerial responsibility.”

Bernardi named Turnbull, Frydenberg, Simon Birmingham, and parliamentary secretary Kelly O’Dwyer, and suggested that people who wanted to buck current policy should go to the backbench.

There’s plenty of finger-pointing everywhere in the government just now.

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